Solid Waste: Who's Driving the Train?

City staff's landfill-expansion decision has violated – at least in the spirit – a resolution passed by council. Now everybody wants to know why.

Solid Waste: Who's Driving the Train?
Photo by John Anderson

City staff, the citizen's Solid Waste Advis­ory Commission, and the city manager's office are potentially heading for a showdown after the commission called for outside counsel and consultants to be brought in to determine who exactly is in charge of the city's trash policies. At stake, SWAC Vice Chair Rick Cofer said, is "the deeper policy discussion ... of who makes decisions in the city of Austin."

Two issues brought matters to a head. First was the quiet mothballing of plans for a materials-recovery facility (see "City Adds Costs and CO2 to Recycling Program," Oct. 24) that was supposed to start receiving waste from the new single-stream recycling bins in Oct­o­ber. Instead, private contractor Greenstar is shipping the waste to Dallas, and the proposed $19 million facility has instead become a proposal for a $72 million Green District to incorporate the various recycling functions. Then there was the seemingly unilateral decision by the city's legal department not to oppose a permit application by BFI Waste Systems. The application, currently before the Texas Commission on Environ­mental Quality, would allow the embattled Sunset Farms Landfill in northeast Travis Co. to rise another 75 feet (see "City Hall Hustle," Nov. 14) – even though SWAC and City Council had passed resolutions opposing the expansion in 2006 and 2007, respectively.

In response to staff's actions, SWAC unanimously passed two resolutions at its Nov. 12 meeting. The first requested that the city hire external legal counsel to investigate canceling the Oct. 31 agreement with BFI and to examine whether what legal did was ... well, legal. The second called for a "comprehensive internal and external departmental review of Solid Waste Services to evaluate the positioning of the department to handle the immediate challenges posed by developing a long range plan, implementing zero waste, and other issues."

City Manager Marc Ott has already proposed an internal review, and SWS public information officer Jill Mayfield said the department is "always open to people looking at us." In a letter to council, Ott stressed that SWS is "a department in transition." But SWAC Chair Gerard Acuna questioned whether it was SWS, its programs, or city management that was in transition: Looking at the meeting agenda, he said, "None of this was new; none of this is a recent suggested item; these are things we have been planning for years."

Both SWS and city legal insist they did nothing untoward. City public information officer Reyne Telles said, "The law department believes that its actions, with regard to the [BFI] agreement, comply with the policy direction given." The May 17, 2007, council resolution opposes "the Allied BFI Landfill expansion applications as filed" (emphasis added), but the instructions to the city manager are simply to work with Travis County and TCEQ toward the closure and improvement of the landfill. Telles pointed to the successful negotiation of a Nov. 1, 2015, closure date for the landfill, as well as additional environmental quality controls, as presumably fulfilling the council's explicit charge.

As for the materials-recovery facility, SWS Assistant Director Don Birkner had previously said that the department's biggest concern was making sure the plant was integrated into the city's proposed Zero Waste Plan. At the Nov. 12 SWAC meeting, SWS Director Willie Rhodes noted that introducing single-stream recycling in October is diverting an additional 40% of waste away from landfills. Cofer countered with his own number: 150,000 pounds of carbon dioxide a month that hauling the trash to Dallas creates. "No one is denying that single stream was a success," he said. "The concerns of the community are how those successes have been diminished or even tarnished."

Council Members Lee Leffingwell and Laura Morrison are said to be pushing for further investigation of the decision-making behind the BFI and Greenstar agreements, and the SWAC is asking for an external, independent audit of Solid Waste. Acuna praised the commitment and abilities of SWS staff but, like council, wanted to know why two policies had died within the department. "If this had happened within the private sector, someone would be unemployed," he said.

Download the City Council resolution on the Sunset Farms Landfill application to the TCEQ here.

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Solid Waste Services, Rick Cofer, Solid Waste Advisory Commission, BFI Waste Systems, Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, Sunset Farms Landfill, Marc Ott, Willie Rhodes

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