BFI Landfill Is for the (Dead) Birds

A homeowner near a BFI landfill thought the scourge of vultures was bad enough – then they turned up dead

Landowner Evan Williams displays the corpses of wild birds, including vultures, which he found dumped on his property in northwest Travis County next to the BFI landfill.
Landowner Evan Williams displays the corpses of wild birds, including vultures, which he found dumped on his property in northwest Travis County next to the BFI landfill. (Photo by John Anderson)

If you build it, they will come.

For Travis County landowner Evan Wil­liams, "it" is the controversial BFI landfill next to his property, and "they" are the estimated 600 turkey vultures he says it has attracted – and that are now being culled in large numbers. If the application to extend the dump (currently pending before the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality) is approved, Williams said, the problem will worsen, and more birds will be killed. "The vultures are just there because there's food," he said. "It's not their fault."

Landfills like the BFI facility in northern Travis Co. attract big scavenging birds, which then roost on the highest point available. On Williams' land, that means Austin Energy's power lines, and that's a problem. AE spokesman Ed Clark explained, "When you have a huge number of buzzards and they're congregating around your transformers, it doesn't shut down the [system] completely, but it can result in voltage dips that can damage customers' equipment." The utility spends around $200,000 a year on discouraging the birds, generally through line redesign, bird scarers, and equipment covers. Unfor­tun­ate­ly, sometimes the only solution is to reduce the population.

Williams said that was why he let Austin Energy place a vulture trap on his land. He explained: "It's about the size of maybe a small foreign car. It's like a crab trap; they get in there, and they can't get out." In February, he was walking around his property and found around 100 dead and rotting vultures. It turns out they had been humanely trapped but then killed with a shotgun. Prior to that discovery, Williams had presumed they were being trapped for relocation, not slaughter. (Unfortunately, Clark explained, relocating large numbers of big birds is an almost impossible challenge, so the utility has federal permits allowing it to cull the birds.) However, Williams said, "as a matter of common courtesy and common practice, you're not supposed to leave the carcasses on the property owner's land."

According to Clark, the utility subcontracts the Texas AgriLife Extension Service at Texas A&M to manage the cull "a few times a year." After they kill the birds, they take them to a landfill, but when the incident on Williams' land occurred six months ago, said Clark, "and this is not an excuse – they were renewing their permit at the landfill. So the guy trapped them, and he euthanized them, and he stacked them." Clark said the staff member, a trained wildlife biologist, covers the entirety of Southern Texas, so once the permit had been obtained, he had simply been unable to return to recover the birds before Williams found them. Clarke said Austin Energy had already talked to the Extension to make sure nothing like this ever happened again. "When these things are being done in our name, they should be done properly," he said.

When asked for comment, landfill owners Republic Services issued a statement that "vultures have nothing to do with landfills, they are attracted to the power lines." But Jim Blackburn, attorney for residents' group the Northeast Neighborhood Coalition, said, "The landfill caused the birds, not the power lines," adding that even BFI's own expert at the TCEQ hearing said it was the biggest vulture roost he had ever seen. "The fact is that someone built a nice, convenient transmission line, and the birds were very happy to take advantage of it," he said. Along with worries about rainwater runoff (see "BFI Waste Flows Downhill," Feb. 13), smell, and extra traffic ("Dumped by County, BFI Takes Landfill Plan to TCEQ," Nov. 16, 2007), dead birds provide just one more reason why local residents oppose the BFI expansion.

Final arguments in the permit application hearing were submitted on March 11. Blackburn expects a judicial proposal in April, which will then go to TCEQ for a final decision. (Rep. Diana Maldonado, D-Round Rock, has also filed House Bill 3311, requiring TCEQ to get written consent from all towns of more than 5,000 within five miles of any landfill making a permit application.) Williams said he doesn't blame Austin Energy and that the utility had called him to apologize. Ultimately, he argues, it's BFI's fault. "Not only is it a shame that there's dead vultures out there, it's a shame that the dump is attracting them in such numbers that someone feels compelled, to protect their [own] interest, to have to kill them."

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Austin Energy, BFI Landfill, Jim Blackburn, Northeast Neighborhood Coalition

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