Landfill Will Top Mount Bonnell in Height

TCEQ OKs landfill's march toward Austin's highest point

Landfill Will Top Mount Bonnell in Height

Austin likes to rest on its green laurels, but with the Sunset Farms Landfill in North­east Travis County getting its expansion approved at the state level and the city still stuck in preplanning on a recycling facility, environmentalists worry those laurels are turning into compost.

On Sept. 9, the Solid Waste Advisory Commission received a long-awaited report from consultants R.W. Beck on the proposed materials recovery facility. Ultimately, the report raised more questions than it answered. The original plan was to have the facility operational when the city started single-stream recycling collection on Oct. 6, 2008. Instead, it became bogged down in conflicting proposals, leading the city to sign a two-year recycling contract with Greenstar North America. The latest presentation addressed setting the city's priorities for the materials recovery facility, such as what form of private-public partnerships the city might consider (somewhat unsurprisingly, among private firms Beck asked, the consensus was for a city-owned, city-built, contractor-run facility).

SWAC Chair Gerard Acuna said he hoped for a complete plan by March, which makes it almost impossible to build the facility before the Greenstar contract expires in October 2010. That's a major headache for the city: The contract was supposed be a money-earner, but with the collapse in the recyclables market, Austinites will probably owe the firm valuable recyclables after the contract ends. While Acuna is still waiting for exact figures, the total value is already "well over a million dollars," he said.

Earlier on Sept. 9, the Texas Commission on Environ-mental Quality had given final approval to Republic Services Inc., the current owners of the landfill (BFI was one of its previous owners), to expand its dumping operations at the site. Birdie Perkins, secretary of the Austin Zero Waste Alliance, which opposed the application, said the issue is about land-use compatibility. She added, "The contention is that this is a rapidly developing area, with 1,500 residences in Harris Branch alone." With the new permit, she said, "This is going to be the highest point in Austin, higher than Mount Bonnell."

The proposal has been criticized for everything from water runoff (see "BFI Waste Flows Downhill," Feb. 13) to attracting carrion birds (see "BFI Landfill Is for the (Dead) Birds," March 20), but any hopes that the notoriously business-friendly TCEQ would reject the application had already been dealt two major blows. First, in October 2008 city staff did an end-run around the intent of a 2007 council resolution against the application and signed an agreement ending city opposition to the expansion. Then on May 8, Administrative Law Judge William New­church recommended that TCEQ approve the expansion. Jim Blackburn, attorney for expansion opponents Northeast Neighborhood Coalition, said his clients are considering their options, "but once a facility becomes permitted, it is very difficult to remove them."

But Republic Services' area Vice President Brad Dugas counters that the real problem is not a landfill next to houses, but that housing developments have sprung up since the site opened in 1982. The new arrangement, which includes measures to restrict nuisance and pollution, is a big improvement over the old state dumping ethos, which he summed up as, "Go for as much as you can, for as long as you can." He also said his firm will continue to manage the site, including a 30-year watch period after the site stops taking waste on Nov. 1, 2015. As for the expansion, it's really Austin driving the need for the site: While it takes trash from 19 counties, more than 80% comes from Travis County.

Blackburn and Perkins both criticized TCEQ's decision, and the agency is coming under increasing scrutiny. Not only is it undergoing the state's Sunset review process, but on Sept. 8 the federal Environmental Pro­tec­tion Agency rejected several key components of Texas' emissions permitting process for violating the minimum standards of the Clean Air Act. Blackburn said there are equal issues with land-use compatibility rules, which he called "totally inadequate."

Mayor Lee Leffingwell pointed to one upside to the new permit. He explained: "There's an iron-clad requirement to shut that landfill in 2015. That's not as soon as a lot of people would like to see, including me, but at least there's an end in sight." As for the materials recovery facility, he said he expects the request for proposal to go out soon, and "I know that several private entities are interested."

For now, the best solution for cutting waste remains diversion to recycling, and Perkins argued it's time council concentrated on the zero-waste plan, especially since so many council members ran on their environmental credentials. She said: "Part of the plan is to review existing infrastructure, and BFI is nothing if not existing infrastructure. I think there's an obligation."

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Sunset Farms landfill, Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, Solid Waste Advisory Commission

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