Tracking a Caldwell County Landfill Proposal
Is Austin's growth to blame for pending landfill
Half an hour southeast of Austin, in Caldwell County, an antagonistic and concerted resistance to a proposed landfill project has in recent months been commandeered by the county commission and steered in the direction of face-to-face negotiations with Green Group Holdings, the Georgia waste disposal corporation that's been resolute in its agenda to open the local dump.
The fight against a solid waste permit for the planned 130 Environmental Park (located about a half-mile east of U.S. 183 between FM 1185 and Homannville Trail) has been ongoing since 2013, and prior to November's election had only gotten as far as a contested case hearing in 2015. Concerned residents had convinced the previous iteration of the court to join in opposition at the hearing, but the winds of political change, buttressed by Green Group's lobbying efforts, have resulted in new leadership for the county, and a new direction for the landfill's development. In November, incumbent Democratic Commissioners Neto Madrigal and Alfredo Munoz lost to GOP challengers Hoppy Haden and Ed Theriot in a county that voted 55% for Trump. By February, Haden had initiated a re-examination of the county's participation in the hearing, and established a committee that would aim to parley with the company over the host agreement.
Haden's efforts proved such a radical reversal of course from the previous court's position that Commissioner Joe Roland predicted at a February meeting that they could incite "a reckoning." Residents of his precinct, some of whom will get stuck living next door to the future dump, have repeatedly expressed concern about its potential effect on their health and safety. The 250-acre site will carry a 175-foot height limit, according to the current host agreement, and could potentially contaminate the county's water supply through flash flooding. In pre-filed testimony for the hearing, engineering consultant Tracy Bratton said the applicant had not planned for a major storm event, which could overflow the proposed detention ponds and carry waste into the nearby Site 21 water reservoir. "Such an event would increase the risk of loss of life downstream of Site 21," Bratton said.
At Commissioners Court meetings over the past few months, Byron Friedrich and his Environmental Protection in the Interest of Caldwell County (EPICC) group have drawn reference to offensive dumps like the Blue Ridge Landfill in Fresno, Texas, where the Texas Commission for Environmental Quality filed a citation notice for failure to prevent a nuisance condition after receiving more than 1,700 complaints about bad odor. In a more relevant case, Green Group in 2013 had to navigate its own scandal when its subsidiary in Alabama became ensnared in an EPA Office of Civil Rights investigation into the state's permitting procedure regarding the Arrowhead Landfill. Prompted by a plea filed by 35 nearby residents, the federal office opened the case based on the premise that the state had ignored complaints from the predominantly African-American community because of racial discrimination. Although not the subject of the investigation itself, Green Group ended up filing a civil lawsuit against four activists involved in raising awareness of the issue for "false and defamatory" statements. David Green, Green Group's president, said that the call to sue had been made under previous leadership. When he took over, he said, he was able to work out a settlement with the activists and the case was mutually dismissed.
Despite the opposition, the administrative law judges at the State Office of Administrative Hearings recommended approval of 130 Environmental Park's application in February. Around the same time, County Commissioners Haden and Theriot, with the support of County Judge Ken Schawe, moved to approach Green Group to discuss its proposed host agreement in separate committee meetings. Theriot told the Chronicle that with the contested case hearing nearing a decision, he saw an opportunity for the county slipping away. "There will undoubtedly be appeals whichever way TCEQ goes," he said. "By staying in the contested case hearing, we have that option, and having that option gives us better leverage in negotiations."
Marisa Perales, the attorney representing EPICC, said the commission's recent invitation to Green Group was overly optimistic. She said that during the TCEQ proceedings, the county had responded to the original host agreement with concerns, but that Green Group had never followed up. By trying to bargain now, Perales said the commission was effectively negotiating against itself. Green Group's attorney "was uncharacteristically aggressive to the county" during the hearing, she said. "Not only were there no attempts to negotiate, but the attorney put a county commissioner on the witness stand and cross-examined him just to contest the county's standing to even participate."
Green said that adversarial stance has subsided since the "change in attitude" among commissioners – a nod to Haden and Theriot's conservative presence. "We've said that our only point of contact would be Hoppy Haden and the district attorney," he said. "From my perspective, it's really up to the county now to come to us and react to what we've already proposed to them." Schawe said he thinks a joint meeting could happen as soon as next month.
Haden and Schawe represent themselves on the negotiating committee, whereas the other commissioners must convey their opinions through appointees. Last Monday, Haden backed down after putting an Item on the agenda to remove Roland's appointee to the committee, Frank Sughrue. Haden said at the Monday meeting that there had been scheduling conflicts with Sughrue's work, which is why Haden proposed he be replaced, but that Sughrue had made accommodations to resolve the issue. Still, Friedrich said he suspects Haden may be trying to suppress any dissent before meeting again with Green Group. "They're doing everything they can to keep us in the dark," he said. "When you see that, you really start questioning what's going on."
Friedrich said he also doesn't understand why Roland himself isn't on the committee; should it be approved, the landfill will be located in his Precinct 4. Not to mention that Roland, an African-American, is the county's only nonwhite commissioner, and represents a precinct that is home to much of the county's nonwhite population. Haden and Roland could not be reached after multiple requests for comment.
If the TCEQ decides to approve Green Group's application, which could happen at any time, 130 Environmental Park will be built to receive trash and recycling from a 45-mile radius, competing directly with Texas Disposal Systems, Austin's primary waste collector. Critics have pointed fingers at Austin and its rapid growth as ultimately being to blame for the landfill's pending presence. The demand for more waste disposal has put Caldwell County in a position where it can choose to negotiate with Green Group or not. Either way, the Precinct 4 community is being forced to deal with other people's trash.