Over Massive Opposition, State OKs Landfill
Travis County, nearby residents seek to overturn TCEQ decision to allow new ACL transfer station
The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality has approved the development of a new waste transfer station at the Austin Community Landfill, over the objections of residents and local officials, who have long sought to run the facility out of northeast Austin.
Travis County officials, along with state Rep. Celia Israel and a swiftly formed nonprofit representing residents and business owners, have filed motions asking the TCEQ to overturn its decision. They claim the transfer station is prohibited by a county ordinance, passed in September 2019, banning new waste processing activities on landfills – an action meant to curtail expansion of the county's three existing landfills, including the ACL. The ordinance dealt a blow to Waste Management, the international corporation that has owned the ACL since the 1980s. WM was considering expanding the landfill, which is nearing its dumping capacity, but hadn't yet requested a TCEQ permit to do so.
A week after the commissioners' vote, WM submitted a TCEQ application to build a new waste transfer station on landfill grounds. That could pose a bigger problem for the area's rapidly growing neighborhoods, says Jeffrey Jacoby of the Texas Campaign for the Environment. Receiving as much as 5,880 tons of waste each day for up to 72 hours on weekends, the station could funnel more than a thousand trucks through the area, Monday through Saturday, from 3am to 7pm. Jacoby dismisses WM's plan for controlling odors – residents' most commonly lodged ACL complaint – as "Febreze, basically." And while landfills have shelf lives as they run out of capacity, transfer stations can go on operating forever. In response to requests for an interview, WM wrote that it would "continue working within the prescribed regulatory and legal process related to the Transfer Station registration."
Valerie Valtzar waited seven years for the closure of the ACL. Since moving into Harris Branch in 2013, she watched garbage piles grow and loom over her neighborhood until the older Sunset Farms Landfill, adjacent to ACL, shut down. The trash mountains disappeared, but a stench still blew from the ACL. She filed complaints with the TCEQ but grew jaded; the one inspector who showed up "basically gaslit me," she says, by claiming the smell came from her lawn fertilizer. Older neighbors told her WM had promised to phase out the ACL in 2015, but the year passed with no sign of a shutdown.
When Valtzar saw WM's waste transfer proposal notices leaning against the landfill's fence, she says, she "realized this is never going to end. Unless we fight back, and fight back hard." Though she joined more than 600 people submitting statements opposing the station, she wasn't surprised when TCEQ approved WM's application. "The TCEQ and its executive director do not work for the people of Texas," she says.
In a letter responding to the objections, TCEQ's executive director wrote that he lacked the authority to determine if site proposals violate local ordinances. The county, however, says there's no doubt the transfer station violates its ordinance – and under the Texas Health and Safety Code, TCEQ must reject waste disposal projects in conflict with local regulations.
TCEQ's Office of General Counsel will decide whether to overturn the executive director's decision or schedule a new hearing, the agency said in a statement. If the office upholds the decision, WM must apply for a permit with Travis County, which has pushed WM to clean up its industrial waste for decades. "No one can argue with any credibility that they are doing an adequate job on that site," said Travis County Commissioner Jeff Travillion. "Our expectation is that we do significant cleanup before we discuss expansion."