In unusual rebuke, state environmental agency rejects landfill bid

Citing flaws with water data in an application to build a landfill two hours east of Austin, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality this week rejected it.

The rare move — the state agency has long been criticized by environmentalists for rubber-stamping industry proposals — appears to be a significant setback for a Georgia-based waste company that also hopes to compete for Austin-area waste with another proposed landfill in Caldwell County.

Calling the application of Green Group Holdings to build the Pintail landfill in Waller County “deficient,” the TCEQ has essentially told the company to start from scratch.

The tipping point seems to have been the late discoveries of elevated water levels during certain seasons at the landfill, throwing further controversy on an already controversial proposal.

New data found that the water table is at least 5 to 7 feet higher than had previously been recorded, making it more vulnerable to pollution, said landfill opponents — and many of the area’s homes and businesses depend on well water.

“For the integrity of the municipal solid waste landfill program, this is not where we be want to be at this point in the process,” says the exasperated-sounding Oct. 5 letter from Earl Lott, director of the waste permits division of the agency, to Ernest Kaufmann, president of Green Group.

“Over the last four years, the agency has worked closely with your consultants to ensure that the technical portion of the application meets all necessary requirements. Specifically, the TCEQ staff has spent over 1,300 hours reviewing the Pintail application and found over 400 instances of deficiencies,” says the letter.

The late discovery of the “momentous site information” involving water levels “significantly alters the approach to the design of the facility,” making the application unacceptable, according to Lott’s letter.

Company officials, who put several years of work into the application and say the original water table data collection included heavy rain periods, are “surprised by the action and are in the process of evaluating our next steps,” Green Group said in a prepared statement.

The company had said the landfill, which would have taken waste from the Houston area, would add jobs and tax base to the community, which has a median income lower than the state’s.

But some of the immediate neighbors are wealthy — including a retired Houston real estate developer who helped bankroll opposition. They complained of the potential increased truck traffic from waste-hauling; environmental consequences to the underground water supply and the nearby Brazos River; and damage to the community’s flagging economic development.

Green Group also has proposed a landfill in Caldwell County, one that could take waste from communities in the Austin area. That disputed proposal — it faces pushback from many in the county and at least one major competitor — is expected to go before an administrative law court next year, and then will go before the TCEQ.

As with opposition to many landfill proposals, critics of the one in Caldwell County have already raised questions about groundwater pollution. The company, which also has support in the county, has said its proposed 130 Environmental Park meets all state and federal regulations and could result in the county earning millions of dollars from fees charged for waste disposal.

The Waller County setback appears to have heartened Caldwell County opponents.

“I’m very happy for those people,” said Alicia Thornton, a board member of a group formed to battle the Caldwell County landfill proposal. “And I’m a little jealous of them, because they are already past the point that Green Group Holdings is pretty much out of there.”

The TCEQ letter is “huge,” Thornton said, because many Caldwell County residents opposed to the landfill had been resigned to defeat.

“It restores faith that the TCEQ process can work,” she said. “It shows these guys are not invincible.”

Thornton said her group is trying to “scrape together any donation it can” from auctions, garage sales and even face-painting at festivals. “We are working our butts off.”

Her group is joined in opposition by Texas Disposal Systems, which runs a landfill in nearby Creedmoor.

Michael McCall, who lives a quarter mile from the proposed Waller County landfill and is treasurer of a group opposed to it, says he feels vindication.

“We have some extremely talented people in this community, from science backgrounds, engineering backgrounds” — people who doubted, McCall said, some of the claims about the soil quality and water table. The company’s application had been submitted during a record drought, he said, skewing information about the underground water.

His group gained access to the landfill site during the discovery phase of an administrative court hearing on the matter and recorded the higher water table figures, he said.

He said he is “hopeful” that he and his neighbors have staved off the landfill — even though several options, including suit, remain open to the company. McCall said his group has spent $1.7 million on its efforts, raised through garage sales, auctions and a settlement with the county over allegations that it had violated Texas’ open meetings act.

The most significant outcome might be that the landfill proposal may no longer be insulated from ordinances passed by the county and the city of Hempstead that would restrict its construction. Parts of the original application had been filed before those ordinances were passed, allowing the project to be grandfathered.

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