Overflowing with Landfills
Texas Campaign for the Environment wants more stringent rules for the state’s landfills, which are getting taller, bigger, and more numerous.
A D V E R T I S E M E N T
A D V E R T I S E M E N T
A Texas environmental group wants tougher laws on trash disposal sites.
By JESSICA JOHNSON
In the hill country of Palo Pinto County, a subdivision of weekend homes sits on one side of Clayton Mountain. Over the ridge, 250 acres of grazing land feed the livestock of local ranchers.
Soon, however, that grassland may be replaced by mounds of household garbage and other kinds of trash, if Allied Waste, the second-largest waste disposal company in the country, has its way. And local citizens fear that, if Allied’s application to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality for a new landfill permit is approved, the new landfill could eventually cover as much as 1,100 acres, held by the same landowner.
Robert Rexroat, vice president of Citizens to Save Palo Pinto County, an organization formed to fight the landfill proposal, believes that his organization has “proof that any runoff from the location where they are siting the landfill will run into Palo Pinto Creek, which supplies 88 percent of the county’s drinking water.”
To the north, a plot in southeast Jack County is getting the eyeball from Fort Worth-based IESI, another major waste disposal company. The proposed site is 250 acres of cattle and horse ranchland in the west Cross Timbers landscape, just south of the historic community of Joplin. The site crosses Jasper Creek and sits atop a 1,000-foot-deep underground reservoir that supplies water needs for area ranchers.
“The proposed dump would also be on the Trinity River watershed, which flows into Lake Bridgeport and furnishes water to the city of Fort Worth. It’s in floodplain, and we think that this is just totally unacceptable,” said geologist James Henderson, a leader of a Jack County group formed to oppose that landfill.
“It’s the equivalent of about half of what those two hurricanes in Houston and Mobile created. ... It’s really an unsuitable hydrological and geological site,” Henderson said.
The companies seeking those landfill permits say residents are worrying needlessly. “The landfill is designed [so that] it absolutely cannot be harmful to the environment,” said Allied district manager Jim Lattimore.
But fights like these are being repeated across Texas — fights in which local communities need a lot more help from the state, Robin Schneider said. She’s the executive director of Texas Campaign for the Environment, a statewide group that is trying to convince the state environmental agency to strengthen its controls over the permitting and operation of landfills — especially since landfills in Texas are growing both in number and size.
Texas has some of the weakest landfill standards in the nation, Schneider said. According to a report put together by her group, required buffer zones between landfills and facilities such as homes and public water supplies are less here than in most other states, landfill permits do not have to be renewed periodically, and existing landfills are allowed to expand their dumps both in acreage and in height to alarming proportions.
The proposed site in Jack County, for instance, is one of the highest elevations in the county, and the company plans to pile on 200 vertical feet of doubly compacted trash. Over the next 50 years, the area is designated to receive more than 50 million cubic yards of waste. Bob Kneis, area manager for IESI, said the Jack County landfill is being safely designed. “It’s not just digging a hole and putting trash in it anymore,” he said. “These are highly engineered sites.”
The environmental group is also worried about minimal requirements for the lining of landfills to prevent groundwater contamination. “Most people don’t think about their trash once they put it out on the curb, but the impact of the landfills is very grave,” Schneider said. Poorly run landfills, she said, not only can contribute to groundwater pollution but also emit mercury, methane, and other toxins.
Richard Carmichael, manager of solid waste permits for the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, said he disagrees with the environmental group’s conclusions about Texas landfill regulation.
“I’ve had staff research the rules in other states. I don’t think we are weaker,” he said. “You can pick out a particular citation from Texas and compare it to other states, and maybe you could say that that state is more stringent on that particular citation, but you could look at another part of our rules and find where we are consistently more stringent than other states.”
The debate was scheduled to go to TCEQ commissioners this week, but environmentalists said they expected the discussion to be put off for a month, at the request of Commissioner Larry Soward.
TCEQ staffers have proposed a series of changes in landfill regulations that the Texas Campaign for the Environment believes don’t go far enough — and in some cases, weaken rather than strengthening the state’s rules.
“The rules as proposed, I think, tighten up some areas,” Carmichael said. The changes recommended by the staff are “not everything the Texas Campaign for the Environment would like. It’s not what industry would like. Industry has a laundry list of complaints that we are being too stringent. On the other side, Texas Campaign says we’re not being stringent enough.”
Some staff proposals were changed “in response to comments,” Carmichael said. “One of our commissioners feels that some of those changes were substantial enough that we should go back and solicit comments again — that maybe we only got one side of the story. He wants to make sure we have a balanced input before we finalize these rules.”
Last month, the environmental group mailed commissioners thousands of letters gathered from citizens across the state, calling for stronger landfill regulations. “We have been able to come to people in neighborhoods and explain that these landfills are located very close to our water sources across the Metroplex,” said Fort Worth environmental activist Eleanor Whitmore.
There are 189 existing active municipal solid waste facilities in Texas, including 24 in Dallas and Tarrant counties alone. In less than 20 years, the average size of a landfill in Texas has nearly quadrupled, to almost 200 acres in 2004.
Leaders of the environmental campaign said their concerns are not just theoretical worries about the future. In Arlington, Whitmore pointed out, a now-closed section of a landfill just north of River Legacy Park is so near the Trinity that a few years ago erosion from Hurricane Creek, where it joins the river, cut into the site, spilling garbage into the river.
Last May, the city of Arlington contracted out operation of the landfill to the Republic Waste Services of Texas Ltd. Since then, there has been discussion of expanding the landfill into an area that the Texas Campaign for the Environment claims is unlined and situated in the Trinity’s 100-year floodplain.
Bob Weber, solid waste lease administrator for Arlington, said that the area in question is lined with clay, but not with the 60-millimeter-thick, pressure-tested plastic required since 1993 by federal law.
“In Arlington I am very comfortable with what we have” in terms of landfill operation, Weber said. TCEQ visually inspects the landfill each year and checks pollution monitors, he said. “For the eight years I’ve been there, we’ve had no violations charged against us.”
The Arlington site is not the only North Texas landfill within spitting distance of the Trinity. In Dallas, Irving, and Grand Prairie, landfills are located along the river, as well as at three sites near Lake Lewisville.
“All along the Trinity River in the Dallas-Fort Worth area are landfills and other trash facilities, oftentimes right on the banks of the Trinity River,” Schneider said, including the McCommas Bluff site in Dallas, “one of the largest landfills in the country.” Even though federal law requires landfills to be lined to help prevent water pollution from those dumps, she said, too many landfills — like the one in Arlington — were created before the law was passed in 1993 and are not required to meet that standard.
Schneider said her group also wants the state to strengthen regulations regarding how close to homes and water sources landfills can be and to put term limits on landfill permits.
Her group concluded that Texas’ required 50-foot buffer zone between landfills and homes, property lines, and public water supplies is one of the narrowest in the country. In this state, the report said, landfills can be closer to homes than feedlots, lead smelters, sludge application fields, and wastewater treatment plants are allowed to be. In 18 states, the required buffer zone is at least 300 feet from dwellings. And Mississippi requires that landfills be 1,000 feet away from homes and a half-mile to 10 miles from public water supplies.
The environmental group also argues that many potential problems could be dealt with if landfill permits had to be renewed every few years. As it is, Schneider said, Texas is one of only 12 states in which permits never expire. In effect, the permits are limited only by the space available on the site for more waste to be deposited. The Campaign for the Environment report concluded that more than half the active landfills in Texas have enough space to operate another 40 years, and that some could continue accepting trash and other waste for up to 100 years.
“The good news in Texas is that we have plenty of space for our trash. However, without term limits, our state cannot require the cleaner technologies that are available for our landfills in our future,” Whitmore said.
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