Texas environmental commission denies waste permit after residents rally against new facility

Texas Tribune News

Colorado County officials fought for, and won, a ruling to stop a hazardous waste processing facility from being built near the Colorado River, seen here, for fear that it would contaminate water used by thousands of rural residents.
Colorado County officials fought for, and won, a ruling to stop a hazardous waste processing facility from being built near the Colorado River, seen here, for fear that it would contaminate water used by thousands of rural residents.
Michael Stravato for The Texas Tribune

Colorado County officials on Wednesday won the latest round of a five-year fight to prevent a waste processing near the Colorado River that they say would contaminate ground and surface water for thousands of rural Texans.

During a Texas Commission on Environmental Quality hearing, the state denied a permit request by Altair Disposal Services to construct a landfill that would take waste from an incineration facility near Houston to Colorado County, which sits about halfway between Houston and Austin, and turn it into road material that is similar to asphalt. At issue was whether the soil in the area where Altair wanted to set up the facility would prevent hazardous waste residue from leaking into the ground water or the Colorado River.

Dozens of residents, local officials and attorneys from the region attended Wednesday’s hearing to show their opposition to granting Altair’s permit request.

Representatives for Altair said that because the soil composition included a significant amount of clay, a fairly impermeable type of soil, that there would be little to no risk of water contamination. A representative who answered the phone at the company’s office Wednesday said no one was available to comment.

However, county officials, as well as lawyers for a nearby gravel producing company, contended that the soil composition had too much sand, and was therefore not dense enough, to prevent leakage across the entire proposed area for the facility.

“It’s like a bathtub,” Colorado County Judge Ty Prause said. If there is just one area where waste can leak through the soil, “it’s going to get to aquifer. It’s going to get to the river. It only takes one drain in the bathtub.”

Prause said his main fear was that Altair would eventually cause a repeat of the damage the hazardous waste contamination – unrelated to Altair – that earlier this year turned a tributary of the Colorado River black. The Skull Creek contamination is still being cleaned up, and the Texas Attorney General’s office sued Inland Environmental and Remediation alleging it illegally discharged hazardous waste into the creek.

If something similar were to occur, either by discharge into the Colorado River or by leakage into the groundwater, environmental and geological experts for Colorado County said thousands of residents in the region would be affected and possibly lose their only source drinking water. Prause said the region’s economy, primarily farming, would also be severely damaged.

Before the Austin hearing, State Sen. Lois Kolkhorst and State Rep. Ben Leman, who both represent the area where the proposed facility would have been built, sent letters to the TCEQ asking that Altair’s permit be denied.

Kolkhorst, a Brenham Republican, wrote that the Skull Creek incident shows how vulnerable the water table is to pollution.

“Should this waste migrate to the groundwater table or surface water, the damage to irrigation and drinking water supplies would be irreversible,” she wrote of the Altair proposal.

In December, as part of the permitting process, Colorado County officials and Altair participated in an administrative law trial that resulted in a 200-plus-page ruling against the company and included a recommendation to the TCEQ to deny their permit request. TCEQ then had to decide whether it agreed.

The TCEQ ultimately sided with the ruling that the soil was not dense enough to protect the Chicot and Evangeline aquifers below. The commissioners decided to trim the ruling sent to them by administrative law judges so it would only effect Altair, and could not necessarily be used as a new standard for banning this type of hazardous waste processing facilities in other, similar, areas. The commissioners also removed statements from the ruling that said the county would not be capable of handling clean-up of a spill or accident involving this type of facility.

Prause said he was happy with the results of the hearing but wished the ruling hadn’t been narrowed.

“We don’t have professional firefighters. We don’t have any resources whatsoever to deal with a spill,” Prause said. Colorado County is only staffed by volunteer firefighters. “If there’s a wreck with one of these trucks at one point, which there would be at some point or another, how long is that going to shut down I-10 or Highway 71 while somebody comes from Austin or Houston to tend to it?”

Altair still has the ability to appeal TCEQ’s decision to a district court in Travis County.