THE WASTELAND 

 
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A boarded-up home sits near the site of BFI's rural Tessman Road Landfill. A mountain of dirt-covered garbage looms in the distance. (Photo by Mark Greenberg)

The ever-expanding BFI landfill has brought rats, stench, and even fire to the East Side. For Martinez and Gardendale residents, San Antonians' trash is no treasure.

Thirty years ago, from Collette Walls' backyard in Martinez, she could look over the 140-acre farm and see the earth gently rolling from valley to hill, then flattening into pasture and dipping toward a creek. On the Fourth of July, she could watch fireworks burst over HemisFair Park and the Tower of Americas, more than 10 miles to the west.

Today, to look west is to see a new topography: A mountain of garbage obscures the downtown skyline and blocks the evening light. "The sun sets here 45 minutes before anywhere else," Walls says. "And we get the smell in the winter, on those still days when it simmers down into the valley."

Beneath the mound is a new archeology. If you were to cut the landfill like a cake, you could see more than 20 years' worth of trash from throughout South Central Texas - and even Mexican maquiladoras - that tell a human story much like the Chisos Mountains in Big Bend reveals a world before mankind.

Earlier this month, the Texas Supreme Court let stand two lower courts' rulings that said BFI's site operating plans - a detailed manual instructing workers on such duties as preventing millions of H-E-B bags from rolling over the countryside like tumbleweed, extinguishing fires, and reducing the dust - were inadequate and not specific enough.

Supporters of the site-operating plans, such as Converse Mayor Craig Martin, say that without them, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality can't maintain any control over the actions of any landfill operators in Texas, including BFI. Without these plans, wrote U.S. Representative Ciro Rodriguez in a letter to the TCEQ, the agency can't "guarantee safe management of waste."

HEALTH SURVEY SEEKS INFO FROM GARDENDALE RESIDENTS

While the Martinez Environmental Group has been suing BFI over the expanded permit - citizens have spent about $60,000 taking the company to court - in nearby Gardendale, few residents have joined the fight.

It is not unusual for landfills, power plants, and other polluting industries to locate near minority neighborhoods. Like Gardendale, which is primarily Latino and African-American, the areas tend to be low-income, and the residents often don't have the resources to battle the corporations' deep pockets.

The Esperanza Environmental Justice Project is conducting a second round of door-to-door health surveys in Gardendale; initial surveys done in the Martinez/Gardendale area several years ago revealed high incidences of asthma and respiratory illness among residents.

According to Joleen García and Brenda Davis, who are spearheading the project, preliminary results show that asthma remains a critical health problem in the area.

To become involved in the health survey or if you live in the area and have health concerns, please call 228-0201.
BFI is fighting the decision, not through the courts, but where the company has more pull: The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, which, under pressure from the waste management industry, is considering easing the rules on these site plans, and in effect, overturning the effect of the court's decision.

But this is more than a story about a dump: It is the struggle of two rural communities - Martinez, which is predominantly white, and Gardendale, which is primarily African-American and Latino - against one of the nation's largest waste haulers with a long history of siting landfills near underprivileged communities.

A mountain of garbage

By now, the landfill was supposed to be a park. Or at least that's the promise BFI reportedly made to Gardendale and Martinez residents in 1980, when the company was applying to the state for its landfill permit in East Bexar County. But by the late '90s, the size of landfill had increased from 76 acres to 265, and it wasn't only spreading out, it was growing up, to 200 feet high.

Despite the complaints about the stink of rotting garbage that blanketed the area and trash that blew off the mountain into the countryside, in 1999, BFI applied to the TCEQ - and was granted - a permit to expand the landfill to 929 acres and extend its life another 57 years. Even before it received the green light from the TCEQ, BFI was preparing for its expansion: To accomodate the 70 percent increase in size, BFI began buying properties, including 16 houses near the landfill. One of them belonged to Collette Walls' parents.

"It was all or nothing," says Walls, whose family for several generations has lived in Martinez. "All 16 had to sell or the deal was off."

The day the homeowners met with BFI officials to sell their homes to the company (they were paid for their houses' living space, but not for trees, driveways, and other extras), Walls' mother was feeling ill after undergoing dialysis earlier in the day, and missed the meeting. At midnight, Walls says, lawyers representing BFI came to her home, carrying the contract, and insisting her mother sign. She did - reluctantly. "We'd all be living there with that nightmare if she hadn't signed," Walls recalls. "But dad was just shaking."

For the past five years, BFI has gobbled up the countryside from Daniel Road to FM 1516, and from Kiefer Road to FM 1346, owning more than 50 parcels of land. It's a common tactic for polluting industries to buy land near their landfills; it is their hope the money will keep people quiet.

"They fight with money," says Walls, who, with other members of the Martinez Environmental Group (MEG), successfully sued BFI over its landfill permit, known as 1410-C, which allowed it to increase to 929 acres. "They go to communities that don't have a lot of money. They don't know how to deal with us because we're not about that."

In December 1999, the Wilson County News reported that BFI district operator Paul Floyd told local citizens that "we are not contaminators. We are stewards of the environment." Yet, since 2000, when BFI received its new permit, the TCEQ has received 224 complaints about odor, blowing garbage, and even fires that went unreported to the TCEQ until residents called the agency. BFI has been cited for 11 violations, including uncontrolled releases of methane gas.

After MEG won its lawsuit in district and appellate courts, BFI asked the Texas Supreme Court to hear the case; it declined, letting the former rulings stand. Last month, BFI officials responded to the Texas Supreme Court decision in a prepared statement, saying that it provides San Antonio with "safe and efficient waste disposal service." Three weeks later, on November 17, BFI was cited by the TCEQ again, for allowing part of the landfill to erode, which could allow contamination to wash into the groundwater.

"This is an example of why site operating plans are needed," says China Grove Mayor Dennis Dunk.

Conflict within the TCEQ

If it seems strange that the TCEQ would try to supercede the court, consider the revolving door that shuttles industry workers into the state and federal environmental agencies - and vice versa.

The former head of the TCEQ's solid waste program now works for Waste Management, one of the U.S.' major garbage haulers. A lawyer who once worked on Waste Management cases is now an attorney at the TCEQ.

"I'm not implying that anything is being done improperly," says Rick Lowerre, attorney for MEG. "But that's how it works. Industries like to place themselves within the agencies."

In fact, President Bush's 2001 EPA transition team included Richard Innes, director of federal affairs for BFI, and Bill Ruckelshaus, BFI chairman and former head of the EPA.

The TCEQ also receives money from landfill operators such as BFI in the form of tipping fees. At $1.25 per ton, trash generated more than $38 million for the state last year. Twenty-two million dollars was split between the TCEQ and the Council of Governments; the remainder went into the state's general fund.

Yet, even within the TCEQ there is dissent. On November 17, the agency's Office of Public Interest sent a letter to TCEQ staff stating that the office couldn't support the rule change. "The requirements and the ability of TCEQ to enforce them should be of much greater importance to the agency than providing flexibility for landfill operators. The proposed changes are detrimental to the public interest."

 
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Collette Walls has been part of a fight to keep a BFI landfill out of her backyard since she was 11 years old. Walls' family farm overlooks the dirt covered mountains of garbage. (Photo by Mark Greenberg)

San Antonio Mayor Ed Garza and Council members Patti Radle and Ron Segovia have sent letters to the TCEQ asking it to keep the rule requiring landfill owners to have site operating plans, as have County Commissioner Tommy Adkisson, County Judge Nelson Wolff, State Senator Judith Zaffirini, and State Representative Robert Puente, among others.

If the TCEQ commissioners don't overturn the court rulings, BFI's current permit, allowing it to run a landfill until the middle of the century, would be invalid. The old, more restrictive permit would go into effect until BFI applied for and received a new one.

Yet, BFI spokeman Jerry Valdez said site-operating plans aren't flexible enough for operators, and that any decision about the permit should come from the TCEQ, and not the courts, whom he said have overstepped their jurisdiction. "How can the judicial branch tell the executive branch what to do?" Valdez also defended the company's 57-year permit: "Longer terms mean less turmoil for communities."

In the meantime, BFI will continue to haul away about one-third of San Antonio's trash; the City has a 20-year agreement with BFI to dispose of 50,000 to 150,000 tons of waste - including some hazardous materials and dead animals - per year. Since 1996, the City has paid BFI more than $13 million to landfill waste, including residential trash.

A stronger recycling program in the city would mean less waste for the landfill; the trash that San Antonians put on the curb twice a week has to go somewhere, including BFI, where the mountain continues to grow, looming over Martinez and Gardendale.

As Collette Wall says, "They own the sky." •


BFI: Policing The Polluter

In a prepared statement issued in October, BFI said it operates in a "safe and efficient manner." Yet nationwide, the company was slapped with more than 270 civil penalties, adminstrative orders, permit or license suspensions or revocations - just from 1981 to 1991. BFI has been cited by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality for many violations, including several at the Tessman Road Landfill in Bexar County.

Here are some examples of BFI's "safe and efficient" record:

1976: BFI received a $200,000 civil penalty in Texas for selling toxic waste sludge as oil to be applied to state roads.

1987: The company was slapped with another $104,000 fine in Hutchins, Texas, for failure to renew a leachate discharge permit at solid waste landfill.

1990: BFI paid $3.5 million in a plea bargain in which BFI pleaded guilty to discharging hazardous waste into drinking water supplies in Williamsburg, Ohio.

1995: The Texas Natural Resources Conservation Commission pled guilty to accepting a bribe from BFI in exchange for favorable permit. The employee was placed on probation.

1997: BFI was penalized $5 million in fines and restitution in West Chester, Pennsylvania, for illegally disposing of wastewater treatment sludge from 1989 to 1992.

Late '90s to present: In the Rio Grande Valley, Donna, Texas residents fight a BFI landfill located less than 1,500 feet from the regional water supply. BFI sues one of the landfill opponents, farmer Jimmy Steidinger, for $40 million, alleging he committed fraud and conspiracy. A Hidalgo County judge threw out the case because BFI couldn't produce any evidence to back up the charges. `See "Misery Spreads Around BFI" (this issue of the Current) for more on the Donna controversy.`

2000: The TNRCC issued a notice of violation issued for nuisance odor at Tessman Road Landfill in Bexar County.

2001: Notice of violation for open burning, inadequate access control to the landfill, and failure to meet all requirements of new source performance standards, all at Tessman Road.

2002: Notice of violation for failing to record monthly methane gas collection and well-monitoring data from June 2001 to January 2002, for filing incomplete reports from October 2000 to October 2001, for failing to contain wind-blown trash, and for two nuisance odors at Tessman Road.

2003: On November 14, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (formerly the TNRCC) sent BFI a letter in regards to an alleged violation at the Tessman Road Landfill. Erosion on the landfill had exposed waste.

Also, according to the Environmental Protection Agency compliance database, the Tessman Road Landfill is considered a High Priority Violator under the Clean Air Act. The EPA notes it has not addressed the violation, but that state and local governments are charged with enforcing any laws or penalties.

Sources: Environmental Background Information Center, TCEQ, EPA


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