By Jayme Fraser
Pintail Landfill developers backpedaled from arguments that their proposed dump site outside Hempstead would not harm the environment, agreeing for the first time this summer that their review of groundwater under the property was flawed.
Environmental testing by opponents in preparation for a November hearing found that groundwater is several feet closer to the surface than Pintail reported in its 2011 permit application. If constructed as proposed, landfill officials admitted in related state filings that the dump site would be underwater, violating regulations designed to protect against groundwater contamination that could affect drinking supplies.
Fight to block landfill
Opponents celebrated the admission as vindication of their years-long battle to block the 250-acre landfill that would be visible from U.S. 290 and primarily receive trash from Houston 50 miles away.
Green Group Holdings, the Georgia-based developer behind the landfill, asked TCEQ for permission to amend its application just days after opponents submitted the revelatory geological report to the state administrative court scheduled to review the permit in a contested case hearing. An attorney for Green Group and Pintail did not return emails or phone calls requesting comment.
Instead of allowing Pintail to amend its application – and take that revised plan into the hearing – landfill opponents have asked state administrative law judges to issue a summary judgment denying the permit and dismissing the case.
“My client, along with the City of Hempstead, have collectively spent over $1 million fighting this landfill,” said Blayre Pena, attorney for the nonprofit advocacy group Citizens Against a Landfill in Hempstead. “It would be a true miscarriage of justice if Pintail is allowed to admit their application does not meet statutory and regulatory requirements and then be given the opportunity to send it back to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality to fix it.”
The contested case hearing originally had been scheduled to start Nov. 2, but Pintail’s request has delayed that at least several weeks, assuming the judges don’t deny the permit outright.
“We are playing the waiting game,” Hempstead Mayor Michael Wolfe said. “While the TCEQ did not take a position on the city’s motion to dismiss, we are hopeful they will see the light and realize there is only one acceptable answer to this situation: Deny Pintail’s application.”
Ever since the project came to light, the number of rankled residents has grown, fueling voters to unseat sitting commissioners and residents to spend thousands of dollars at monthly garage sales to raise funds for legal costs.
Another prong of the landfill fight has been to push for criminal charges against unseated county officials who opponents accuse of illegal backroom dealings with Pintail that violated state open government laws. A civil jury in December ruled that Waller County – primarily County Judge Glenn Beckendorff and Commissioners Stan Kitzman and Frank Pokluda – repeatedly violated open meetings and public records laws by holding closed sessions with developers more than two years before agreeing to host the project.
The county judge and commissioners have maintained they had little choice but to agree to host the landfill just outside the city of Hempstead and approved the agreement legally. They have filed a lawsuit seeking to nullify a settlement agreement between the county – run by an entirely new commissioners court – and landfill opponents.
Two special prosecutors assigned to review the landfill dealings for possible criminal wrongdoings wrote in a February 2014 letter to The Waller Times that commissioners should curtail their “bad habits … privately discussing public business.” But a grand jury that reviewed the prosecutors’ evidence did not bring any criminal indictments.
‘My hands are tied’
Waller County District Attorney Elton Mathis wants to reopen the criminal investigation, saying the civil trial brought forward new testimony and evidence that could be key to securing indictments. Commissioners voted to recuse Mathis from county duties related to the case so that he would have freedom to pursue criminal charges.
But the special prosecutors appointed by District Judge Albert “Buddy” McCaig have refused Mathis’ request for them to turn over their case file, full of their original investigative materials and evidence. Without it, Mathis cannot move ahead with an investigation.
In an April letter, Fort Bend Assistant District Attorneys Scott Carpenter and Mark LaForge wrote that they were retaining their authority over the case.
“If you or anyone else has new evidence demonstrating that criminal activity has occurred in this matter, please forward that material to our office – immediately – for our review,” they wrote. “Your request for our file is denied.”
Carpenter and LaForge did not return an email requesting comment and could not be reached by phone. Fort Bend District Attorney John Healey said he has not had influence in the matter and has not directed Carpenter or LaForge in any way.
Mathis said he now must wait on McCaig and the special prosecutors to decide how to proceed.
“My hands are kind of tied on issues of possible criminal prosecution because I was not vested jurisdiction over that,” Mathis said. “Until the district judge says otherwise or until the prosecutors send the case file back to me and ask me to take over, I can’t do anything.”
Reporter, Houston Chronicle