With Landfill Proposal, Caldwell County Faces Questions of Direction

Austin American-Statesman
Friday, November 28, 2014
By Asher Price

LYTTON SPRINGS –  Being a picker, a trawler of scrapyards across Central Texas, always on the lookout for rusted-out chairs and broken-down tables to refurbish and sell, Alicia Thornton said she was initially excited when she learned of plans for a new landfill near her rural Caldwell County home.

“We looked at it as a business opportunity,” said Thornton.

Artist Alicia Thornton lives near the site of a proposed landfill in Caldwell County. Thornton first thought the landfill would be a business opportunity because she makes her living as a scavenger and reseller of furniture, but now she worries about the environmental consequences.

But that excitement turned into distrust, she said, after meeting with officials from Green Group Holdings, who she said were suspiciously rosy with their claims about environmental and community benefits of their proposed landfill, about 20 miles southeast of Austin.

Now Caldwell County is the latest battleground in the Central Texas landfill wars, which have heightened as the population has boomed and the amount of waste has increased. This fight is shaping up as unusual for pitting Green Group, a politically connected Georgia company, against Thornton, a feisty upstate New York native and former body-building champion, who has marshaled many of her neighbors to oppose the project.

Green Group has cultivated its own allies on the ground: A group called Growth And Progress for Caldwell County has sprung up, organized by Caldwell County business leaders who went on a company-sponsored tour of its facilities in Georgia and Alabama. Last week the group, which includes the chair of the county Republican Party, hosted a session to combat information put out by Thornton’s group — it was advertised as invitation-only, to avoid rowdiness. Already, Thornton’s group, whose motto is “Bump the Dump,” and the Growth And Progress group have traded barbs across the Internet.

Artist Alicia Thornton lives near the site of a proposed landfill in Caldwell County. Thornton first thought the landfill would be a business opportunity because she makes her living as a scavenger and reseller of furniture, but now she worries about the environmental consequences. The landfill would be run by an out-of-state company which says it will bring money to the county. The company has hired former state environmental officials to lobby lawmakers. Thornton runs a small animal sanctuary on her property.

The trips for the session’s panelists, largely from Georgia and Alabama, were paid for by Green Group. One of them, Mack Reynolds, who tells the tale of how his opposition to Green Group morphed into support, now has a son employed by the company as a project manager on the Caldwell County project. Other panelists included a Green Group attorney and environmental consultant.

The chief point of friction, one hanging before the Caldwell County Commissioners Court for 10 months now, is whether the county should endorse a host agreement proposed by Green Group. If the county signs, it could get a dollar for every ton of trash deposited at the landfill, a deal potentially worth millions. But it will be signing away its rights to contest the project before state officials and in the courts.

Green Group CEO Ernest Kaufmann said he’s offering the incentives because he “wants to go to sleep at night as a good neighbor.”

“If they don’t pass the host agreement,” Kaufmann added, “we make a whole lot more money.”

To some, signing the contract is a no-brainer, given the money at stake and because the landfill is likely to be ultimately approved by a state environmental agency that has shown itself sympathetic to business interests. To others, like Thornton, it’s a Faustian bargain, one that casts Caldwell County’s fate as a Central Texas dumping ground.

The decision before the Commissioners Court speaks to a broader question of how a largely rural, relatively poor county negotiates its future in the shadow of a booming Austin.

$600,000 lobbying effort

The 130 Environmental Park, as it’s been dubbed by Green Group, will include a landfill, a recycling facility and an industrial park. The 1,200-acre parcel — 250 acres of which will be dedicated specifically to burying waste — is largely flat, undeveloped land just east of Texas 130.

According to Green Group’s application, the landfill will operate for 44 years and accept 26.5 million tons of waste, roughly enough waste to nearly fill the Empire State Building if it were completely hollow.

The majority of the nearest homes, many of them double-wides within a half-mile of the dumping ground, sport signs opposing the landfill.

“I’d like things to stay the way they are, and I don’t want odor or traffic,” said Tommy Mendez, who has lived on a property bordering the southern end of the site for 34 years.

In an interview, Kaufmann said the company picked the Caldwell site because “everybody knows and recognizes how fast Austin is growing.”

He said the company hopes to collect garbage from communities in a 45-mile radius, which would include Austin, San Marcos, New Braunfels, Buda and Bastrop. That would put him in direct competition with the region’s dominant landfill, Texas Disposal Systems in Creedmoor. The owner of TDS, Bob Gregory, did not return calls for comment.

To ensure success, Green Group will pay as much as $600,000 this year alone to a half-dozen lobbyists, including four former high-ranking officials at the state environmental agency: Ralph Marquez, Dan Eden, Jeff Saitas and Terri Seales. Among its paid advisers, and one who spoke at the pro-Green Group session last week, is Jim Blackburn, famous as a crusading, Houston-based environmental attorney.

Since 2012, Kaufmann and his associates have donated more than $15,000 altogether to the campaigns of state Rep. Tim Kleinschmidt, R-Lexington, who represents the area; state Sen. Troy Fraser, R-Horseshoe Bay, who heads the Senate Natural Resources committee; and to state House Speaker Joe Straus, R-San Antonio.

The homefront

A couple of miles from the proposed site, along a bend in a dirt road, sits Thornton’s property, sprawling with a wide variety of stuff.

“I’m fascinated by things with no value that people are willing to throw away,” she said, amid a motley collection of attractive, if rusted, outdoor chairs and bric-a-brac. “I like making something interesting of that.”

She frequents “bulkies,” as she calls them – bulk waste collection days, when townspeople put their unwanted stuff on the curb – and has forged relations with scrap yards, junk joints and landfills throughout Central Texas. With the abandoned material, she makes yard-stick furniture, repurposed mid-century chairs and folk-art dioramas. Some of the work she sells at the Citywide Garage Sale. Much of it, she keeps at her property, scrambled with stuff, like a salvaged outdoor Jacuzzi, shielded by a giant inverted satellite dish.

The way Thornton sees it, Green Group, which has donated money to the local Chamber of Commerce and Little League teams, was looking for a rural area with little likelihood for political engagement, one unlikely to put up much of a fuss.

Median household income in Caldwell County is $43,393; it’s $52,431 in Austin.

In a letter to Caldwell County residents, Kaufmann wrote, “Residents in communities near other projects we have developed know we are a company that keeps our word to the communities we serve.”

But in 2012, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Civil Rights said it would investigate the regulatory review of an Alabama landfill operated by a Green Group subsidiary. That complaint alleged that state regulators, reviewing and modifying the landfill permit in 2011, ignored complaints of a largely black community near the landfill that said residents suffered from bad odors; respiratory and eye irritation; headaches, nausea and vomiting; noise pollution and dropping property values. (In August, EPA investigators visited the area to check complaints that state regulators again violated residents’ civil rights when they allowed the landfill to expand in 2012.)

“We take pride in our operation of the Arrowhead Landfill which, despite being the most inspected landfill in Alabama, has had zero notices of violation since opening in 2007,” Kaufmann said in a statement this summer, adding that the company made changes, such as relocating an entrance to move traffic away from the facility’s neighbors.

Thornton worries that material from the landfill could make its way into Plum Creek – the site sits beside the floodplain of a tributary of the creek – or leach into groundwater.

In 2013, William Feathergail Wilson, geologist for the Plum Creek Conservation District, told the district board that he thought it wasn’t a good place geologically for a landfill.

Green Group officials said no disposal operations will occur within a 100-year floodway and that the landfill is designed with special liners to protect groundwater and surface water.

Thornton’s group also raises concerns about dump-truck traffic and the import of coal ash from industrial sites — as has happened at another Green Group site.

Caldwell County Realtor Amelia Smith, who heads the Growth And Progress group, said that Thornton’s group deals in scare tactics. The landfill “will add to the wealth and tax base of the city,” she said. Smith went on the trip, along with members of the local Chamber of Commerce, to visit the company’s other sites, which she said were well run.

Signing up

Under the host agreement proposed to the county by the company, Green Group says it will not only pay Caldwell County $1 per ton of waste received at the landfill, but also an additional fee of 25 cents per ton to cities in the county, construct a community center and pay for an annual $2,000 college scholarship for a student from each Caldwell County high school.

Kaufmann said the proposal could be worth $40 million for the county over the life of the site.

But the language in the proposed host agreement is broad: It does not define, for example, the size of a community center.

The landfill, which might not take waste for at least several years, was a major point of contention in a couple of local races in the recent election. Incumbent Joe Roland, a Democrat, won re-election as a Caldwell County commissioner in the precinct that would host the landfill; he took an anti-landfill stance. (Roland, whose pleading at one hearing to stop the landfill was called “one of the most unseemly and pathetic things I have seen in a public meeting” by a Green Group attorney, declined to comment.)

In December, the county commissioners passed a countywide ban on landfills, but with the permit process under way for the 130 Environmental Park, the Green Group project is exempt from the prohibition.

Ken Schawe, a Republican, won the county judge’s seat after saying that he endorsed the landfill, assuming the county wins good terms.

He pledged to jump-start discussion on the proposed host agreement, which has stagnated at the Commissioners Court for nearly a year.

“It’s a big issue with a lot of pressure,” said Schawe, whose campaign didn’t receive any money from Green Group. “I wouldn’t want an environmental park, or a dump, or whatever you want to call it, in my backyard, neither.”

But with the state likely to approve the landfill, he said, “The most important thing is for the county to benefit as much as possible,” and negotiate terms. “To me it’s all about business.”

Watchdog coverage

This story reflects the American-Statesman’s consistent focus on how government decisions affect Central Texans through such factors as growth, housing affordability and environmental protection.

About Green Group Holdings

The Georgia-based company specializes in large-scale infrastructure development, environmental permitting and operations for such projects as industrial parks, transfer stations, recycling facilities and solid waste landfills.

It operates landfills in Alabama, Kansas, Colorado, New Mexico and Guam. A recently opened site in Wyoming accepts oil field waste. The Alabama landfill accepts more than 15,000 tons of waste per day, with garbage from 33 states.

In addition to the Caldwell County landfill proposal, the company is in the process of opening a landfill in Waller County, about 110 miles east of Austin.

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