Texas environmental commissioners pledged Wednesday to revise state rules that make it possible for landfill operators to seek approval for significant expansions with little public input.
The issue arose as the three-member Texas Commission on Environmental Quality considered whether to overturn its staff’s approval of a 22-acre expansion of the IESI Corp. landfill in Weatherford, west of Fort Worth, under rules that allow minor permit modifications without the public having adequate notice or the right to a formal hearing.
Citizen groups and others had argued that the expansion was significant and that state regulators should have handled the case as a permit amendment, which allows neighbors to request a formal hearing and present evidence. The groups expressed concerns that approval might set a precedent that could thwart public participation in other landfill cases, including several landfills in Central Texas that have indicated they want to expand.
The commissioners upheld their staff’s decision to approve the modifications after the landfill neighbors and the Texas Campaign for the Environment reached an eleventh-hour settlement with IESI and withdrew their objections Wednesday morning. The company agreed to height limits, a larger buffer between its operations and neighbors’ land, and better public notice if it seeks further expansion, said campaign representative Eleanor Whitmore.
But the broader concerns the opponents had raised seemed to resonate with the commissioners.
“I have a real problem with the way we’re handling modifications versus amendments,” Commissioner Larry Soward said. “I’m concerned we do too many as modifications, which cuts off the public’s ability to know what will go on at a site.
“I’m not considering this (approval) a precedent,” Soward said.
Commissioner Chairman Kathleen Hartnett White joined Soward in directing agency staff to examine how those rules could be clarified as part of a current project to revise other aspects of the landfill permitting process.
Commissioner Ralph Marquez said that he doubted the commission would see many cases similar to the IESI request but that he shared concern about landfill operators “seeking individual modifications that add up.”
Whitmore said the commissioners’ reactions showed that, in reaching a compromise with IESI, her group and the neighbors may have improved the chances for meaningful reform.
In the settlement, the company agreed to urge the commission to adopt rule changes clarifying when an amendment must be sought.
“We didn’t want to win today but lose the larger battle over revising the rules,” Whitmore said. “It showed we’re not just trying to obstruct landfill companies.”