As Landfill Grows, So Does Controversy

hutto_lfCommunity Impact
Shannon Colletti

In a rural part of Hutto, early in the morning, dew covers the grass surrounding a landfill. All is quiet. Many people drive past the site without as much as a second glance. But hidden behind the landfill’s seemingly innocuous appearance, much like the waste it hides, is a controversy that has grown with the landfill the past four years.

Williamson County has owned the Williamson County Landfill since its creation in 1981. Located in Hutto on Hwy. 1660, between Hwy. 29 and Hwy. 79, the landfill occupies 202 acres and is permitted a maximum height of 70 feet. Waste Management, a Houston-based company that operates some 283 North American active landfills, has been the landfill’s operator since the mid-1980s.

Eighteen months ago, the county began negotiating its contract terms with Waste Management. An end to these negotiations appeared to be in sight Aug. 28, when the Williamson County Commissioners were expected to vote on the revised contract. But hopes of a resolution were dashed when the commissioners tabled the contract instead. In the 4:1 vote, only County Judge Dan Gattis voiced his stance against postponing a decision.

“Not voting for [the contract] today is a mistake. We’ve got a cancer that is affecting the community, and we need to move on,” Gattis told the commissioners. “You’re causing a great deal of harm by dragging this on. It’s time to make up your mind.”

A brief overview of the landfill

The Williamson County Landfill is a Type 1 municipal solid waste landfill that accepts non-hazardous household, commercial, industrial and special wastes, as well as construction and demolition debris. The landfill does not accept hazardous materials such as batteries, liquids, household chemicals, paint, motor oil, used oil filters or florescent light bulbs. Law dictates that the responsibility falls on the people to sort the waste before disposing of it.

Based on data from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, the state’s environmental agency that regulates landfills, there are 152 active Type 1 landfills in the state that disposed of 27.7 million tons of waste last year.

In Williamson County alone, residents and businesses generate more than 1,500 tons of trash per day. Waste Management uses a formula to calculate this amount: pounds of trash per person per day multiplied by population. The Capital Area Council of Governments — a regional planning commission that serves to advocate, plan and coordinate initiatives — has determined that Central Texas residents generate an average of 8.73 pounds of trash per day. The population of Williamson County is 353,830, according to the most recent estimate by the U.S. Census Bureau in 2006. By multiplying 8.73 and 353,830, it shows that the county generates 3,088,935 pounds, or 1,544 tons, of trash daily.

Steve Jacobs, Central Texas landfills manager at Waste Management, said that between 35 and 40 percent of it lands in the landfill. This results in about 600-1,400 tons of it being hauled to the Williamson County Landfill every day. Jacobs also said the vast majority of the trash — about 90 percent — deposited at the landfill comes from Williamson and Travis counties’ residents and businesses. The remaining 10 percent comes from outside county limits, from places such as Bell and Milam counties. At the end of each day, the “active” area is covered with six inches of dirt to contain odors. Total decomposition depends on several factors, including what is decomposing and the weather. As landfill units are filled to capacity, they are capped, closed and seeded with grass.

Contract negotiations

The county and Waste Management last amended their contract in 2003, several aspects of which have been sources of contention. Some of the main ones include increasing the revenue to the county, placing restrictions on the origin and amount of waste accepted at the landfill and defining the contract’s end date.

The revised contract would increase the revenue the county receives from 7.5 percent to 13 percent. It would also limit the origin of waste to a region of seven contiguous counties, limit the amount of waste brought into the landfill to the amount that Williamson County can generate and create a 40-year life of the agreement.

Stephen Ackley, civil litigation chief for the Williamson County Attorney’s Office, said the county only has two options: remain with the current 2003 contract or approve the contract amendments.

The expansion permit

Along with the contract negotiations, the county is also seeking approval to expand the landfill. The State Data Center projects that by 2030, Williamson County will have grown from a population of 353,830 to 1,104,899. The waste produced by the county will increase as well, to about 4,585 tons per day. At its current size, the landfill has 15 more years of remaining disposal capacity.

In 2003, on behalf of the county, Waste Management filed an expansion application with TCEQ. Although the paperwork may be from Waste Management, the county remains the owner, or “permit holder,” for the landfill. The application called for an additional landfill footprint that, combined with the current capacity, is projected to provide more than 45 years of additional capacity, based on population growth forecasts and expected volumes.

Last year, TCEQ referred the expansion application to the State Office of Administrative Hearings to enter a process known as “direct referral,” which allows an administrative judge to examine issues concerning the expansion permit. The judge will then make a recommendation to TCEQ for a final decision on the expansion permit. The goal of the direct referral process is to satisfy public concern for a more open process. Although the SOAH hearings ended Aug. 31, the process is expected to take several more months to complete.

As officials decide what path to take with the landfill, a task with no clear end in sight, the landfill will continue to provide a crucial service to citizens all over the region.