Penske will remove hazardous waste after years of back-and-forth

CRTs-TV-monitorsAustin-American Statesman
Asher Price

A decade-long, rancorous dispute between a Travis County landfill and a national trucking company over the disposal of hazardous waste has come to an end. Under an agreement filed by Texas Disposal Systems Inc. and Pennsylvania-based Penske Truck Leasing in state District Court in Travis County on Tuesday, Penske will haul waste containing broken TV picture tubes to a hazardous waste facility.

The agreement will end a host of lawsuits and counter-suits that have involved the two companies, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality and the environmental group Texas Campaign for the Environment.

Had the waste been classified as non-hazardous by authorities, the case could have undermined the whole premise of toxic waste regulations nationally, said Texas Disposal Systems landfill operator Bob Gregory. Under a separate, sealed agreement signed Friday by Texas Disposal Systems, Penske and electronics company Zenith, the landfill will receive some compensation, Gregory said.

Gregory said he is not at liberty to say how much money Texas Disposal Systems is getting.

“Nobody will ever know what strain this has put on us,” Gregory said as he choked up during an interview. “It’s been millions of dollars and thousands upon thousands of hours of my time. And we did it right, and it’s ending right.”

At issue was whether hazardous material can be mixed enough with household waste to make it nonhazardous. Texas Disposal Systems insisted that the material remained hazardous; Penske had argued that it no longer is.

The case stretched back to October 1997, when a Penske truck packed with a cargo of Zenith TV picture tubes overturned near Buda on its way to a Mexican assembly factory. The picture tubes — just about all 1,248 of them, each containing 3½ pounds of lead — broke, and they became hazardous waste.

The damaged tubes were dropped off at the nearby Texas Disposal Systems landfill in Creedmoor, which is licensed to handle nonhazardous waste. The landfill and Penske then began a protracted fight over the fate of the waste and over which side was responsible for disposing of it properly.

Several lawsuits were ongoing, and the parties were nearing a trial date in state District Court in Hays County in which Texas Disposal Systems was asking for more than $5 million in damages and legal fees.

The Travis County court resolution states that the environmental commission will back off any fines or penalties against the landfill or the trucking company and that appeals of agency rulings in the matter filed over the years would be withdrawn.

The case has little significance for average consumers and the disposal of small amounts of electronic waste, said Robin Schneider, executive director of Texas Campaign for the Environment, which had joined Texas Disposal Systems in arguing the waste be disposed of as hazardous.

Gregory said that had the waste been recharacterized as unhazardous, it would have undermined hazardous waste regulations.

“If someone can get it diluted, any toxic waste can be disposed of in a municipal solid waste landfill or left on someone else’s property just because it has been left in the soil,” said Gregory, who said laws hold that hazardous waste needs to be characterized that way from cradle to grave.

“When you throw that out, the whole premise of hazardous waste regulations goes out the window,” he said. “From the standpoint of protecting the environment, (the agreement) is critically important, and for people living near landfills, it’s critically important.”

The struggle between the parties had run bitter at times.

“In the blind zeal with which you have pursued this private dispute through the courts and the (Texas Commission on Environmental Quality),” Penske lawyer Mike Duff wrote in a November 2004 letter to Gregory, “you have stopped at nothing in your efforts to establish that Penske is a despicable entity, deserving of nothing more than a multi-million dollar fine.”

“Obviously, we’re very happy that after a decade, we’re going to get all the matters resolved,” Duff said in an interview Tuesday.

Duff said Penske within a month will haul away the waste, which is contained in 99 above-ground containers. “Over that length of time, positions get hardened. Everyone has spent a lot of time, effort and money on this matter. It’s a testament to all the parties that they decided to put it behind them and move on to other more productive things.”

The two sides appeared close to settling the case ever since the environmental commission ruled this summer that Penske must truck the waste away. But even finalizing a settlement went in fits and starts over the past several months.

The resolution marks a victory for H.S. Buddy Garcia, the new chairman of the agency, in a case that had frustrated both his predecessors and a host of state lawmakers.

A decade of wrangling over waste

October 1997: Penske truck overturns on Interstate 35 near Buda, and TV picture tubes heading for Mexico break. The 41,000 pounds of shattered cargo is sent to Texas Disposal Systems landfill in Creedmoor.

1998: Texas Disposal Systems sues Penske to get the waste removed.

January-Feburary 2004: Texas Disposal Systems removes 1,600 tons of waste from its landfill where the picture tubes were buried and places it in 99 lined, covered trash containers.

April 2004: Mistrial declared in Texas Disposal Systems-Penske case in Hays County after jurors see media coverage about it.

June 2004: A letter from a Texas Commission on Environmental Quality official to Penske opens the door for the trucking company to dispose of the material as “special waste” or nonhazardous waste.

September 2004:Texas environmental commissioners call waste hazardous and order Penske to remove it.

October 2004: Penske sues, calling their decision “arbitrary and capricious.”

November 2004: Environmental commission executive director finds that Texas Disposal Systems is not allowing Penske to comply with his order that the trucking company dispose of the waste. (Texas Disposal Systems says it does not think Penske will dispose of it as hazardous waste.)

February 2005: Senate Natural Resources Committee holds hearings on the case.

July 2007: Texas Commission on Environmental Quality reiterates its order that Penske dispose of the waste as hazardous material

November 2007: Parties agree that Penske will haul off waste and lawsuits will be withdrawn.

Group Urges Free TV Recycling

Tsunami_250pxHouston Chronicle
Matt Slagle

A national recycling coalition says television manufacturers need to make it easier for American consumers to safely dispose of aging TVs, which can seep lead and other hazardous chemicals into the soil around dumps, often in China, Nigeria and other countries.

Just 12.5 percent of electronics waste in the United States is offered for recycling each year, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. And at least half of that amount, or more than 160,000 tons, is exported and dumped overseas, said Robin Schneider, vice chair of the Electronics TakeBack Coalition and executive director of the Texas Campaign for the Environment, in Austin.

A new campaign to be announced Thursday by the Electronics TakeBack Coalition includes a Web site where consumers can e-mail the heads of the world’s largest TV makers, including Sharp Electronics Corp. and Panasonic Consumer Electronics Co., and request free recycling programs.

“Programs that require you to pay money to recycle don’t work,” said Schneider.

She called electronic waste from TVs a “crisis in the making” because of skyrocketing consumer demand for high-definition sets. A Feb. 17, 2009, federal deadline will make millions of older analog sets obsolete, she added.

“It used to be people would take their old TV and put it in another room,” she said. “But when these new technologies come in, we’re going to be dumping a lot of these old ones.”

The group says only Sony Corp. has so far agreed to recycle all of its electronic products at no cost to consumers through a national network of 75 pickup locations. Sony has agreed to expand that number to 150 locations by next year.

“If Sony can do that, other TV makers can too,” she said.

So far, nine states including California, Maine and Maryland have laws requiring electronics recycling. There are no national laws about recycling so-called e-waste.

The Electronics TakeBack Coalition, formerly called Computer TakeBack Coalition, has for years pressured computer makers to offer free programs to help consumers recycle electronic waste.

Dumped by county, BFI Takes Landfill Plan to TCEQ

sunset_farmAustin Chronicle
Dan Mottola

Wafting in and out like the smell of garbage in the breeze, the issue of whether to allow BFI/Allied Waste Industries Inc. to vertically expand its Sunset Farms Landfill has sporadically soured the air at Travis Co. Commissioners Court for well over five years. Each episode has drawn galvanized, impassioned opposition from nearby Northeast Austin residents, who have long complained about putrid odors, flooding, and trash-strewn streets overwhelmed by garbage trucks. The complaints also apply to fellow refuse handler Waste Management Inc., which operates a similar landfill adjacent to BFI’s site.

Last week, commissioners narrowly voted to trash an agreement that would have stamped county approval on BFI’s proposed 75-foot height expansion, in exchange for assurances that the dump would close no later than 2015. BFI hoped the agreement would streamline its application to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, the agency ultimately tasked with approving the expansion. Commissioner Margaret Gomez cast the deciding vote against the expansion deal but flipped her position the next day by voting against county efforts to fight the expansion at the state level, based on stated fears that a new landfill might end up in her south Travis Co. precinct.

“We’re going to rebut Gomez’s assertion that she’s representing her constituents by refusing to fight,” said Robin Schneider, executive director of Texas Campaign for the Environment, the nonprofit that has led local demands for reforms and expedited closure at both Northeast Austin landfills.

Schneider argued that the region is on the verge of a landfill capacity glut, calling BFI’s expansion unnecessary and counterproductive to efforts to divert all compostable and recyclable items from landfills – efforts she says will create scores of new “green-collar jobs.”

Texas Campaign for the Environment presented a letter opposing the expansion signed by more than 70 local black and Hispanic community leaders. The city of Austin in May passed a resolution against the expansion, and state Rep. Mark Strama and Sen. Kirk Watson have also drafted a letter in opposition.

In April, the TCEQ declared BFI’s expansion application technically complete, which essentially means the waste giant has provided all the necessary information. The application is now undergoing a more stringent technical review, taking in to account things like site geology, drainage and erosion controls, landfill gas monitoring, and post-closure cost estimates, according to TCEQ media-relations manager Terry Clawson. He said recycling is encouraged but not required for a landfill permit nor is consideration of the actual need for regional landfill space. The TCEQ has received 76 requests for a contested case hearing on BFI’s permit. Commissioners will likely initiate consideration early next year, Clawson said.

At a county public hearing in October, Commissioner Ron Davis said it was an “atrocity” that kids at nearby Bluebonnet Elementary School were kept inside at recess due to “odorous conditions.” Davis, whose precinct includes the landfill, has staunchly advocated closing the site.

Area resident Fabian Martinez said he decided to pull his kids out of Bluebonnet and place them in a private school much farther away. “My daughter would get sick and throw up on the school bus,” though she’s not prone to car sickness, he said. “Would you want to jog in an area that smells like rotten eggs and dirty diapers?” he asked.

Davis said BFI first approached the commission in 2001 concerning an expansion. “BFI has had ample time to do something about space,” he said. “Mean­while, the community has always opposed an expansion.”

BFI district manager Brad Dugas said last month that Sun­set Farms could fill its permitted capacity by 2011 at present disposal rates and that BFI has had difficulty locating a new landfill site due to “not in my back yard concerns.” “I believe we provide a valuable service to the community,” Dugas said. “We want to stay in business in the Austin market, and in order to provide uninterrupted service, we need that additional capacity to continue to look for a new landfill in the area.”

Dugas added that most people don’t realize how much BFI’s disposal rate of 3,000 tons of waste per day really is. Seventy percent of that waste comes from Travis County, he said, though waste is also accepted from up to 20 other counties. “People say we can’t be trusted, but we’re honoring the commitment we’ve made all along – to close by 2015 and to abandon this site if we find a new one before then.”

City of Austin Solid Waste Advisory Commission Chair Gerard Acuna said complaints about the landfill have been a hot topic throughout his nine-year tenure on the commission. “It’s been one thing after another,” he said. “The current location is not a good place for that type of facility, plain and simple.” Echoing Davis, Acuna said that if BFI had devoted the time and money it has spent trying to expand Sunset Farms to finding a new site, “they certainly could’ve started fresh at a new site by now, being the model landfill operators they claim to be.” Acuna concluded, “I’m not for kicking BFI out of town but for raising the bar on landfills.”