Plans to expand Camelot Landfill near Trinity River face opposition

Camelot_landfillDallas Morning News
Dianne Solis & Wendy Hundley

LEWISVILLE — From a canoe in the military-green water of the Elm Fork of the Trinity River, cottonwood, oak and sycamore trees form a dense canopy and camouflage for the nation’s two largest waste corporations.

The companies operate landfills straddling the river, a place some want to become a destination spot for recreational paddlers from Lewisville Lake down to the Great Trinity Forest in southern Dallas.

One landfill — Farmers Branch-owned Camelot — has been accused by the city of Lewisville of being “an open dump,” or a landfill without necessary controls. Those fighting words were part of an intent-to-sue letter highlighting pollutants documented in state-required groundwater monitoring wells.

Lewisville wants to stop Farmers Branch from expanding. Farmers Branch wants the state environmental agency to give it permission so the landfill’s operator, Phoenix-based Republic Services Inc., can take in trash that could quadruple Camelot’s height.

In a twin peaks competition, Camelot would top the landfill across the river, DFW Recycling and Disposal Facility. The landfill is known by the nickname Mount Lewisville and is operated and owned by the nation’s largest garbage company, Waste Management Inc., which is based in Houston. Waste from the city of Lewisville goes there.

Camelot’s proposed expansion has generated questions and some anger among environmentalists, who worry about the protective barrier, or liner, between the garbage and the soil.

“Liners break down over time,” said Zac Trahan, a program director for Texas Campaign for the Environment, in “every landfill the EPA has studied.”

Landfills near rivers and ravines were once common. But federal laws began tightening with the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act of 1976. Landfill liners became even more stringent in the early 1990s, with synthetic liners of about 60 millimeters, or 2.4 inches, required to prevent leakage of decaying waste.

About half of Camelot falls into the less-stringent liner regulations, and it’s in the older, southern half of the landfill, near the Trinity River, where monitoring wells have found toxin problems, according to filings at the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. That section was first permitted in 1979.

A corrective program is under way to bring down contamination levels that now exceed some groundwater standards. Landfill officials say that levels of toxins have stabilized or are coming down.

“If this was an open dump, the TCEQ would have shut us down,” said Shane Davis, a microbiologist who serves as solid waste administrator for Farmers Branch.

Contaminants found

As he gave a tour of Camelot — the size of more than 300 football fields — Davis said the landfill liner hasn’t been breached and he doesn’t think contaminants found are due to what’s known as “leachate.” That’s landfill jargon for water that oozes down through the trash.

Davis thinks the contaminants resulted from the migration of landfill gas, a byproduct of decomposition comprising mainly methane and carbon dioxide.

As the landfill gas moved, it picked up naturally occurring arsenic from the soil and volatile organic compounds from the refuse. After the contaminants were detected, more monitoring wells were installed and a methane extraction system was built at the site to collect the landfill gas and use it for energy.

The volatile organic compounds found are arsenic, cis-1,2 dichloroethylene (DCE) and trichloroethylene (TCE) in some groundwater monitoring wells in the older section of Camelot. Both arsenic and TCE have been recognized as carcinogens, according to Lewisville’s letter.

December readings of one monitoring well showed double the level of DCE considered safe under federal maximum contaminant levels. Two other wells are above maximum levels for DCE. One well that was nearly double the maximum contaminant level for TCE in June has come down, but still exceeds the standard sent by the Environmental Protection Agency.

Lewisville gets its drinking water supply from the Elm Fork, about one-half mile downstream from where the contamination has been identified, and certain contaminants were found as far back as 2003 in monitoring wells, said Lewisville’s outside attorney James Blackburn, an environmental law specialist.

The Elm Fork of the Trinity River is not on the state’s “impaired rivers” list, after a 2010 analysis, said Terry Clawson, a spokesman for the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.

Nevertheless, Trahan, the environmentalist, is asking the same question as landfill-expansion opponents on the city councils of Lewisville and Carrollton.

“It seems strange that they want to expand the landfill when they are still in violation of the law,” Trahan said.

River runs through it

Some river paddlers weren’t aware of the proposed expansion. Charles Allen, who runs canoe tours, rattles off the river’s virtues with ease. He says the Elm Fork is the best for families because of navigation ease and the diversity of nature.

Most important, there are two water purification plants at the Elm Fork.

“That is a great source of concern,” Allen said.

Each September, Dale Harris of the Dallas Downriver Club helps organize a canoe and kayak race, known as the Trinity River Challenge, on about 12 of the 34 miles of Elm Fork.

Harris would like to see access points for launching rivercraft every five miles from Lewisville Lake down to southern Dallas. He, too, talks about the serenity of the river — the turtles, the bird songs and even the water moccasins.

“The only thing I’ve noticed is we get a few more of those trash bags than in other parts of the river, and those things fly like kites,” Harris said.

Indeed, along the Elm Fork from a canoe, plastic bags sag from branches like white moss. In one section, a large tree branch dams up trash. Red-and-white floaters and lures bob in the water. Yellow plastic foam meat trays, a blue can of upholstery cleaner, a muddy brown roof shingle and red-stitched baseballs also sit among the limbs.

South of Lewisville Lake to southern Dallas and into the 6,000 acres of the Great Trinity Forest, there are at least a half-dozen active landfills on the Trinity or one of its forks used by different cities. The biggest is Dallas’ McCommas Bluff Landfill, which takes in slightly more tonnage flow than the DFW Recycling and Disposal Facility.

Without expansion, Camelot has 16 years of life left, according to a Farmers Branch spokesman. It’s expected to bring in $1.9 million in revenue this fiscal year, excluding energy generation and carbon credit revenue, said Farmers Branch finance chief Charles Cox. But Cox also noted it will cost $21.5 million to close the landfill under federal and state regulations. The city has already saved about $6.5 million in a closure fund.

As a moneymaker, Camelot now offsets the cost of the solid waste program in Farmers Branch, a city of 28,616 that provides free curbside waste pickup for its residents but doesn’t have a curbside recycling program.

Carrollton City Council member Jeff Andonian, a former petroleum geologist, views the expansion with skepticism. He said he remains worried about the contamination in monitoring wells and the shale formation underneath the landfill.

He regularly attends quarterly waste meetings among landfill managers and residents, who include Carrollton homeowners living just south of Camelot.

“Farmers Branch calls this a regional issue and I agree: 60 communities use the resources of the Trinity River,” Andonian said. “How many people realize how important the Trinity is for our people and for the future generations?”