Gritty Protest: Rio Hondo residents push back against sewer plan

Valley Morning Star
Fernando del Valle

Rio Hondo — Residents on Thursday packed City Hall to request state officials deny a permit to a San Antonio company that proposes to treat liquid grease and grit waste at the sewer plant that discharges into the Arroyo Colorado.
More than 100 residents spilled out of City Hall chambers to wait to comment on the company’s proposal.

“I’m very concerned about the quality of the water,” Yvonne Peck said. “Already there is a high negative impact on water quality.”
Sid Rouch said the city’s sewer plant overflows onto his lot.

“The system can’t handle what it’s got,” Rouch said. “You’re going to add more mess to the problem. You’re going to be putting more (junk) into the system.”
John Whelan said car wash oil would contaminate the waters.

“You’re still going to get (oil). It’s going to accumulate,” Whelan said. “No one would want to go to the point of discharge and take a cup of water and drink it.”

If the comments show that information in the application by Partners Dewatering International is inaccurate, then the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality could use those comments in determining whether to grant the permit, agency attorney Ron Olson said.

Local state official Jaime Garza told residents that the agency would investigate any fish kill to determine whether the city or the company would be held responsible.

David Mendez waited in line to point to a 2006 agency report aimed at cutting back on contaminates that pollute the arroyo’s waters.

The arroyo’s low-oxygen levels designate it as an “impaired body of water,” Mendez said.

“They’re trying to reduce pollutants going into the water, so why do they want to issue a permit to this company?” Mendez asked. “It doesn’t make any sense.”
Kay King said she lives in her mother’s house on the arroyo’s banks.

“The arroyo is everything to this area,” she said. “We revere the arroyo and keeping it clean is absolutely critical. We don’t want their (junk) in our river.”

State Rep. Rene Oliveira, D-Brownsville, and Rep. J.M. Lozano, R-Kingsville, called for the public hearing last September.

Public pressure led commissioners last Sunday to meet in a special closed-door meeting with City Attorney Eddie Lucio III to consider getting out of the city’s contract with Partners Dewatering International.

In 2008, a previous commission entered into a contract that would allow the company to use the city’s sewer plant to treat liquid waste from restaurant grease traps and car wash grit traps.

The company, which collects and treats liquid waste from restaurants and car washes, proposed the building of a treatment facility at the sewer plant. The proposed facility would separate liquid waste that would be treated at the sewer plant, said Carter Mayfield, finance director with the company.

The sewer plant could safely and effectively treat the liquid waste before the plant discharges it into the arroyo, Mayfield said.

He said solid waste, or sludge, would be trucked away and composted at a site outside the Rio Grande Valley or disposed at Donna’s landfill.

The company plans to put about 50,000 gallons of liquid waste a day into the sewer plant that treats about 138,000 gallons a day, said Jess Mayfield, the company’s president. He said the sewer plant has a daily capacity to treat 400,000 gallons of wastewater.

Carter Mayfield said the discharge of the “non-hazardous” liquid waste into the Arroyo Colorado would not contaminate the waterway.

The company, whose clients include H-E-B and Valero, would pay the city about $1,500 a month under the agreement that would boost payments as increased business would lead the company to treat more liquid waste at the sewer plant. Mayfield said payments could increase to as much as $200,000 a year.

Texas Campaign for the Environmental, a statewide group based in Austin, organized residents from across much of the Rio Grande Valley to oppose the company’s proposal.

The environmental group handed out flyers that accuse the company of violations at a sewer plant it operates for the city of La Coste near San Antonio.

But Mayfield said the state has not issued violations for the company’s La Coste operation that treats liquid grease trap and grit trap waste during a reporting period that spans the last five years.

The state cited the city of La Coste’s sewer plant operation for “major” violations that included a fish kill in Polecat Creek that stemmed from the release of ammonia nitrogen, for which the state fined the city $8,120; an incident in which the city discharged sludge into a stream, for which the state fined the city $14,990; and an incident in which the city failed to notify the state of “a change in the volume or character of pollutants discharged into the wastewater treatment facility,” for which the state fined the city $28,860, a TCEQ report states.

The company paid fines for each violation, Mayfield said.