The Waco City Council faces a difficult choice concerning the future of solid waste management in Waco and the greater Waco area, particularly with regard to construction of the new Waco landfill. This predicament has created a chain of public frustration and emotional pushback. In this context, I hope not to fan the flames of this emotional outcry but to offer some observations, question some incentives and help concerned locals still on the fence about the process involved in selecting a new landfill site. This includes clarifying a few things about the most popular arguments I’ve recently encountered.
For some context, the current active Waco Regional Landfill site along Hannah Hill Road began as a small 40.41-acre site permitted by the city of Woodway on July 22, 1977. On July 30, 1986, the city of Waco purchased the permitted municipal solid waste landfill (type 1, subtitle D) site from Woodway and a few years later, in January 1992, expanded the permitted acreage to 237.31 acres.
The landfill cannot accept hazardous materials such as empty barrels of pesticides, used oil, oil filters, lead-acid batteries, untreated medical wastes, etc. Instead it primarily inters residential trash (curbside) and construction/demolition wastes. For more than four decades, this landfill has served the people of McLennan County with minimal controversy but its closure in the foreseeable future has sparked vocal opposition from a group of residents who possess a unique combination of time and money. They have used all this to craft a specific social awareness and presence about the future of Waco’s municipal solid waste.
Over the past few months, the varying public arguments against the new proposed site of the Waco landfill have gravitated toward water quality issues, likely bolstered by the catastrophic environmental impacts of Hurricane Harvey. A thousand-year flood represents a worst-case scenario within any context but, luckily for McLennan County residents along the U.S. Highway 84 corridor, the highest point on the Lake Waco dam stands tall at 503 feet above sea level — 20 feet below the bottom of Waco’s current landfill cell. According to the U.S. Geological Soil Survey, the new proposed site rests near the same elevation as the current cell — well above the top of the dam.
When a landfill site is permitted, cells are not constructed on every inch of ground permitted — only those deemed fit for structure. Any within flood plains and such are traditionally left for stormwater retention or for storing clean brush. As an environmental scientist, I’m not concerned about flooding near the new proposed landfill site because the primary sites that would accommodate cells rest within an area at a higher elevation than even the top of the Lake Waco dam. Like an overflow drain in your bathtub, a thousand-year flood in Waco would crest the dam (likely resulting in its failure/collapse) before those water levels would likely dislodge a well-constructed and compacted municipal solid waste landfill cell.
If a new landfill site were in a place below the Lake Waco dam, however, this would be a different story, as these areas flooded annually before the construction of primarily Lake Whitney and the “new” Lake Waco dam. Concerns about contaminated water could be intensified at a different site, but we do not know where the landfill will go if the current proposal regarding the site off Old Lorena Road is declined.
Further, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality reported in one of its latest water assessments in 2014 that the Middle and South Bosque River arms, which feed into Lake Waco, represent some of the best natural water indicators possible. The only concerns in the water-quality reports from those areas involve varying levels of nitrates, which, in this location, mostly originate from agricultural production and lawn fertilizers — the kind that go on golf courses and then wash into the river during typical rainy weather. It is nitrogen that causes algae to blossom in Lake Waco, and nitrogen that caused the city of Waco to defend its residents and non-residential customers during the 1990s and early 2000s against dairy farms along the upper North Bosque River. The same city of Waco which is now being accused of not caring about water-quality issues voluntarily constructed a multi-million-dollar dissolved air flotation plant (the largest in North America at the time) simply to improve the quality of water and life for Waco residents and water customers.
Landfills possess complex and thick liners, methane wells and leachate collection systems that capture liquids and convey them for treatment. These methods are inspected regularly, reviewed for design issues and monitored under penalty of a site permit violation. The engineered solid-waste liners possess a compendium of materials which must meet federal code and be regularly checked/maintained for proper monitoring. Landfills appear nothing like an illegally dug dumpsite on someone’s back-forty by the river.
Other vocal opposition states the new site will result in the decline of property values by 15 percent, despite the fact one recent home sold this past year for almost $2 million ($226 per square foot) in the Badger Ranch addition — the highest-level sale of its kind in Midway Independent School District and within about a mile of the current Waco landfill. A quick search on Realtor.com or Zillow.com further depicts how residences in this area are experiencing increases in property value and tax assessments since the houses’ initial construction sale prices. The landfill does not appear to be hurting property values or causing residents to avoid buying expensive homes in the area.
The real motives
In all the arguments I have heard about the prospective new sites for the landfill, I do not believe that I have yet heard what I believe to be the primary motivator involved — spatial and environmental justice. I completely understand why someone might be opposed to constructing a new landfill near her/his residence, but it’s difficult for me to sympathize when the new landfill’s construction stands adjacent to the existing site, which predates the multiple residential neighborhoods by decades. The presence of the 1977 landfill did not stop Midway ISD from constructing South Bosque Elementary School nearby in the early 1990s nor River Valley Intermediate School and the primary Midway administration building within the last several years. The 1977 landfill did not stop steady construction of several hundred high-income homes over the past couple of decades, nor did it curtail demand for new homes today or harm the overall tax assessment values of the area. The 1977 landfill has not experienced major, habitual issues with environmental compliance over its 40-year existence, nor has it spurred a strong vocal opposition from many residents outside of those high-income neighborhoods.