Waco landfill

Workers use heavy equipment to move trash at the Waco Regional Landfill.

The campaign against a new landfill off Highway 84 has opened up a new front, as opponents allege that past city mismanagement of the existing landfill next door fouled Lake Waco.

In a press release this week, Citizens Against the Highway 84 Landfill cite environmental violations that state regulators found in 2001 and 2003 as evidence that runoff from the landfill polluted Waco’s drinking water source.

City officials say that conclusion is unfounded, and in an official statement Tuesday city leaders accused the group of resorting to “scare tactics.”

Bradford Holland, president of the anti-landfill group, sent out the press release earlier Tuesday in response to an opinion-page interview printed in Sunday’s Tribune-Herald, in which Mayor Kyle Deaver said it was “unthinkable” that city staff would recommend a landfill site that would jeopardize Lake Waco.

“The one thing that bothers me most is that they would think our city management would put a landfill in a place where it would damage our water supply,” Deaver said in the interview.

“Further, we’ve operated the site right next to the proposed site on Old Lorena Road all this time successfully. We take all the right measures to avoid that kind of problem.”

Holland took issue with the statement, stating “it is clear that the mayor is unaware of the prior contamination of Lake Waco from the landfill at the current site.”

“Our group stands behind our evidence that the new landfill site significantly threatens the quality of the drinking water in Waco, despite the Mayor’s assertion that everything will be OK,” he wrote in the press release. “Given the completely unforeseeable events taking place around Houston with flooding and contamination, the Mayor’s line of thinking seems woefully ignorant of the potential for major problems.”

At issue are enforcement actions in the early 2000s by the state’s environmental agency, now known as the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.

The city received a penalty of $22,000 in 2002 for a long list of regulatory violations found the prior year, ranging from improper signage and record-keeping to insufficient slope coverage, leachate management problems and the discharge of contaminated water from a composting area “into the waters of the state.”

In 2004, the city was slapped with an $18,750 penalty for another series of violations, including coverage deficiencies and another “failure to prevent the unauthorized discharge of contaminated water.”

City officials don’t deny that the landfill had operational problems in the early 2000s that led it to be listed as being in “poor” compliance with state regulations.

Even so, city solid waste director Anna Dunbar said there’s no evidence in the TCEQ reports that the 2001 and 2003 incidents resulted in pollution of Lake Waco.

Dunbar knows something about the matter. As regional director of the state environmental agency from 2001 to 2011, she signed the notices of enforcement and authorized the penalties against the city of Waco in 2002 and 2004.

She said “waters of the state” is a broad term that could include a small marsh, a spring, a ditch or a private lake.

In the 2001 incident, an investigation report found water from the compost area ran into a ditch. But Dunbar said it’s not clear whether that ditch discharged into Cloice Creek, the tributary that runs from the landfill to the South Bosque River, which feeds Lake Waco.

Silt in stock pond

In the second incident, TCEQ inspector Diane Massey noted that silt from the construction of a new landfill cell had washed into a stock pond of adjacent landowner Barry Gross. The pond is located on a tributary of Cloice Creek, but no mention is made of testing for contamination downstream of the pond.

“In the report, there’s a discussion of a cleanup of silt, but nowhere in the report does it say anything about Lake Waco,” Dunbar said. “No samples were taken at Lake Waco, and a site visit was not made to Lake Waco.”

Dunbar said she trained investigators at that time to sample downstream if there was a suspicion of contamination, but that didn’t happen in this case.

The pond and the Gross property have since been sold to the city of Waco and are part of the proposed new landfill site. An April 2017 TCEQ investigation found that the pond was clear and supported a fish population, and samples showed no contamination.

In a followup email response with the Tribune-Herald, Holland said that the evidence for the contamination of Lake Waco in the early 2000s is sufficient.

“It should not take water samples with toxic levels of ‘substance X’ to prove contamination of downstream water sources,” he said. “That’s simply not the standard in this case. The standard is that contaminated leachate has entered surrounding public/state water, and we have presented proof of that.”

Leachate, the contaminated fluids that seep out of piles of trash, is collected at the Waco Regional Landfill by a system of pipes at the bottom of plastic-lined cells and is sent to the city sewer system to be cleaned.

Despite the citations for leachate management issues, Dunbar said there is no indication in the 2001 and 2003 reports that leachate left the landfill site.

In his press release, Holland singles out Deputy City Manager Wiley Stem, whose administrative responsibilities included the landfill during the violations recorded in the early 2000s.

“The mayor puts all trust in Wiley Stem, who was the one at the helm when these contamination incidents happened before,” Holland said. “Why the mayor listens to his city staff rather than scientific experts armed with facts is mind-boggling.”

Stem said he is proud of the progress the Waco Regional Landfill has made since 2004. The landfill’s compliance has been listed as “good” throughout the current decade, and sampling has shown healthy water downstream.

“We’ve really put a high priority on running a quality landfill, as evidenced by the high aquatic life ratings on the South Bosque,” he said.

Waco landfill

Trash is moved into place at the Waco Regional Landfill.

Stem said the city has made significant investments in the landfill since 2004, including a $1 million leachate collection system, and has made key hires to turn it around, starting with Ken Anthony as landfill director in 2004.

Today, the landfill is run by Dave Rydl, a 25-year industry veteran who has a master’s degree in the field. Diane Massey, the former TCEQ investigator, is in charge of landfill compliance, and Dunbar, the former TCEQ official, was recently named solid waste director.

Modern regulations

Dunbar said modern landfill regulations are exacting and require constant vigilance.

“I used to say I could go to any waste management facility and find a violation,” she said. “It’s not easy. It’s not just throwing trash in a hole. It is an engineered site for your trash that has all this infrastructure and a lot of tracking. A modern landfill is a totally different thing than the dumps of the past.”

Holland said that even if the city has improved its landfill practices over the last 15 years, one mistake could threaten the drinking water for the whole city.

“Accidents do happen, and while there have been incidents at the old landfill, the new one is closer to the reservoir,” he said in an interview. “Our contention is that things can happen as they happened in the past.”

J.B. Smith is the the Tribune-Herald managing editor. A native of Sulphur Springs, he attended Southwestern University and joined the Tribune-Herald in 1997. He and his wife, Bethany, live in Waco and have two children.

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