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Q&A with waco leaders on future landfill prospects

Weighing few options, more trash: Q&A with Waco leaders on landfill prospects

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Waco landfill

Deputy City Manager Wiley Stem III says that, for all the conflicting ideas for a new city landfill and extending the life of the current Waco landfill, “We do have to deal with reality and we have 400-something trucks coming here every day and we have to have a place for the trash to go.”

Few city landfills are planned, opened and operated without at least some public resistance, generally in the area where a new landfill is envisioned. So it was in the early 1990s when a group called Citizens to Save Lake Waco fought the city of Waco landfill now operating along U.S. Highway 84. So it is now with a group called Citizens Against the Highway 84 Landfill opposing what city of Waco officials propose as a new 290-acre landfill site along Old Lorena Road, next to the current 237-acre landfill. Many of those opposing the new site live in housing subdivisions that have arisen along busy Highway 84 in recent years.

Complicating the matter: Planning and engineering landfills and gaining approval from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, which oversees safe management of waste to ensure clean water and clean air, take time — and city officials and landfill consultants say the current landfill probably has only seven years of life left — perhaps less as more people settle in the Waco area, more businesses sprout and more refuse is generated.

The city’s quest for a new landfill has produced two fronts: first, developing the proposed site near the current landfill. Opponents claim that it violates a 1992 agreement by the city and landowner Wanda Glaze not to expand the current landfill. Landfill opponents charge the proposed site is clearly an expansion; city officials vigorously deny this on legal grounds. Landfill opponents also charge water runoff from the proposed landfill would flow into the nearby Bosque River and contaminate Lake Waco, which supplies the city’s drinking water. They also contend that birds from the landfill would threaten development of nearby airports and imperil air traffic. And there’s the fleeting odor problem.

Much attention has been devoted in recent months to the city’s second front in pursuing a new landfill: seeking out for consideration and possible purchase alternative sites for a landfill not near Highway 84 neighborhoods. These come amid mounting concerns of what a more remote landfill might do to local refuse collection rates, which city officials have championed as low compared to other cities in Texas. Other sites will get more discussion at the Waco City Council’s Sept. 19 meeting. However, little city response has been given the steady criticism leveled at the proposed landfill site the city of Waco already owns. For an interview at the landfill office with Waco Mayor Kyle Deaver, former Waco Mayor Malcolm Duncan Jr., longtime Deputy City Manager Wiley Stem III and recycling services coordinator Anna Dunbar, the Trib came armed with a number of pressing concerns raised by landfill opponents.

Q    Some of you have champed at the bit over charges and allegations about the proposed landfill site off Old Lorena Road presented in a Trib guest column by landfill opponents as well as at a community meeting at Harris Creek Baptist Church in March that turned ugly fast. What is the biggest misperception the city believes it has had to deal with?

Mayor Kyle Deaver     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. Waco has gone to tremendous lengths under prior mayors and city councils — and primarily through Wiley Stem — to protect our water supply and to protect Lake Waco. It is unthinkable to me that Wiley would recommend a site that he thought would pollute the lake. 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. They have indicated that we would be building a new landfill — if we put it on Old Lorena Road — within the 503 easement [a federally designated no-build zone meant to protect Lake Waco in case of extreme flooding] and that’s simply not the case. We wouldn’t do that, couldn’t do that. So there are just little bits and pieces they throw in that seem intended to generate fear and mistrust among the neighbors out here. And that bothers me. Obviously, they have every right to complain about this landfill potentially going out here in the vicinity of these neighborhoods, but the looseness with the facts has really caused me the most issue.

Q    What other assertions have they made that you take issue with?

Deaver     They’ve said we were going to envelop our Cotton Belt Trail that we’ve put out here and spent millions of dollars to build and that’s simply not true. The buffer from the Cotton Belt Trail will actually be greater from the Old Lorena Road site, if we chose that, than it is from the current site. There’s a [major] power line that runs from east of the proposed landfill site that would create an additional 500-foot buffer.

Deputy City Manager Wiley Stem III     At least.

Deaver     And the bird-strike issue, they’ve said putting this landfill here would cause tremendous risk to pilots both at McGregor Executive Airport and Waco Regional Airport. We have one reported bird strike at McGregor airport involving our current landfill. And I can’t remember, but I think there were like 30 at the Waco airport and [that may be due to its] proximity to the water. [Lake Waco is close to Waco Regional Airport.] The point is all these things will be studied in the permit process and so in a lot of ways they’re getting the cart before the horse because if we can’t make it clear those are not issues, not problems, then we won’t be able to get a permit for the landfill on that site.

Q    They say it puts the McGregor airport at risk for FAA funding or limits its ability to expand.

Deaver     I don’t believe that to be true. Has the FAA said that? I don’t think so. It’s just another assertion. I don’t believe that’s accurate, but obviously that’s something that needs to be studied. And a bird-strike study would be part of any siting permit if they go with the Old Lorena Road site.

Q    When Trib photographer Rod Aydelotte and I toured the current landfill and proposed site, we saw this huge, basin-like cell they were finishing at the current landfill. Is that the final cell?

Stem     There’s one more after that one.

Waco landfill

Preparation continues on one of two new cells at Waco Regional Landfill, which is expected to reach capacity in seven years — perhaps less depending on area growth.

Q    How long does a typical cell last?

Stem     A couple of years — something like that. We have some other filling we can do in spaces where we haven’t reached the permitted elevation. We’ll probably fill this cell and then the other cell and then we’ll be overfilling the spots where we can overfill but not above our permitted elevation.

Q    And the projection we’ve seen from the city is that we’re not going to see any decrease in the amount of trash in the next few years.

Stem     It would be nice if we did.

Q    What’s your diversion rate [for refuse diverted for recycling]?

Stem     It’s like 4 percent, brush and recyclables.

Q    Is that the maximum diversion you can get? I mean, San Francisco has 80 percent. Los Angeles has 72 percent. It seems there’s a lot of room to grow there. We’re not suggesting you’re not ever going to have to build a landfill, but if you have seven years left (with the current landfill), could you expand it to maybe eight or 10 years [through expanded recycling or alternative ways to divert items from the landfill]?

Stem     To make that kind of transition in the time we have left, the impact on capacity would be very minimal. The other thing is that, as you know, our City Council is pretty rate-sensitive [in how much homeowners pay for refuse collection] and we are too as a staff. We’re spending $1.3 million on recycling now and, even when you calculate the savings in space at the landfill, we’re spending $10 for every $1 we’re getting back. So we would have to really increase the cost associated with recycling to try to get that number up and the return just wouldn’t be worth it when you consider the rate impact.

Recycling coordinator Anna Dunbar     Also, we’re not capturing all the diversion because we don’t haul [refuse for] everyone in Waco. We don’t haul Baylor University. They do a lot of diversion. We don’t haul M&M Mars. So there’s a lot of diversion that goes on in the commercial and institutional side—

Q    So 4 percent may actually be an under-reported figure?

Dunbar     Oh, most definitely, it’s a very conservative number.

Deaver     And that’s just residential recycling and brush.

Q    Some of our questions are prompted by Dave Morrow, a retired professor in civil and environmental engineering from California Polytechnic State University who now lives in Waco and has written columns about alternatives to expand the life of landfills. I know he’s been out here. Does he have some good ideas? Or are these useful next time around? I mean, I’m hearing we’ve run out of time in this landfill. But he’s saying to us that alternative options are being done elsewhere.

Deaver     As Wiley says, it’s largely a matter of economics. To what extent are the citizens of Waco willing to subsidize that?

Q    Well, in his last column in the Trib, Dave did acknowledge there is a cost for all this recycling, waste energy and alternative methods.

Deaver     Yes, there’s a tremendous cost to it. We’ve gone out for two RFPs [requests for proposals] on waste energy and have gotten nothing back that wouldn’t require a significant subsidy from the city to make it work. [Note: City officials say the RFPs of 2010 and 2012 yielded proposals too costly and not as effective as needed.] And I think particularly with energy costs being as low as they are right now, it makes it really difficult for that kind of thing to pay. But we certainly need to continue looking at options going into the future and see if there are things that make sense for our city. You talk about California and Los Angeles and San Francisco. They’re really in a very different situation from a real-estate standpoint than we are in Texas [in the sense it’s more difficult to find a 250-acre piece of land in much of California for a suitable landfill].

Former Mayor Malcolm Duncan Jr.     There’s also a cultural standpoint. In Germany, they’re over 95 percent diversion in the whole country because of scarcity [of land]. Wiley had a good name for it [for future refuse disposal]: a “no-fill landfill,” kind of like our no-kill animal shelter target of a few years ago. I think that’s a great goal, but it requires a huge culture change for our citizens, as much as an economic burden.

Deaver     Right. I think that would take decades.

Stem     It’s a huge philosophical shift to go to charging for the size of the container versus the way we do it now. We pick up everything for $14.20 a month.

Q    In your Aug. 6 column, Mayor Duncan, you suggested that the burden of a more remote site [that might or might not require a transfer station and more trucks and overall expense] might hit folks who live in some of the nice neighborhoods on Highway 84 very differently versus some of those who live in, say, the core of Waco Independent School District or are elderly living on fixed incomes.

Duncan     Y’all almost ran me out of town the first year I was on the City Council when I proposed that we charge the people who were doing the most recycling. Remember that? Because the highest use comes from the wealthiest census tracts and ZIP codes. If we really want to change the amount of diversion, we’re going to have to figure out how to incentivize that [habit] without making it an economic burden on the people who are already challenged [in terms of income and quality of life].

Q    Well, recycling can cost a lot of money.

Duncan     It was almost a million [dollars] when we first looked at it six years ago and this is the first I’ve heard that it’s $1.3 million. And that’s just to get 4 percent [diversion]. So just take that number and multiply it times 25 and think about what the budgeting impact will be on your citizenry.

Deaver     One of the main issues is that we don’t have recycling providers here in Waco other than Sunbright that take our material and sort it, so [expanding recycling would mean] hauling this stuff to other locations or paying someone to come and get it. That’s a real challenge we have here where other cities are in better shape.

Duncan     But the economics of recycling have changed, too. They’ve gotten so much worse over the last seven or eight years with the price of oil and gas.

Dunbar     Virgin plastic [a petroleum product] is about the same [in cost] as recycled plastic. Glass, we’re lucky to be able to get rid of glass at the recycling center. [Note: Glass is taken but only at Cobbs Convenience Center.]

Duncan     In a lot of cities you can’t recycle glass.

Q    Probably because the biggest cost of making glass is energy.

Dunbar     Even metals have dropped pretty dramatically. I’m just happy Sunbright is still able to service our one-container system. If you recall, with the early recycling program, you had to separate out everything because most of the labor is in separating everything out.

Q    Some cities have three or four different recycling containers you have to use.

Duncan     A lot of cities mandate that.

Dunbar     California.

Duncan     And New York. It now mandates you have to put your food waste out on the curb and that’s a political challenge.

Q    Food waste out on the curb as opposed to what?

Duncan     Throwing it away, putting it in the landfill or down the disposal. It instead goes to composting and that takes a political will that I’m not sure we would ever be able to do [in Texas].

Q    You’re basically saying a generational shift will be required rather than a shift you can make quickly, at least considering the timeline of the current landfill.

Stem     You’re going to need a new landfill to make that shift.

Q    But will a new landfill really be better set up for future waste-energy endeavors or whatever the future holds in regard to mining landfills?

Stem     We’ve asked our design firm to look at all that, to make sure they’re bringing maybe not the bleeding-edge but certainly some cutting-edge considerations to us to make sure we do the next one with a lot of forethought. A lot of the things they’re talking to us about are the same things that Dave Morrow has written about [in his March 26 and Aug. 19 columns, such as use of bioreactors that accelerate biologic decomposition and use produced methane to generate electricity]. Some of the things he has brought up would seem impractical for us, but they’ll be looking at all that.

Q    Have you looked at any landfill models within driving distance of here that would offer ideas for us?

Stem     City landfill manager David Rydl would be better addressing that, but I want us to develop the landfill. My first concern right now would be that it be as community-friendly as it can be, which to me is an environmental concern. The second thing is that we take into consideration those bioreactor technologies out there and set it up so that, if the technology comes around, it could be a good waste-energy site and it’s practical. Those are the things I would want. But the community impact right now is the biggest thing for me. I would want to see it designed in such a way that you don’t know it’s here — or wherever it’s going to be.

Q    Opponents of the Old Lorena Road landfill site sent me a 17-point list of things they’re concerned about. But what are the main things you’re hearing?

Deaver     The one I keep hearing is the odor problem. I’ve spent a lot of time out here on the trail and on the landfill. The odor from the landfill every time I’m around here is slight to nothing. There is an odor problem out here [in this industrialized region] and we think we have identified it as a sewer gas problem. We just haven’t been able to locate the source of it yet and that is very frustrating to me and very frustrating to Wiley and the city staff, but it is an intermittent problem, which makes it very hard to locate. But it is definitely a sewer smell and not the smell of rotting trash.

Q    I believe I heard even the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality has tried without success to find the source of it.

Stem     TCEQ responds to the complaints and I don’t know how many we’ve had since all this started [with organization of Citizens Against the Highway 84 Landfill]. I mean, we’ve had dozens of inspections by the TCEQ and there hasn’t been anything they’ve detected.

Q    How do they detect this stuff? Do they have human beings or some kind of smell-o-meter system? [Laughter.]

Stem     There are some kinds of systems you can use, but the odor has to be present and these are problematic. We went through the same kind of thing with the dairy industry [and complaints about dairy cattle contaminating area waterways in terms of odor]. You and I have kind of talked about this in the past and we had some partners up there in the [North Bosque] watershed who were heavily complaining about the odor but they could never make any of that work in a serious complaint to the dairies upstream. Well, here we’ve got a 5.4 million-gallon wastewater pumping station which collects all the wastewater coming from the Highway 84 corridor. It’s part of the investment the city made that Mayor Duncan referred to in his column in the Trib. And because we’ve put that out there, we’ve worked real hard to try to get rid of all the septic systems out here. But there are septic systems out here that are not within Waco’s jurisdiction and we don’t know which of those could be malfunctioning. We’ve done some work on that and we continue to try to do some work on that, but we haven’t found anything yet.

Q     If this gets to the point of a contested case hearing, you have to get standing to be part of that. It sounds like smell is a very difficult issue to win a case on. Are there any other issues that particularly affect residents — hypothetical issues even that would affect residents in the landfill area or Highway 84 more than anyone else ?

Deaver     I haven’t really considered that. For me it’s not so much about having standing to fight this, it’s about trying to figure out the right solution. We are continuing to look hard for other sites and we expect to get a report at our second regular council meeting in September on alternate sites. Both prior reports have not given us adequate things to consider, primarily because [landfill consultants] were only looking for sites that were for sale. The original request also considered distance from neighborhoods and that threw it out to where we were going to end up needing a transfer station [involving millions of dollars more in cost], so we came back and asked for something within this 15-mile circle that would preclude us from needing a transfer station. And there was only one site that was for sale. So now we’re going out and looking for sites that are potential sites but that we don’t know whether we can even purchase them.

Q    So the idea of alternate sites is still being studied.

Deaver     Absolutely. That’s the one thing I wanted to make clear about this. The way this whole thing has rolled out has made it difficult for the city to present its case. This thing has been in the works, as I said, for several years to go on the Old Lorena Road site. We passed in August of last year on our consent agenda a budget item to allow the hiring of consultants to begin the permitting process. That went essentially unaddressed by the public. You [J.B. Smith] did a story about Wanda Glaze [who lives along Old Lorena Road and led efforts to oppose the current landfill in the 1990s] being concerned about the new proposed landfill [an account published Aug. 21, 2016], but there was no public response to it at all till March when Councilman Jim Holmes, Wiley, City Manager Dale Fisseler and others went to the neighborhood association meeting.

Q    And that meeting was after we did a story about the [Citizens to Save Lake Waco] lawsuit [alleging that the city violated its 1992 agreement not to expand the site by buying adjacent property with plans to use it as a landfill. City officials say land was originally purchased to bolster the current landfill’s buffer zone, not as a new landfill site].

Deaver     Yes, they missed your story in August. So, from then on, rather than being able to talk about the benefits of this site [on Old Lorena Road], we’ve been studying other sites and we continue to study other sites. But I think it’s important for the public to know why we were moving forward with this site. It was geologically very favorable, it had a good location from a transportation viewpoint and we owned the land and bought it at a favorable price years ago, so there’s a lot of good qualities about the Old Lorena Road site. When we got the public outcry, we said, “OK, let’s look and see if this really is the best site and let’s look at alternatives.”

Q    Contamination of any groundwater and Lake Waco are cited as concerns.

Stem     When you look at the [landfill] cell we are just finishing up, beneath that cell is a layer of compacted clay.

And below that is a plastic liner, and part of that liner is a leachate collection system — a sort of French drain that collects anything that makes it through, any water that makes it through the garbage. [Leachate is a liquid that oozes from a landfill.] And below the liner is more clay — I think about three feet — and then below that, all this is on top of 400 to 600 feet of blue shale, so that’s what makes this a great site. Now when you’re excavating that blue shale to build your cell, it’s a little difficult because you’re getting into fairly hard material. But you’ve got this bowl made of all this stuff with a collection system that won’t let any water overflow out of it — and then laterally, between that and any [underground] water source, you’ve also got hundreds of feet of impervious buffer [in the shale]. So you not only have the liner and the protections above and below it and the collection system, but then you’ve got this shale running laterally away from it to protect anything from going through the walls and getting out.

Dunbar     And then we have groundwater monitoring wells around the perimeter of the landfill.

And the other thing people talk about is stormwater running off from the landfill and that is not true.

Deaver     The stormwater is diverted around the landfill.

Q    Well, I can see people wondering if, with all this rain lately, it will fall on a new landfill and run off into the Bosque which feeds into Lake Waco, our water supply. I mean, it’s a reasonable fear.

Stem     We have a very small working face of trash [an open landfill section where garbage is being placed], about four-tenths of an acre, open at any one time. They cover that every day. And all the other trash is covered. So if it rains, anything that was to come into contact with the working face or garbage is going into a retention control structure. Anything that runs off the covered garbage would hit a storm drainage system and go into a retention control structure.

Q    You mean a pond.

Stem     We can’t throw trash out on the ground and let rainwater run through it into the creeks. We are not allowed to do that. And TCEQ will not approve a permit that allows for that and they will not allow you to operate a landfill if you’re doing that. They will shut you down. So the safeguards are in place.


Workers prepare a new cell at Waco Regional Landfill, which is expected to reach capacity in about seven years. City officials said they have been well aware of a floodplain and flowage easement on the proposed site for a new landfill since the city bought the property.

Q    At the March meeting at Harris Creek Baptist Church, the suggestion by some was that the city kind of secretly assembled this land and now is moving forward with a new landfill on a legal technicality about its being a new site, not an expansion.

Deaver     I took a lot of time to think about this question when I became mayor because we had a meeting with Mrs. Glaze and her attorney. And her attorney said to me, “The city needs to keep its word.” I wanted to understand what he meant by that. So I asked for and received a copy of the settlement agreement and transcript and audio recording of the council meeting where the council approved that agreement. That agreement was reached with Mrs. Glaze in 1992 after about five years of litigation. You need to see the settlement agreement, because there’s obviously an ongoing lawsuit about all this now. That lawsuit will probably determine whether this [proposed landfill site] would be a breach [of the agreement]. But there’s a question of integrity on the city’s part that was my primary concern. One of the lines in the settlement agreement says that the city agrees never to expand 948A, the permit number for this landfill. At the [1992] meeting where the council considered authorizing the city manager to sign this agreement, LaNelle McNamara, who was on the council, asked [Mayor] Bob Sheehy — and I’m paraphrasing the wording from the transcript, which you need to see — “I just want to understand that this motion, this motion to approve the agreement, would not prevent a future council from putting another landfill even in the same area. It just couldn’t expand 948A.” And Mayor Sheehy said, “Well, obviously we’re not trying to bind future councils from putting [in] another landfill,” and she said, “With that understanding that this would not prevent future councils from putting a landfill even in the same area, I approve the motion.” He then asked for any other discussion, there was none and they voted unanimously to approve the agreement. When I look at that and I look at what an expansion of 948A means and the context under which the council of 1992 considered it and understood it, I don’t believe the council in 2016-2017 was doing anything different than they contemplated we would do at the time. If this looked like the best area to put another landfill, then we would permit a new landfill in that area. I simply don’t see it as a breach of that agreement.

Q    So when you run across someone who says, “I thought you weren’t going to expand this,” what’s your response?

Deaver     My response is, “It’s not an expansion.” An expansion is a very specific term within the workings of the TCEQ. I understand this is not a position that landfill opponents want to hear because it doesn’t meet their agenda. Honestly, that is another one of those items that really bothers me because I think we have city management that acts with integrity and the council has tried to do the right thing on this, so that aspect has given me a lot of concern.

Q    What percentage of total waste that comes into our landfill is generated within the city of Waco?

Stem     Put commercial and residential together, it’s somewhere around 80 percent.

Deaver     But less than 5 percent comes from outside McLennan County and that brings up a pretty important point. TCEQ wants and it makes sense for us to have a regional landfill rather than having lots of little landfills all over the place where each city has to deal with this. [Note: The landfill serves an 11-county region.]

Q    Traffic is another area of concern with new schools, subdivisions, businesses springing up along Highway 84. How does a new landfill, if located next to the current one, impact that? [Note: City officials say the landfill gets between 400 and 500 trucks a day, including private individuals using the site. The landfill receives 1,700 tons of trash a day; it was 1,200 tons five years ago.]

Stem     The trucks coming here are just going to start going to the new site, so it’s no increase because we changed sites. There may be an increase because of growth but not because we changed sites.

Interview conducted by Trib staff writer J.B. Smith, Editor Steve Boggs and opinion editor Bill Whitaker. It has been condensed and edited for clarity and space.