By Terri Hall
December 21, 2017
Despite local opposition from landowners, elected officials, residents, and environmentalists, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ, the Texas version of the EPA), is continuing its consideration of a permit for a toxic waste landfill outside Laredo in a 100-year floodplain, despite the risks of doing so as the nation witnessed when similar toxic waste polluted floodwaters after Hurricane Harvey — a 100 year flood. The proposed landfill would also traverse a creek that’s an immediate tributary to the Rio Grande River.
The company seeking the permit is Rancho Viejo Waste Management, managed by Carlos ‘C.Y.’ Benavides III, who also happens to be the former owner of the failed Camino Colombia Toll Road, Texas’ first private toll road that went bankrupt in 2004. Camino Colombia was one of the first Texas toll roads to have the tolls completely removed, which wouldn’t have happened without Benavides’ failed venture.
But unlike a toll road that fails where the public gets the road back for pennies on the dollar, a toxic waste landfill has repercussions that inflict irreparable harm to life, property, and health for generations. Sadly, Texas has become the repository for the nation’s nuclear waste, thanks to Harold Simmons, the now deceased owner of Waste Control Specialists (WCS), who paid over $1.5 million in campaign contributions to former Governor Rick Perry, Lt. Gov David Dewhurst, and Speaker Joe Straus to buy his way into passing favorable legislation to make it happen.
Simmons’ nuclear waste facility in Andrews County near the New Mexico border was just the tip of the iceberg. At the beginning of the year, WCS applied for permission to store up to 40 tons of high-level nuclear waste from power plants, but WCS put its application on hold in April due to financial problems in order to focus on a potential merger with its biggest rival. A federal court blocked the merger arguing it would violate antitrust law and create a monopoly.
Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton sued the U.S. Energy Department among other federal agencies, over the potential for more nuclear waste coming to Texas, an agency that ironically is now run by Perry. Paxton expressed displeasure that the feds are “subjecting ‘the public and the environment to potential dangerous risks from radioactive waste’.”
So this toxic waste landfill in Laredo seems an awful lot like round two of Texans being on the receiving end of lax environmental regulation and too many politicians willing to look the other way.
Opponents argue the Pescadito Environmental Resource Center, Benavides’ proposed industrial landfill, isn’t even needed. The current capacity of existing landfills in Laredo is sufficient for the next 138 years, according to the South Texas Council of Governments. So adding to the public’s scrutiny of the proposed landfill are the rumblings of accepting waste from other states and even other countries, like neighboring Mexico. The waste could seep or spill into wells or waterways. The marked increase in flooding events makes a 100-year flood much more likely and contamination a much bigger threat.
The permit initially sought to use 660 acres of a 950 acre site, but a revised application reduced that to 72 acres for the actual waste disposal. However, opponents point to the fact the permit failed to reduce the total size of the landfill down from the original 950 acres. This is typical ploy use by developers seeking wastewater permits from the TCEQ. Lowball the amount you plan to use in your initial permit application and then come in later when the heat is off and expand the boundaries.
Many hurdles have to be overcome before the final approvals would give the green light, including federal approval from the Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA), state approval from TCEQ, and local approval from Webb County’s floodplain administration office. Webb County denied the permit sought by Rancho Viejo Waste Management earlier this year. Benavides responded by suing the floodplain administrator. That lawsuit was later dropped. However, Benavides has promised to continue to pursue approval from Webb County, presumably until he gets it.
FEMA just approved it. So now it falls to the state and local governments to ultimately decide whether or not this toxic waste will be dumped, not only in a floodplain and near waterways, but also near minority-dominated, economically distressed areas. A cousin to Benavides is locked in a dispute over the flood prevention structures encroaching on his adjacent property and possibly diverting stormwater onto his property and others.
According to the TCEQ permit application, the site would receive Class 1 waste, toxic though not officially deemed as hazardous waste. It could include industrial sludge and waste from power plants. However, a 2017 TCEQ Report states such waste could “pose a substantial danger to human health or the environment.” However, all the developer has to show is an engineering design and analysis of proposed structures to remove the site out of the actual floodplain. Surrounding impacts or down stream impacts do not factor as part of TCEQ's consideration.
As TCEQ does with so many permits drawing criticism, controversy, and opposition, it merely checks off the boxes on its applications and rubber stamps permits claiming as long as all the boxes get checked, they have no reason to reject the permits. State law is so weak in its oversight over a host of environmental hazards from wastewater to toxic waste sites like Benavides’, it’s abundantly clear to those who care about property rights that something must be done to put more teeth into TCEQ’s permit approval process and give those impacted by a developer’s proposed project more say in nixing permits that could harm them and their neighbors, or create hazards and contamination of a community’s air and water quality.
Senator Judith Zaffirini, Vice Chair of the Senate's Natural Resources and Economic Development Committee, shared her concerns about the project in a letter to TCEQ citing ‘grave concerns’ and stating it’s “inexplicable that the TCEQ would permit a toxic waste landfill in a floodplain.” TCEQ then argued it’s not uncommon for the permit boundary to exceed the waste disposal area.
She told the Texas Tribune (https://www.texastribune.org/2017/12/19/after-harvey-some-south-texans-more-wary-ever-about-plan-build-landfil/), “These examples hardly are comparable to the proposed [Rancho Viejo Waste Management] landfill whose permitted boundary would be a whopping 13.2 times larger than the waste disposal area. The Committee is tasked with studying waste disposal issues and prepare recommendations for the legislature when it comes into session in 2019.