Austin-based startup GrubTubs is denying that it violated Buda’s newly adopted odor regulations.
The startup, which composts food waste to produce animal feed, had until Aug. 7 to respond to complaints from the city of Buda that it had violated an expanded odor nuisance ordinance that the City Council approved in May.
David Marino, Buda's director of communications, wrote in a text message that GrubTubs' attorney submitted a letter of representation and a plea of "not guilty" to the city's municipal court on the day of the deadline.
Though the company is headquartered in Austin, it conducts its composting on a farm located just outside Buda’s city limits, across the street from the Whispering Hollow neighborhood on Old Black Colony Road.
About a year after GrubTubs started operating the farming and composting facility in April 2018, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality began receiving complaints about odors. The city of Buda began hearing informal complaints from Whispering Hollow residents in the months before City Council approved an updated odor nuisance ordinance May 7, 2019.
In short, the new ordinance expands the city’s jurisdiction of its odor nuisance code to 5,000 feet past city limits.
City Attorney George Hyde emphasized that the Buda's updated odor nuisance ordinance does not “target” GrubTubs, but he said the change was spurred by complaints made by residents.
“The complaints that the citizens of the city had were heard by the City Council, and the City Council responded by developing a law that would protect them,” he said.
In part because of the updated ordinance, Buda city officials met with GrubTubs executives in June about eight code compliance violations regarding smell coming from the farm.
“Because it’s a new law, we didn’t want to just hammer these people; we wanted to treat them the way that we want to be treated,” Hyde said.
About two weeks after their June meeting, GrubTubs submitted a Continuous Quality Improvement Report for the city’s review, but Hyde said the city received more than 50 resident complaints about odor around the same time, leading to the city calling the company to court.
“After 50 complaints over that time period, it was no longer something we could just try to get them into compliance with,” Hyde said.
GrubTubs’ social mission is to reduce the amount of food waste in landfills, which it does by composting food waste from restaurants and grocery stores into material that can be used to grow grubs, or fly larvae. Adult grubs are sold as animal feed, which the company promotes as an affordable option for farmers.
“It’s really a logistics problem that we’re trying to solve—to keep food waste out of the trash and, in turn, help farmers,” GrubTubs Director of Marketing Stephanie Hicks said.
The company has won several recognitions and in January was accepted into Chipotle’s accelerator program, which aims to help food-related startups grow their businesses.
GrubTubs Chief Operation Officer Peter Black said the company had been expecting Buda to respond to its proposed plans for addressing odor violations when the city issued its order to appear in court.
“It’s a little surprising that we didn’t get feedback on our plan before we were pulled into court,” Black said.
Included in the company’s report were plans that had been implemented by GrubTubs both before and after its June meeting with city officials. Among those actions were: moving a portion of its composting process into an enclosed greenhouse and added methods for reducing odor-causing bacteria.
In its report, the company stated that it was considering implementing “various channels to reach out to the Buda community and neighborhoods” to better communicate its mission of helping small farmers. GrubTubs also told the city that it would be open to starting a hotline for questions and concerns.
Despite the efforts described in the report, Hyde said Buda city officials feel that GrubTubs failed to work diligently to “remediate and mitigate” issues surrounding odor.
“We look at prosecuting people for violations as something that is necessary, but we don’t necessarily want to do that unless that’s the only step left,” Hyde said.
Hays County and the TCEQ each conducted separate investigations into the GrubTubs farm in response to local complaints. None of the county’s inspections were odor-related.
A TCEQ spokesperson told Community Impact Newspaper that the agency had received “about 50 complaints” regarding the GrubTubs farm, the earliest of which was received in December. Complaints that were received after Buda’s expanded odor ordinance were relayed to city officials.
The agency conducted three on-site investigations in response. Reports for the first two investigations have been made public, while the third, which took place July 9, is still under review.
According to reports for the two initial investigations, which took place March 15 and June 11, the company was not hit with any odor nuisance violations by the state environmental agency.
GrubTubs, however, did receive violations related to its placement of composting piles, and it was also cited for inadequately mixing and covering “putrescible material.”
“During an investigation conducted on March 15, 2019, it was observed that the compost had been inadequately processed to prevent odors and vectors because it had been poorly mixed, leaving rotting food on the surface, which was not covered with adequate amounts of cover,” the TCEQ report states.
Black said all violations related to potential odor have been resolved by the company.
Robert Olivier, founder and CEO of GrubTubs, said the company did not reach out to Buda city officials before opening the composting operation, as the property had previously been a farm.
“We gave a 30-day notice to the neighbors that we were going to apply for a compost permit at our farm; that’s what is required according to TCEQ laws and regulations; and all this was done in 2018,” Olivier said.
As for the city of Buda’s expanded odor regulations, both Olivier and Black said the company was only notified of the ordinance after changes were adopted by the City Council.
“Nobody reached out to us,” Black said. “And similarly, we still have not heard back on the [mitigation] plans.”