Amid growing rancor from some audience members, officials from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality on Wednesday responded to more than 20 wide-ranging questions about the Blue Ridge Landfill.
“I understand the frustration everyone has. I am equally frustrated. I have been working on this thing myself for quite some time, and we’re going to continue to work on it,” said state Rep. Ed Thompson, who organized the town hall at Shadow Creek High School.
Eight state and regional TCEQ officials sat on the panel alongside Pearland City Council Member Trent Perez, who spoke on behalf of the city. Answered questions were submitted in advance, which was designed to give officials time to research and prepare complete answers, Thompson said.
For TCEQ to hold a community meeting for an enforcement action is almost unheard of, said Bryan Sinclair, director of TCEQ’s enforcement division. In his 14-year career, he said he has only seen it twice.
“It’s really important to hear what people are thinking and what they want to know about,” he said.
Here are some takeaways from the event.
1. The city of Pearland says it does not have many options.
While most of the city’s trash does not go to Blue Ridge, the city cannot prevent its contractor, West Management, from taking some to the landfill under “swap agreements” that waste companies have with multiple landfills, Perez said. The city explored amending the terms of its contract to remove this option, but it would have resulted in an excessive increase in the service fees charged by Waste Management, Perez said.
When it comes to development, the city also cannot prevent new homes from being built or improved near the landfill because state law prohibits such a moratorium unless there is a significant cause, such as insufficient infrastructure, he said.
2. A permanent fix is not going to come easily if at all.
“There’s no one thing that is going to be this magic key that switches off odors,” Sinclair said. “Any landfill … it’s having an odor control plan, a way of doing business that’s effective at preventing nuisance odor and minimizing any off-site odor.”
If implemented fully and correctly, the odor control plan can greatly reduce or eliminate the odor problem, he said.
3. Another TCEQ investigation is underway, and the agency has an ongoing presence in the area.
TCEQ Area Director Kelly Keel Linden said she could not give specific answers to several questions because another odor-related investigation is underway. A report from that investigation is expected by the end of June or in July, she said.
“We will continue to assess compliance with applicable state and federal rules, and we’ll continue to enforce the provisions of the odor control plan,” Linden said. “We have been conducting weekly odor surveys in the last year in response to complaints, with the exception of a few weeks post- and pre-Hurricane Harvey. … We are conducting investigations every other week in response to complaints.”
Since April, when the odor control plan was approved, the agency has received almost 400 complaints.
4. Blue Ridge’s improvements are not yet fully implemented.
Republic Services, the owner of the landfill, has said it has spent $7 million towards improvements, including installing 130 gas-collection wells, but these improvements may not be fully completed, officials said.
“They are still implementing things they planned to have in place by June. I can only guess the $7 million they spent is still being constructed,” said Chance Goodin, manager for TCEQ’s Municipal Solid Waste Permits department.
5. Blue Ridge has said it is only one source of potential odors. One other nearby facility has been cited by TCEQ.
“They agreed to settle the violation, they agreed to pay a penalty and do corrective actions, but they did not agree that they had violated anything,” Sinclair said. “In every meeting we have had with them though, they acknowledge, what they say is, there’s a lot of odor sources … and they may be responsible for some of them, but they’re not responsible for all of them … that’s what they’ve said.”
The only other company to be cited is Syntech Chemicals Inc., located on Hooper Road near Kirby Drive north of the Shadow Creek Ranch neighborhood. It received a notice of enforcement in August in response to an odor issue, which is in the process of being addressed, Regional Director Nicole Bealle said.
6. There are no immediate health risks associated with the odor.
Landfills produce hundreds of types of gases, said Tracie Phillips, a toxicologist with TCEQ. The most common gases are carbon dioxide and methane, with small amounts of sulfides, which are associated with the smell.
“Odorous levels are not necessarily harmful levels,” Phillips said. “Hydrogen sulfide and other sulfide compounds can be smelled at much lower concentrations than those at which adverse health effects occur.”
That said, it could still be irritating to people depending on the strength and duration of exposure to the odor and can trigger headaches and nausea.
7. Many questions remain to be answered.
Thompson hinted that another forum could be arranged if needed.
“This doesn’t have to be the last time that we do this,” Thompson said.
Audience members jotted down questions and submitted them at the end of the forum. Thompson said all of the questions will be submitted to TCEQ and answered in an “FAQ-style” format posted online.
Questions can be directed to the representative at 281-485-6565 or Ed.Thompson@house.texas.gov.