Taking A Dump On Coronavirus

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The health scare will likely further delay the fight over a proposed toxic waste dump in Laredo. It hasn’t stopped the legal fight over the dump in Caldwell County even though the planned tower of trash already has new owners.

Like every other town in Texas, the headlines on the local news in Laredo are all about Coronavirus. The local hospital won’t allow visitors anymore. The Washington Post says the disaster could swamp the government agency now in charge of the disaster, FEMA. And there’s a big ripple effect in that for Laredo.

The bitter fight over a planned toxic waste dump east of town has been going on for 9 years almost to the day.

On the back porch of her Webb County ranch last year, Sharon Jordan worried what damage could be done by the coal ash that could someday become her neighbor.

“It’s devastating. It’s devastating. It ruins everything,” said Sharon Jordan. 

That’s why opponents of the landfill rejoiced when new FEMA flood maps last year showed the dump couldn’t be put in the new floodplain.

The Laredo businessman behind the dump challenged those FEMA maps, sought a delay in the planned July fight in Austin over the permit.

Webb County wanted the State Office of Administrative Hearings to just say no to a delay, end this thing. The county has already spent $60,000 in legal fees.

Other dump opponents complained the evidence would “become stale with each additional delay and uncertainty.”

But the two State Office of Administrative Hearings judges put the entire fight on hold until FEMA rules on the flood map appeal.

With the Coronavirus outbreak, who knows how long that will take? SOAH is supposed to be the place you go fight TCEQ rulings, but we’ve confirmed that one of those judges used to work for the TCEQ.

So now thousands of Webb County families, some living in colonias, will be worried about the fate of their long-term health and not just the Coronavirus.

“My husband has, it’s really, it’s, it’s broken his heart. It really has. He just never envisioned this kind of thing,” Jordan said.

Texas courtrooms may be closed but the fight over the proposed Green Group dump near Caldwell County is far from over. If built, it’ll be the tallest thing in the whole county.

“It will be the first thing that everybody sees. Welcome to Lockhart,” said Jodie Friedrich.

Now dump opponents have just asked the Third Court of Appeals in Austin to rule that both SOAH and the TCEQ got it dead wrong when they approved the controversial garbage company permit. The 505-page motion claims SOAH judges ignored critical evidence that engineers working for Green Group had destroyed critical soil records, spoliated evidence. The TCEQ made a mistake of approving a dump right next to a high-hazard dam.

“If it fails, the fallout is measured in lives, homes, and severe economic loss.”

“We’ve said all along the TCEQ is just kind of a rubber stamp organization,” said Byron Friedrich.

And both SOAH and TCEQ knew Caldwell County had a siting ordinance that was passed just to stop this particular dump.

“We’re done sir,” said Caldwell County Judge Hoppy Haden.

It’s become the Caldwell County Judge doesn’t plan to enforce that ordinance. Hoppy Haden ran as a dump opponent but hasn’t mentioned the Green Group dump publicly at a meeting ever since.

“Well, aren’t you concerned the county is going to be sued for not enforcing your siting ordinance?” asked Wayne Dolcefino.

“Well, we don’t have a siting ordinance that pertains to them as far as, as far as I know,” Haden said. 

“Okay, and who gave you that information? Did you ask the County Attorney for that legal opinion?” Dolcefino asked.

“You’ll have to ask the county attorney that question,” Haden said.

We did. Haden’s never asked for even a legal opinion to try and stop the 17-story tall tower of trash he claimed he opposed. And now the ongoing legal fight is shining a new light on SOAH.

“Created to serve as an independent forum…”

But has it instead become a rubber stamp for TCEQ? There are lots of connections. One of the SOAH judges in the Laredo case is Stephanie Frazee. Where did she work before, she ruled on fights with the TCEQ? The TCEQ.

And that’s where Kerrie Qualtrough worked too. The TCEQ, for seven years. She was one of the SOAH judges in the Caldwell County case, giving Green Group the green light despite destroyed evidence. 

Before the TCEQ Qualtrough was a lobbyist at a law firm called Potts & Reilly. She lobbied the TCEQ and one of her clients was Merco Joint Venture. State lobby records show payments up to 100 grand to her in just one year.

Green Group may have a troubled record now in Texas but Merco did back in the nineties. There was tons of controversy when the TCEQ lobbied by Qualtrough allowed Merco to dump New Yorkers’ biosolids, a fancy word for poop, near the town of Sierra Blanca, Texas. An early partner of Merco was even linked to the mob.

“We’re deeply rooted here. We don’t want to leave. This is our home. And I want people to know we won’t allow companies to contaminate us,” said Sierra Blanca activist Bill Addington.

In 1999, Merco admitted it had spread sludge from New York that had not been properly treated for pathogens near Sierra Blanca.

“So maybe destroying soil records, well it’s just not that big of a deal to the folks at the TCEQ anymore. And that’s exactly why these Caldwell County residents are still fighting in the courts,” Dolcefino said.

The Caldwell County residents are fighting alone. Judge Haden has even refused to hold a public hearing to update the community.

“Okay, will you have a public hearing during the day?” Dolcefino asked.

“Over what?” Haden said.

Maybe this breaking news Judge. At a Lockhart City Council meeting we learned the dump, aka 130 Environmental Park, would no longer be owned by Green Group but by a two-year-old company called Integrated Waste Solutions Group.

“Are there any other projects IWSG has currently undergone in the last 3 years or so?” 

“This is the first one. I will tell you that unfortunately until the transaction is completed, I have not intimate knowledge of everything that they have going on,” said Mike Lavengco, the man who will be the new President and CEO of IWSG.

So, who does? The company told us what dump sites they own was none of our business. But thank goodness we have the environmental watchdogs at the TCEQ. Oh, wait a second. The rules say the TCEQ will let a permit change names without even a required investigation of the new owners. Really? We won’t. 

We did learn Green Group will still have a minority share of the proposed new dump deal. And their government relations guy, Alfonso Sifuentes, well he’s part of the team.

“Obviously Alfonso’s, is local, and all of the folks involved,” Lavengco said.

We also saw the news that Green Group just got named business of the year by the Greater Caldwell Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.

“I don’t want be a fly in the big celebration but has anyone mentioned that there are actually more than 200 Hispanic-owned companies in Caldwell County. How come they didn’t win?

Even the Chamber admits this was about something else, money. Green Group has donated up to $8,000 this year, they tell us. And that’s what some garbage companies do when they show up in a new town. Spread a little green to help the folks forget about the environmental dangers an unneeded dump will bring.

They ignore that questionable engineering, the destruction of the test results that would have showed if the ground is even fit for a dump, especially ear an aquifer.

And ignore that dam next door that’s already been damaged by floods. Maybe the folks who live near the dump just don’t pay dues to the Chamber of Commerce.

“You know, it is just bad for everybody if this trash were to come in and just take over. You know, it would be bad for everybody,” said resident Felix Christian.

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