Toxic Dump Delayed by Coronavirus and TCEQ

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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 and The Washington Post says the disaster could swamp the government agency now in charge of the disaster, FEMA.

That could affect another health fight in Webb County.

Opponents of the proposed Pescadito toxic waste dump rejoiced last year when new FEMA flood maps showed the dump couldn’t be put in the new floodplain. Then the Laredo businessman behind the dump, Carlos Benavides, challenged the maps and sought a delay in a planned State Office of Administrative Hearings fight in July in Austin.

Webb County argued against a delay, fearing evidence in the already nine-year old garbage battle would become “stale with each additional delay and uncertainty.”  SOAH judges delayed the fight until after the flood map battle is over, and with coronavirus that could keep frightened residents worried for a lot longer.

“SOAH’s actions and the TCEQ’s failure to end this dangerous garbage permit is simply a slap in the face to the people of Webb County,” says Wayne Dolcefino, President of the Houston based investigative media firm Dolcefino Consulting. “FEMA says this place will flood and spread toxic trash all over the place and that should be good enough for Texas environmental agencies, period. Why are they so dead set on helping someone potentially endanger the lives of our fellow Texans?”

Dolcefino Consulting has been leading the charge to investigate the process for approving controversial garbage dumps in Texas. Our latest investigation questions whether SOAH can even be considered an “independent forum” anymore. 

SOAH is the state agency communities go to when they want to fight initial permits issued by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.  The Dolcefino Consulting investigation examined the applications of SOAH judges and found 13 of them used to work for the very agency they are now supposed to overrule, including one of the SOAH judges in the Laredo fight. Administrative Law Judge Stephanie Frazee worked for the TCEQ from September 2008 through the time she applied to be an ALJ with SOAH in 2014. While at the TCEQ, Frazee lists representing the Executive Director in enforcement cases in her experience.

In fact, nearly one-third of the SOAH judges currently sitting in Austin have previously worked for the TCEQ. Half of the judges on the Natural Resource Team at SOAH were previously employed by the TCEQ.

Thousands of Webb County families, some living in colonias without basic services, will now have to worry not just about the global outbreak of the Coronavirus, but the long-term health effects of a possible dangerous dump.

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.

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

FEMA is busy with the Coronavirus fight. The TCEQ should end the toxic dump Pescadito fight.