Austin, a City Sitting on Old Garbage
By David Barer
For Reporting Texas
AUSTIN – They hide in plain sight, beneath vacant lots or neighborhood parks. Decades-old trash dumps dot the Austin area, holding everything from banana peels to microwaves and, in one case, medical test monkeys buried in plastic bags.
Many old landfills around Austin operated before stringent regulations existed. Materials placed in those dumps were not divided into hazardous and non-hazardous groups, nor did they use plastic liners to stop the spread of toxic materials or plastic caps to close inactive landfills.
The inactive landfills date back more than 80 years in some cases. They are often positioned near creek beds, parks and aquifers. Yet few Austinites, including city officials, know exactly where the landfills are or what they contain.
“There’s somewhere in the neighborhood of about 70 or so landfills that we know of. There are probably others that we don’t know of,” said Chuck Lesniak, environmental program manager for the City of Austin.
City officials know, through anecdotal information, the general location of most inactive landfills, but there has never been enough evaluation to know exactly where old dumps are buried.
Zilker, Mabel Davis, Pace Bend and Ben Fisher are all Austin area parks that sit above landfills. The waste beneath those parks is capped with plastic to contain the aging garbage, but caps and liners don’t always work.
Mabel Davis Park, in southeast Austin, was closed in 2000 for five years when lead and pesticide contamination was found in the soil, according to a City of Austin webpage. The city spent more than $10 million dollars decontaminating and recapping the waste.
“The plastic is not that impressive. It can be easily penetrated,” said Robin Schneider, executive director of the Texas Campaign for the Environment, describing the landfill liner and cap material.
Landfills now follow EPA regulations that date to 1976. These regulations were created to improve containment of landfills and to differentiate between hazardous and non-hazardous waste. A normal city landfill takes non-hazardous material such as household garbage. Industrial solid waste (chemicals, plastics, steel and iron), must use special plastic liners to contain toxic materials.
Two landfills operating off Giles Road in northeast Austin, the BFI and Waste Management landfills, have areas where hazardous materials like acids and solvents were allegedly dumped before 1976, when the garbage pits had no plastic liners.
The Northeast Neighbors Coalition is suing the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality over permits allowing the expansion of one of those landfills, Waste Management’s Austin Community Landfill.
Pretrial testimony from Alto Nauert, a plumber who has lived nearby for 39 years and occasionally did contract work at the landfills in the early 1970s, alleges that tank loads of acid were poured into unlined pits. In testimony, Nauert said he saw bubbling acid begin evaporating and form “acid fog.”
“I never got burned, but I got my clothes eaten off me one or two times,” Nauert said in testimony transcripts provided by the Blackburn & Carter law firm.
“The fluid flowed out of the back of that truck and hit the bottom of that fence, and fumes come up and went south, and when they went south, normally it blows north, the tree out there, just – it just deleafed it. … I mean, just disappeared,” Nauert said. “And the barb wire, it went just like it was nothing.”
In another instance, Nauert testified, he saw an 18-wheeler loaded with leaking barrels. The liquid was eating away the truck’s tires and made it too dangerous to unload so workers drove it straight into the landfill and buried it whole.
The neighbors’ coalition is suing the TCEQ for permitting expansion of the Waste Management landfill while it still allegedly contains areas with toxic contamination that have never been removed or studied.
Jim Blackburn and Mary Carter of Blackburn & Carter are representing the coalition. Their aim is to block the TCEQ’s permit, claiming landfill expansion could aggravate the old, toxic waste and harm humans and the environment.
The TCEQ is wrong legally and “definitely wrong from a public safety standpoint,” Blackburn said. “Being morally right and fighting against the TCEQ” go “hand in hand,” he added.
Several Austin landmarks sit on top of inactive landfills: St. Stephen’s Episcopal School, the new Mueller planned subdivision and Austin-Bergstrom International Airport. The City of Austin has cleaned out several inactive landfills on property it owns.
A small landfill in the Barton Creek Greenbelt generated publicity in late 2011, when the city decided to dig it out. The trash dates to the 1920s. Erosion had exposed the waste to Barton Creek, prompting the city to take action. That old dump was small and close to the surface, making for a relatively easy cleanup, but it will cost about $1.2 million. Larger and deeper inactive landfills are usually left alone.
“For a lot of these the most simple thing to do or the most cost effective thing to do is to just cap them, rather than dig them up and haul it all away,” said Lesniak. “It’s a lot less disruptive, it’s a lot less expensive and you can deal with a lot of the environmental risks that way.”
A 2004 inactive landfill evaluation done by the Capital Area Council of Governments, CAPCOG, after the discovery of contamination in Mabel Davis Park, highlights several instances of exposed garbage.
One landfill in particular stood out in the evaluation, Grove No. 8 near Riverside Road and Pleasant Valley Road. It had an array of environmental hazards: a poorly maintained liner cap, potential for migration of water that had passed through old waste, illegal dumping near a residential area and a ponding area that overflows into the Colorado River.
The Turner Landfill, near U.S. Highway 183 and Loyola Lane, sits next to a quiet neighborhood.
“We used to go back there and throw the football. I never knew there was a landfill,” said Clarence Taplin, who shares a fence with the Turner landfill. He had always wondered why the ground had craters in it.
D.W. Pennick has lived beside the Turner landfill since 1975 and had vaguely heard about it.
Balcones Medical Research Center near Braker Lane and MoPac (Loop 1), now an industrial zone, used its onsite landfill to dispose of dead experimental monkeys.
At its height in the 1950s, the research center housed more than 700 monkeys and exposed them to a variety of conditions including radiation, according to a 1975 Alcalde report. Balcones’ most famous test subject was a rhesus monkey named Sam; he was one of the first animals sent into space.
When the monkeys died, they were put in plastic bags and buried in a group of landfills in a field behind the research facility. But now the exact whereabouts of the monkey carcasses, within the fields, are unknown. According to a survey of inactive landfills created by the council of governments in 2004:
“Balcones Research had attempted to determine the location of the landfill containing research monkey waste that was referenced [in an earlier report.] To date, Balcones does not know where the location of this landfill might have been.”