Investigations

TxDOT: Dumping of sludge, debris lasted years at Dripping Springs site

DRIPPING SPRINGS, Texas (KXAN) - Texas Department of Transportation workers cleaned out black sludge and emptied sediments removed from hazardous material traps “for years” on the ground near Dripping Springs, and the agency had no policies for disposing of those materials, according to an investigation report obtained by KXAN.

Using stationary game cameras, KXAN first exposed TxDOT workers in February dumping on the state right-of-way located on the north side of US 290 in Hays County. At the time, we discovered a pool of black sludge, dozens of rotting animals strewn across the ground and piles of dirt laced with trash.

TxDOT’s investigation report sheds new light on activities at the dumpsite, such as the origin of the dirt and garbage piles, chemicals in the oily sludge and potential violations of TxDOT’s operations manual. In recent days, TxDOT workers have returned with a large excavator to dig out portions of the dump.

KXAN watched the excavation Tuesday. With each scoop, the excavator appeared to expose more garbage dumped at the site. We saw pieces of tires being dislodged, as well as household garbage, like bungee cords, shoes, Christmas ornaments and cellphone cases in the dumpsite soil.

KXAN first caught wind of the dump through a tip from Dripping Springs local Jimi Lovejoy. He was drawn to check on the area, when he saw vultures circling it. He drove off the highway and behind a grove of cedar trees to find a dumpsite littered with dead animals and “reeking of death.”

“It’s illegal to dump this stuff. If I dumped it, I would be fined and probably go to jail for the first night,” Lovejoy said in an interview Tuesday. “For me and you, it’s ‘Don’t Mess with Texas.’ But, for TxDOT…they can do whatever they want.”

TxDOT spokesperson Diann Hodges said the materials tested at the dumpsite are "non-hazardous," and they are being removed and properly disposed of. In February, Randy Hopmann, director of district operations, said TxDOT would start a systemic, statewide review to make sure all the districts in the state follow disposal guidelines.

In its report, TxDOT identified the black sludge as MC-800, a cool weather asphalt product mixed with a “kerosene-type solvent." KXAN found a pool dug into the bare ground with gallons of MC-800 in it. For more than a month, TxDOT workers left the sludge sitting in the pool and oozing into a ravine within the sensitive Edwards Aquifer recharge zone.

Albert Brieno, a supervisor at the south Travis County maintenance office, told TxDOT investigators he directed two workers to use the dumpsite to clean leftover MC-800 from a tack distributor machine. One employee said they used the dumpsite “for several years to clean out the distributor and train TxDOT employees” to use it, the report states. But while the report says workers cleaned the machine out for years at the site, Hodges said TxDOT believes the tack distributor cleanout was an "isolated incident."

Brieno declined to comment on the dump when KXAN visited the site. 

It is not clear how much of the chemicals have been dumped or how many years this has been happening.

TxDOT said it “did not have written policies and procedures addressing the disposal of excess roadway materials such as MC-800,” according to the report.

Lovejoy said it seems “crazy” that the state agency wouldn’t have policies for disposing leftover oil and debris from detention ponds.

“If policies and procedures aren’t in place, that means employees across the state of Texas could likely be doing the same thing,” Lovejoy said.

The TxDOT report also says workers used the dumpsite to discard sediments removed from hazardous material traps (HMTs) in area detention ponds. The traps capture stormwater debris from roadway projects and stop it from getting into waterways, according to the report. TxDOT did not have policies in place for the disposal of that sediment, according to the report.

KXAN found piles of what appeared to be the hazardous material trap debris piled alongside a drainage ravine that ultimately leads to Onion Creek.

"HMT’s, just like storm water basins, collect sediment and trash that washes from the roadways during storm events," Hodges said in an email. "The material at this site appears to be the material that was collected from the storm water basins through periodic maintenance and did not contain hazardous materials."

Workers also discarded dead animals at the site for years, according to the report. Multiple employees said they were aware the dead animals could be taken to a landfill, but they didn’t do that because “a purchase order was not in place to cover the cost, and the recurring use of a TxDOT issued purchase card for disposal would violate the PCard policy,” the report states.

KXAN asked why no purchase order was put in place to use the landfill and why workers thought it was appropriate to dump MC-800 on the ground. TxDOT said it "cannot speculate on previous decisions."

The report says TxDOT is waiting for the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality to finish its investigation before addressing potential violations of the Texas Health and Safety Code.

TCEQ started its own investigation after KXAN’s report aired in February. The environmental agency declined to comment until its probe is complete.

TxDOT declined KXAN’s request for an on-camera interview about the investigation report.

This was absolutely illegal, absolutely uncalled for...

In a previous interview, Hopmann said workers didn’t follow guidelines when disposing of the animals and oil. “The materials were not disposed of properly. They’re not bad materials. As I said, the asphalt materials used on roadways across the state of Texas for construction and maintenance operations,” Hopmann said in February.

Days after KXAN’s investigation first aired, TxDOT appeared to conduct a brief cleanup. Workers picked up some garbage on the ground and covered over part of the dump with a green vegetation mat.

In early March, TCEQ employees were at the site taking core samples. At that time, they were accompanied by industrial drilling rigs from Vortex Drilling and workers from Terracon, an environmental testing and engineering outfit.

KXAN has a pending public information request for those core sample test results.

The dumpsite’s existence caught the attention of members of the House Transportation Committee who discussed the issue at a meeting in February. One lawmaker told TxDOT Executive Director James Bass the dumpsite was an “embarrassment."

“We have guidelines,” Bass said at the committee meeting. “It appears there were a few people that did not follow those guidelines.”

After KXAN’s report, the agency put up “No Dumping” signs at the gate entering the right-of-way.

KXAN also obtained internal emails that show concern among supervisors over not being able to get clear answers about the dumping after it was exposed.

“I am disappointed in the lack of forth-comingness on the issue with the oil. There have been several versions on this story and I need to be 100% confident in that this is 100% accurate,” said Epigmenio Gonzalez a south Travis County area engineer, in a February email. “I also need a full accounting of who dumped the oil, who directed/ok’d and who know about this…”

Lovejoy said the experience has been a wakeup call. Had he not decided to check the right-of-way last winter, the dumping might still be happening.

“You’ve got to keep your eye out on what’s going on in your area,” Lovejoy said. “This was absolutely illegal, absolutely uncalled for and should have been stopped years ago.”

 

 

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