DRIPPING SPRINGS, Texas (KXAN) — Jimi Lovejoy had no idea what he would ultimately find when he saw dozens of vultures swarming along US 290 and decided to pull his car over to investigate.
Just outside the Dripping Springs city limits, Lovejoy steered through an opening in a concrete barrier and onto an old public right-of-way hidden by a grove of Ashe juniper trees. Just 50 yards from the highway, beneath a looming water tower bearing the inscription “Dripping Springs Gateway to the Hill Country,” Lovejoy made a troubling discovery.
The buzzards were feeding on dozens of decomposing animal carcasses. It was a roadkill dumping ground. Deer in various states of decay were haphazardly piled on the ground and tossed into a drainage ditch.
Lovejoy decided to set up a game camera to find out who was responsible for the dumping. He also contacted KXAN, and our own stationary cameras went up, on the public right-of-way.
Over several weeks, the cameras captured images of Texas Department of Transportation employees using state equipment to dump roadkill and road debris laced with garbage at the site. KXAN also found a black pool of oily sludge seeping into the soil and running down the back of the dump into a drainage area within the sensitive Edwards Aquifer recharge zone.
TxDOT officials said the deer and oil disposal did not follow department guidelines, but they did not believe it was illegal. However, environmental experts said the materials at the site should never have been dumped on the ground, and they could be hazardous to the environment. The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality opened an investigation into the site, after KXAN inquired about the dumping.
“This is the Gateway to the Hill Country, and to pollute the very beginning of the headwaters that is probably one of the very worst things that you could possibly do. And, they thought it was OK,” Lovejoy said, regarding the TxDOT employees seen on camera dumping the materials.
Surveillance photos and video show TxDOT workers arriving and leaving the dump repeatedly in November, December and early January. During that timeframe, no TxDOT employee stopped to clean or report the oil spill that was in clear view.
In November, TxDOT workers dropped deer on the ground at the dump site, pictures show. They also show TxDOT employees dumping debris over a dead deer and tire. The debris pile appeared to be dirt, but upon closer inspection KXAN found it was full of garbage including luggage, plastics, food garbage and other trash.
TxDOT did not have a permit to dump at the site, according to the TCEQ.
‘It reeks of death. It reeks of decay.’
When KXAN showed pictures of the dump to TxDOT Director of District Operations Randy Hopmann, he said the sludge looked like “asphalt type material that is common to roadway maintenance and construction activities.”
“The materials were not disposed of properly. They’re not bad materials,” said Hopmann. “As I said, the asphalt materials used on roadways across the state of Texas for construction and maintenance operations.”
Surveillance and camera footage show TxDOT workers regularly coming and going from the dump until Jan. 17. On that day, everything changed.
On Jan. 17, KXAN arrived at the dumpsite at 11:20 a.m. to take a sample of the oil to be tested at a laboratory.
About 90 minutes after we left, TxDOT workers arrived with a dump truck and skid steer for a quick cleanup, according to camera footage.
It is not clear what prompted the workers to arrive just after KXAN pulled the sample. Within two hours, a TxDOT crew haphazardly scooped out the unlined oil pool and covered it up with dirt and garbage, according to game camera footage and confirmed with a visit to the site afterward.
Video shows a TxDOT supervisor arriving first followed by at least three other men.
In their apparent attempt to remove the oil pool, workers splattered oil across the ground and left sludge seeping into a drainage area that ultimately flows to Onion Creek. One worker can be seen shoveling dirt onto the oil pool area before leaving. The employees did not clean any of the deer, debris, tires or garbage that day.
The TxDOT workers were not aware KXAN had set up game cameras at that time. The following day, on Jan. 18, we notified TxDOT’s corporate communications office of the dump site.
TxDOT spokesperson Diann Hodges said the department doesn’t believe employees did anything illegal, and they will cooperate with the investigation.
Within days of learning about what was being dumped at the site, Hopmann said the department called for the location to be cleaned and the carcasses to be removed.
The following Monday, Jan. 22, a larger TxDOT crew, including men in white coverall suits and face shields, began clearing garbage and carcasses from the site. They also laid down a green erosion control mat, to cover the oil splatter and pool area.
The carcasses should have been taken to a landfill, explained Hopmann. TxDOT’s policy manual requires dead animals to be “removed promptly from the roadway and disposed of properly.” Hopmann admitted TxDOT workers did not follow the agency’s disposal rules.
“I don’t believe it’s correct to characterize it as a dump site. It is our right-of-way. We use this area to store materials or to dispose of materials,” he later added.
TxDOT policy writers included a line in the handbook warning workers against creating situations like this.
“Good judgment should be used when handling these matters to prevent adverse publicity or criticism of the department,” according to the policy manual.
Neil Carman, Sierra Club Lone Star Chapter clean air director, visited the dump with KXAN.
He called the site “disturbing” and said it was possible hydrocarbons were seeping into the watershed.
“In my view, it is an illegal dump,” said Carman, who spent more than a decade working as a TCEQ investigator. “They have to have a permit to have a landfill or a dump … to be dumping some of this material.”
According to Edwards Aquifer Authority maps, the dump site is within the aquifer’s recharge zone. The aquifer is a government-protected water source for two million Central and South Texans. The area’s porous limestone makes it easy for rainwater and runoff to enter the aquifer.
There are at least 19 water wells within a mile radius of the dump. Nearly all of the wells appear to be at a lower elevation and downstream, according to maps obtained from the Hays Trinity Groundwater Conservation District.
“This is a very sensitive watershed for the aquifer because there’s only limited water in it, and it’s under extra protection under the Texas Legislature,” Carman said. The recharge zone “exists because there is great concern about not contaminating the water supply.”
Lovejoy, who grew up swimming in the local creeks, said he’s concerned about how the dump could affect the environment.
“It doesn’t sit well with me at all … they absolutely owe us an apology for what they’ve done here in Dripping Springs,” Lovejoy said. “When you are looking at this site, you don’t have the gravity of it without the sense of smell, and the smell here is horrible. It reeks of death. It reeks of decay.”
AnalySys, a local analytical laboratory, tested the oil and found it had 240,000 parts per million of hydrocarbons, which are organic compounds that make up petroleum products.
Tyler Batchelor, the technical director at the laboratory, called the readings “very very high for a sample that is not pure oil.”
“This type of sample shouldn’t be out in the environment, at all,” Batchelor said. “It’s very clearly very high in oil concentrations — diesel and gasoline — and it’s not something that should be in a watershed or out in the environment.”
TCEQ sent an investigator to the dump site on Jan. 22. A commission spokesperson said the agency could not comment during an ongoing investigation.
Later that same day TxDOT workers covered the oil soaked area with a green erosion control mat. Those mats also hold grass seed and are used to help grass grow over excavation sites. Lovejoy said he is worried about what TXDOT left buried underground.
“I am standing on 10 to 12 feet of fill that is up here. What else have they dumped down here?” Lovejoy said. “This is what they were OK with on the top. So, they are bound to be covering up even more things in here.”
According to the Texas Water Code, it’s illegal if a person “directly disposes used oil on land or in landfills” unless the disposal is the unavoidable result of mechanical metal shredding. The criminal penalty for such a violation can carry a maximum fine of $50,000 for a corporation or five years in jail for an individual.
KXAN was able to track TxDOT trucks from the dump site back to the agency’s garage, which is located a few miles east of the dump on US 290 and Nutty Brown Road.
Every worker KXAN asked about the dump declined to comment and referred to the department’s corporate communications office.
The Hays County TxDOT garage had options to legally dump. Hays County has two permitted recycling and solid waste locations within five and 17 miles of the dump site, according to county records.
There is a cost to dump at those sites. Tires we found at the TxDOT dump would have cost a member of the public $8 each to dump, and the construction materials we found would have cost $25 a cubic yard to dump at the county collection stations.
TxDOT could have also travelled to two large landfills near Austin-Bergstrom International Airport. That would have been a 27-mile trip.
‘The materials were not disposed of properly. They’re not bad materials.’
TCEQ will determine if enforcement is necessary. If TxDOT were penalized for an environmental violation, it would not be the first time.
In the past five years, TxDOT has received 17 enforcement orders from the TCEQ. Initial fines for those violations, which are mostly petroleum storage tank installation and maintenance failures, have totaled more than $77,000.
Lovejoy said “someone should take the blame” for the dumping, and he doesn’t trust TxDOT to clean up the dump properly.
“We absolutely should watch the entire cleanup of it,” Lovejoy said. “Somebody else needs to come clean this up so we can dig back the layers and see what else is underneath here. Maybe remove some things that are probably toxic for the environment.”
TCEQ’s spokesperson said the agency could finish up its investigation by mid-February. TxDOT has not announced any disciplinary action or policy changes as of this report.