DRIPPING SPRINGS, Texas (KXAN) – The Texas Department of Transportation, prompted by a KXAN investigation, is removing 6,000 tons of tainted soil mixed with garbage, dead animals and oil that state employees dumped outside Dripping Springs for years, in violation of state regulations.
KXAN first exposed the dump in a February report, after weeks of undercover surveillance using stationary cameras. That initial report showed state employees actively dumping garbage-laced dirt and carcasses and prompted the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality to open its own investigation.
TCEQ has since finished its probe. TxDOT has admitted to the dumping and started a major excavation to remove roughly 12 million pounds of debris and garbage from the state right-of-way located on the north side of US 290 in Hays County just outside Dripping Springs.
But considering the scope of the problem, experts and a state lawmaker say TxDOT got off too easy. The illegal dumpsite was operated for years and contaminated soil above the sensitive Edwards Aquifer recharge zone. Lab results obtained by KXAN show soil samples contained levels of chromium, barium and hydrocarbons that exceeded background levels.
For all that, TCEQ issued a single notice of violation for dumping municipal solid waste without authorization. The notice, which documents the violation and requires a response and compliance, is not a formal enforcement order and does not come with a fine or penalty.
It does not send a very good message to people in Texas that they issued one violation…
TxDOT declined to be interviewed for this report. In a prepared statement, a spokesperson said the “contaminants from the material do not appear to put the native soils or groundwater at risk.”
TxDOT said it would review its policies and procedures to make sure this type of incident is not repeated or happening elsewhere.
Neil Carman, a former TCEQ investigator, called the state environmental regulator’s response “completely unacceptable” and “inadequate.”
Carman, now the Sierra Club Lonestar Chapter’s Clean Air Director, said TCEQ has the authority to issue a violation for each day one occurs.
“It’s potentially thousands of violations in my view because this is a huge illegal dump,” he said. “It does not send a very good message to people in Texas that they issued one violation, when there’s probably thousands of violations that occurred.”
KXAN visited the site in May midway through TxDOT’s cleanup. Excavators had dug through more than 7 feet of dump material in some areas, exposing tires and bones several feet below the surface.
TCEQ declined an interview request for this report. In an emailed statement, the agency defended its level of enforcement in this case and said the notice of violation it issued “requires documentation of compliance.”
If TxDOT “fails to achieve compliance within a specified timeframe, the matter may be referred for formal enforcement,” according to TCEQ’s statement. “Compliance is our primary concern.”
TCEQ’s single notice of violation has not satisfied State Rep. Eddie Rodriguez, D-Austin, a member of the House Environmental Regulation Committee.
“Within TxDOT, you didn’t have a system in place to prevent this kind of illegal dumping that happened. If it was you or I doing this—trust me—we would be fined heavily. We’d pay some consequences for it,” Rodriguez said. “They don’t get any special treatment. They can’t pollute just because they’re a state agency—no matter how big they are.”
BTW, don’t include any recommendations in the report. Just lay out the results, explain that they show there really is not risk to human health, the environment, or the Edwards and leave it at that.
According to Texas law, it’s a state jail felony, punishable by up to two years in jail, to illegally dispose of more than 1,000 pounds or 200 cubic feet of litter or solid waste.
TxDOT spending records show the agency has spent $46,736 on environmental testing and to rent the excavator used in the cleanup. The excavator has cost $7,950 in rental fees since April 23. Our ongoing surveillance of the dump shows the excavator was delivered to the site April 25, used for less than two hours on April 26. The excavator didn’t move again for two weeks, when workers started the full-scale dig.
Emails obtained through the Texas Public Information Act show TxDOT estimates it will cost taxpayers $240,000 to haul out the material. That does not include costs for overtime, private haulers and private contract crews used to close down one lane of Highway 290 near the site.
The black sludge KXAN found pooled and splattered on the ground was a chemical called MC-800, a cool weather asphalt product mixed with kerosene. A supervisor at TxDOT’s south Travis County maintenance yard said the MC-800 was dumped out of a tack distributor machine employees cleaned at the site, according to an internal TxDOT investigation.
One worker said they used the dumpsite to clean the tack distributor machine “for several years,” according to the report. Despite that employee’s admission, TxDOT spokesperson Diann Hodges said the agency believes the cleaning of the tack distributor was an “isolated incident.”
In its internal report, TxDOT said it had no policies for handling the disposal of leftover MC-800 in the tack distributor. TxDOT also said its workers were dumping garbage and debris pulled out of hazardous material traps in local detention ponds. The traps catch litter from stormwater to stop it from washing downstream, according to the report.
In a previous interview, TxDOT Director of District Operations Randy Hopmann said “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.”
TCEQ investigated the dump from late January to early March. The agency took soil samples from the surface and varying depths up to 7 feet. Laboratory testing showed 11 samples with chromium, 4 with barium and 18 with total petroleum hydrocarbons that exceeded background levels.
“It shows that there’s toxic chemicals that were dumped here by TxDOT…this is outrageous that TxDOT perpetrated the operation of this illegal dump for years and years,” Carman said.
Soil samples taken from the spot where the MC-800 was dumped had “a slight petroleum odor and had a dark, moist appearance,” according to the TCEQ investigation report. At another boring site, “fur was observed at a depth of 5 to 7 feet.”
As part of its effort to test the soil and understand the scope of the dumpsite, TxDOT contracted with environmental and engineering firm Terracon. In emails obtained by KXAN, it appears a TxDOT employee named Jeff Richardson directed a Terracon employee on how to present its report on the dumpsite and the chemical testing results.
In a March 22 email to a Terracon worker, Richardson says, “BTW, don’t include any recommendations in the report. Just lay out the results, explain that they show there really is not risk to human health, the environment, or the Edwards and leave it at that.”
Terracon declined to comment for this report.
Hodges said Terracon is a “highly-capable consultant” and said the “preliminary findings indicate that contaminants from the material do not appear to put the native soils or groundwater at risk.”
“Since TxDOT was already coordinating appropriate removal of the material with TCEQ, we asked for the consultant to forego any recommendations, as this would come from the TCEQ, who was onsite to monitor the consultant’s investigation,” according to Hodges email. “TxDOT remains committed to being good stewards of the environment.”
Rodriguez said the email makes it appear TxDOT “is telling the private consultant to, basically, to doctor the results and to provide as little as possible so it makes them look in a better light.”
TCEQ gave TxDOT a deadline of June 14 to complete the cleanup and restore the property’s original contours. Rodriguez said he’s drafting a letter to request a hearing on the TxDOT email, TxDOT’s actions that led to the dump site and TCEQ’s decision not to punish TxDOT more severely for the dump site.