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In years-long fight over proposed South Texas landfill, flood risks now take center stage

Webb County officials say they want to rely on the latest science to ensure the site is safe from floods. The company behind the proposed landfill thinks opponents are playing politics to delay construction.

An aerial view of the site of a proposed landfill by Laredo developer Carlos "C. Y." Benavides. The site is about 20 miles east of Laredo.

In the seven years developer Carlos "C.Y." Benavides III has been seeking approval to build a landfill outside Laredo, he's faced roadblock after roadblock: Family disputes. Accusations of environmental racism. 

Now, he's sparring with Webb County officials over yet another point of contention: whether the proposed site is too flood-prone to be home to tons of waste. 

After years of back and forth with the community, Benavides' proposed landfill, the Pescadito Environmental Resource Center, received preliminary approval from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality's staff in January. Now, it’s up to the TCEQ's commissioners to issue a final decision.

But with Hurricane Harvey weighing on their minds, Webb County officials have asked the Federal Emergency Management Agency to reevaluate floodplain maps to determine how at-risk the landfill site is. Residents fear the possibility of storms flooding the landfill and spreading waste, and they want the TCEQ commissioners to put a decision on hold in the meantime.

“Can we really trust putting something like a landfill so close to the floodplain?” asked Marisa Perales, an environmental attorney representing Citizens Against Laredo Landfill. She called the project “nonsensical and risky.”

Rhonda Tiffin, Webb County's floodplain administrator, wrote in an April letter to the TCEQ that current floodplain maps for the area are over 10 years old and are based on simple approximations, rather than a more accurate hydraulics and hydrology study. This year, Webb County conducted its own study. 

If FEMA were to update floodplain maps in the area, Webb County officials say, they'd find that portions of the landfill now fall within the 100-year floodplain — land that faces a 1 percent chance of flooding every year.

But Benavides, the manager of Rancho Viejo Waste Management, the company behind the proposed landfill, says there's nothing wrong with FEMA's current floodplain maps and called the move a last-ditch attempt by opponents to beat back the landfill. 

“Obviously, this is an attack from the activists against the project [who] are trying to derail us politically,” he said. 

Rancho Viejo originally requested a permit from the state's environmental agency in 2011 to build a 660-acre landfill on a 950-acre property. The facility would accept Class 1 industrial waste — considered by the state to “pose a substantial danger to human health or the environment if it is not properly managed” — from the U.S. and Mexico around the clock. 

Nothing about the landfill has come easy. Years of arguments between Benavides and the Webb County Planning Department resulted in a now-dropped lawsuit against the county floodplain administrator, family disputes over property rights and accusations of environmental racism (there are nine colonias — home to mostly low-income, immigrant Latinos — within five miles of the proposed site).

TCEQ held three widely attended public meetings throughout the ordeal, where residents have voiced concerns about windblown waste and odor, traffic in and out of the facility, and even the potential attraction of feral hogs to the area. Since 2011, more than 10,000 public comments on the project have been filed with the TCEQ.

“In spite of the fact that it’s been dragged out, (residents’) engagement level hasn’t dwindled,” Perales said. “... Rancho Viejo just keeps revising their application, and that’s the frustrating part.”

To Benavides, it’s the county and opponents of the landfill who have been revising their tactics against him.

In order to comply with existing FEMA floodplain maps, Benavides reduced the landfill perimeter to only 72 acres. His current application also includes required flood mitigation efforts like levees and detention ponds.

For county officials and local residents, the revisions are not enough and the risks are still too high.

“This would be making Webb County a new center for accepting industrial waste,” said Tricia Cortez, executive director of the Rio Grande International Study Center, an environmental organization in Laredo. “A lot of people here are opposed to that and how that would change the landscape of our county.”

While state and federal questions linger, there's another local debate raging: whether Rancho Viejo needs county permits to begin construction. If you ask the county, the answer is yes, because access roads leading to and from the proposed facility would cross into FEMA's current floodplain boundaries.

Benavides argues county permits are not necessary to build. But given how fierce local opposition is, he said he would not be surprised if the project faces another lawsuit down the line.

TCEQ has already granted opponents of the project a contested case hearing — much like a civil trial. A preliminary hearing is scheduled for July 18. 

Benavides said a long permitting process is to be expected with a project like this, and he's hoping he'll get a green light before too long. 

“If you can’t [build] it here, where else would you be able to get a permit in the state of Texas?” he asked, citing the location’s topography and remoteness. “It’s not like we’re building this on the Rio Grande.”

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