Millions of tons of garbage: Is Houston running out of landfills?

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by Dave Fehling / KHOU 11 News

khou.com

Posted on July 12, 2011 at 10:19 PM

Updated Tuesday, Jul 12 at 11:17 PM

HOUSTON -- If you took the trash out today, you'll appreciate this: the State of Texas reports that in the Houston area, each one of us generates nearly 9 pounds of garbage a day.

It’s resulting in landfills that are filling up. But does that mean we need more room for trash?

It’s a question worth asking as the latest proposal to build a new landfill has a community northwest of Houston fighting mad.  Landfills are not only filling up, they’re also rising up. They're the highest hills you'll see around Houston as millions of tons of trash are covered with soil. After years of the process, some of the biggest in the Houston area are taller than 10-story buildings.

Harris County alone has 14 landfills, far more than any county in Texas. The biggest is the McCarty Landfill just outside the East Loop, receiving nearly 1.5 million tons in just one year. The second biggest by tons received is just north of McCarty. It’s the Atascocita Landfill near Kingwood. But to the west, where subdivisions have been replacing ranch land, you won't find so many landfills.

Actually, to the northwest in Waller County, you won't find any. It’s a place once well known for a huge car dealership at the intersection of Highways 6 and 290.

The dealer’s TV ads with its catchy slogan played to the perception things were different out in the country.

“We clobber big-city prices" went the ad. But no more.

"We've lost Lawrence Marshall Chevrolet," said Waller County resident Bill Huntsinger.

The dealership closed during the recession and now its sprawling lots of end-to-end Chevrolet, Ford, and Hyundai dealerships lie vacant, its sales offices, garages and showrooms empty.

"We're not a wealthy county," said Huntsinger.

Yet, there are resources. Just across the highway from the empty car lot lie many acres of ranch land, what people here thought might someday make a nice development.

"290 and Highway 6, it could be a Cinco Ranch," said Huntsinger, referring to the huge planned community west of Houston in Katy.

Others also see a way to develop the ranch land. But not for homes.

"If you look on the west side of Houston, there are no landfills," said Ernest Kaufmann, of Green Group Holdings.

Kaufmann last did a landfill project south of Atlanta. Now, his company has set up an office on the pasture land in Hempstead just north of Highway 290 off Highway 6, a location Kaufmann said is ideal for a landfill that eventually could cover 250 acres. In 30 years, it could rise as high as a 12-story building.

But even in a place like Waller County, where they could use some new business, does it, or the greater Houston region, even need another landfill? Turns out, it’ll be a couple decades before the region runs out of landfill space. The Texas Commission for Environmental Quality estimates that even if no more landfills are developed, the Houston region has 22 years worth of landfill capacity

Yet, other big, Texas cities have substantially more landfill capacity than Houston: San Antonio has 41 years worth of capacity left and Dallas has a whopping 70 years, according to the TCEQ.

For Ernest Kaufmann , it’s not just a question of how much capacity, it's how far all those trash trucks have to drive.

"It does no good to have 22 years of capacity if it's all on the south or eastern side of town," said Kaufman. New landfills have to win state approval, and to no one's surprise, some residents in Waller County are trying to stop the Green Group Holdings project.

"The fresh air, the beautiful blue skies, we love it. This is what God meant for us to enjoy. He did not mean for us to sit and smell garbage," said Donna Dishroon whose ranch is across a two-lane road from the proposed landfill acreage.

She and other residents contend it's a great place for pastures, but it's no place for a landfill.

"Highway 6 went underwater," said resident Becky Gage, pointing up the country road to where it intersects the highway adjacent to the site.

Developer Kaufmann disagreed.

"Here we have no flooding problems whatsoever, "he said. And so it may go for months, even years, before the project might ever win approval as the two sides battle over where the Houston region’s newest landfill should be built, if at all.

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