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Neighbors frustrated with answers after questioning permit for new chemical facility in rural Williamson County

Exfluor Research Corporation needs an air quality permit to build its new facility in the Florence area. The public voiced their concerns if the facility leaks.

FLORENCE, Texas — Thursday night, more than 100 people gathered in the Florence High School cafeteria to talk about a proposed chemical manufacturing facility that would be built near a waterway. Most of the neighbors brought their concerns and questions about chemical leaks with them.

Exfluor Research Corporation started the process to build a new facility in the Florence-Andice area two years ago. Now, the company just needs an air quality permit from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) in order to construct the building.

While the room was filled with neighbors, most of them against the facility, only a relative handful made their opinions known. However, some of those opinions came with roaring applause.

"I just have to wonder why, why would you go through all that trouble? Why would you not build in an industrial park?" Henry Mulvihill asked during the Q&A portion of the meeting referencing the permitting process and vocal opposition of the last few months.

The crowd applauded loudly before Exfluor executives could answer.

"It felt like the responsible thing to do, because of the business that we're in, is to locate ourselves in an area where there's a buffer between us and population centers," Kevin Bierschenk, the head of production for Exfluor, said. 

Most of the crowd laughed or booed in response.

More than 3,000 people have signed a Change.org petition calling for TCEQ to deny the air quality permit. Thursday's meeting was an opportunity hosted by the agency to ask questions and voice concerns regarding the permit itself. Many people spoke about the permit, but others made their concerns known about the company itself.

Exfluor had a chemical leak in 2014 that forced the evacuation of their Round Rock facility and neighboring buildings. Nobody was injured, but the TCEQ fined the company and insisted Exfluor have more hazmat training for staff in case of any other leaks in the future.

RELATED: Concerns mount over chemical research facility proposed in rural Williamson County

Because of that leak, residents in the Florence area are concerned it could happen again. According to TCEQ, four people have already filed "contested cases" calling on TCEQ to deny the permit. The agency will have to investigate each case to determine legitimacy and "standing." 

At the same time, public comment on the permit is closing Monday, June 20. Once public comment closes, the agency has 60 days to respond to all comments, including the ones voiced during public comment at Thursday's meeting, in writing.

If TCEQ does not find standing in any of the contested cases, the commission can make a decision as soon as that 60-day public comment response timeframe ends in August. However, just by nature of having four contested cases, TCEQ spokespeople believe it may be longer than 60 days before the commission takes up the air quality permit for a decision.

Earlier this year, the executive director for the TCEQ already granted preliminary approval for the permit, signaling the agency's support. However, that final decision is left to the commission itself.

Exfluor had already hosted its own public comment, inviting nearby residents to Liberty Hill in April to talk about their concerns and ask questions.

Thursday's meeting with TCEQ helped answer questions about the permitting process and the limits of the approval process with the agency. Sen. Charles Schwertner (R-Georgetown) and Rep. Terry Wilson (R-Burnet) called on TCEQ to host the meeting but did not send any representatives from their office to Thursday's meeting.

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