After Harvey, some South Texans more wary than ever about plan to build landfill near floodplain

Disaster risksAfter Harvey, some South Texans more wary than ever about plan to build landfill near floodplain

By Shannon Najmabadi

Published 19 December 2017

Nearly four months ago, Hurricane Harvey’s rainfall inundated ultra-polluted Superfund sites in and around Houston, triggering the leak of hazardous waste. Now, 300 miles south near Laredo, a company’s efforts to develop a landfill in close proximity to a 100-year floodplain is drawing fresh concerns in light of the environmental problems that emerged in Harvey’s wake.

Nearly four months ago, Hurricane Harvey’s rainfall inundated ultra-polluted Superfund sites in and around Houston, triggering the leak of hazardous waste.

Now, 300 miles south near Laredo, a company’s efforts to develop a landfill in close proximity to a 100-year floodplain is drawing fresh concerns in light of the environmental problems that emerged in Harvey’s wake.

“The proposed landfill is, as far as I can tell, right in the middle of a floodplain and a creek that is an immediate tributary of the Rio Grande,” said George Altgelt, a Laredo city councilman. “From a practical standpoint, who builds a dump in the middle of a creek? When did that become a good idea?”

The company behind the landfill — Rancho Viejo Waste Management, whose manager is Carlos “C.Y.” Benavides III — started applying back in 2011 for the local, state and federal approvals needed to operate a waste site, or develop in a floodplain.

The developer had originally sought to use 660 acres of a 950-acre site for waste disposal — a swath of which lies in a 100-year floodplain. Those areas are mapped by the Federal Emergency Management Agency to show places that will likely go underwater in the event of a 100-year flood.

But the frequency of those flood events, which in theory have a 1 percent chance of occurring in a given year, has increased since those federal designations were originally made, said Jim Blackburn, co-director of the Severe Storm Prediction, Education and Evacuation from Disasters Center at Rice University. “Every standard we have out there relative to flooding is obsolete or potentially obsolete in the Houston area,” he said. “I suspect the same is true throughout Texas.” 

Though fears that the proposed landfill could be flooded during a storm have crescendoed after Harvey, the facility is no stranger to protest.

Last year, a charge of environmental racism was levied against the site because if built, it would be in the backyard of a poor, Hispanic-majority community.

Squabbling between family members, including one who has rights to an adjacent property and another who is married to a county commissioner, have spilled into public view. The company has been sued over the property rights dispute and has sued a local floodplain administrator after she blocked the landfill’s development due to flooding concerns. (That suit was later dropped.)