Group maps strategy to battle company seeking to dump sludge in county

By BRUCE ALSOBROOK, News-Telegram Managing Editor

April 15, 2008 - A group of about 80 land owners and residents in Hopkins County marshaled their forces Monday night, preparing for a battle with an Arkansas company seeking to dump wastewater treatment plant sludge on two sites on the north side of the county.

But the people in the group, holding their third meeting on the matter Monday night at the Hopkins County Courthouse, said the problem of waste dumping in the North Hopkins area has been going on for at least two years, and they're just as tired of the stink and heavy truck traffic as they are worried for their families' health and welfare.

Terra Renewal Service of Russellville, Ark., has applied for two permits -- one a renewal of an existing permit, the other a new permit -- to allow the company to dispose of wastewater treatment plant sludge on two tracts in northern Hopkins County.

One of the sites is south of FM 71, about 1.2 miles east of FM 2285. The other is about 3 1/2 miles north of Sulphur Springs, about three-quarters of a mile east of State Highway 19.

The permits must be approved by the state's top environmental agency, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. To date, no public hearings on the permits have been scheduled.

But that may change. County officials have written to TCEQ asking for public hearings locally on the matter. State Rep. Mark Homer has also asked the agency to hold public hearings in Hopkins County, and Bill Brannon, representing Homer's office, attended Monday's meeting. The TCEQ website today showed that no comments have been received on the renewal application, with one request for a public meeting. There have been three comments on the new permit, with one hearing request and six for public meetings.

The Hopkins County Commissioners Court earlier Monday approved two resolutions asking TCEQ to hold hearings in Hopkins County on the two permits. The resolutions stated that local officials are concerned about the impact on health and water quality, as well as the increased amount of truck traffic the disposal sites could bring.

Those attending the meeting said they are already seeing those problems at other tracts of land used for dumping in the area. One woman said she counted 15 trucks going in and out of one dump site in one hour.

"And it's constant -- it's like that day and night," she said.

Other complained of a repulsive stench from the dump grounds.

"About July it gets to smelling pretty bad out north of town," said one.

Those who live near the sites aired numerous complaints Monday night about dumping already going on in the area. Some said there are already a number of properties where waste of all types -- one person referenced seeing used syringes and needles -- coming from other cities and counties was being dumped.

More than one person mentioned that if the only waste being disposed of came from local sources, there might not be a concern. But they say Hopkins County is being used as a dumping ground for refuse from all around the area and they fear it could result in irreparable harm to water quality and the environment.

The audience heard from one person from Hunt County who represented a group that fought a similar waste case.

Rene Lane of Lone Oak was part of the group that successfully won a case before TCEQ involving waste disposal on land near Lake Fork. She urged all at Monday's meeting to write letters to TCEQ asking the agency to turn down the request.

But she also warned that an attorney may have to be hired to win the case.

"There may have to be litigation," she said. "They paid no mind to us until we had an attorney."

Like Bob Williams, an educator living near the disposal sites in the North Hopkins area who served as the moderator for the meeting, Lane said that the first and most important step is to make it clear to the state agency that there are many people who oppose the permits.

"Everybody needs to write TCEQ," she said, adding that they should send the correspondence via registered letters to ensure they can prove the protests were sent.

Hopkins County Judge Cletis Millsap, one of several elected officials who attended the meeting, also told the group they can request an attorney be appointed on their behalf by TCEQ. Millsap said they should send a formal request to the agency stating they need legal counsel to represent them and they cannot afford an attorney.

That should only apply to those people who have "standing," meaning they own or live on property within one-quarter of a mile of the sites mentioned in the permit. That still covers a lot of ground, however -- one of the tracts of land is just short of 400 acres, the other close to 165 acres.

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The group also formed a steering committee as part of their efforts to begin the battle in earnest.

The steering committee is tasked with a number of duties. For example, they are being asked to serve as liaisons with the city of Sulphur Springs, one of the customers of Terra Renewal Services.

They are also asked to meet with landowners in the county who have agreements with Terra Renewal to allow the company to dispose of sludge and other waste on their properties. The steering committee members will ask those landowners to consider ending their agreements with the company.

Two residents from each precinct in the county were named to the committee, as well as one resident of Sulphur Springs, one member of the Hopkins County Beautification Committee. Another four people -- two people living within one-quarter of a mile of each of the two sites mentioned in the permits -- were also named to the committee.

While it may seem to be a daunting taks, Lane said the local group is starting their efforts with much more time left in the process than her group in Hunt County faced.

"Y'all are ahead of the game," she said.

Lane also said that Hunt County officials, who supported their efforts in spirit, have since passed ordinances that prohibit dumping of such materials within 10 miles of a creek.

Hopkins County Judge Millsap said earlier in the day local officials are conferring with an attorney about ordinances that could prevent similar problems in the future.

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