Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Sen Kirk Watson: At the 'top of the heap'

After 10 years, Penske waste saga may be at an end

At issue: Who will be responsible for TV tube waste and where it will be disposed of.

October 09, 2007

By Asher Price
Austin American-Statesman
Copyright 2007

Ten years after a seemingly routine accident on Interstate 35 near Buda led to one of the longest-running environmental legal battles in Texas, the warring parties appear to be reaching a settlement.

Lawyers in the case, involving Penske Truck Leasing Co. and Texas Disposal Systems, won't reveal the terms of the deal, but they say they signed a tentative settlement last month.

The two sides persuaded a state District Court in Hays County to take off the docket a case in which the landfill was going to ask for at least $5 million in damages and legal fees from the trucking company.

The case, which had been scheduled to go to trial this month, could have broad implications for the disposal of toxic waste. At issue is whether hazardous material can be mixed enough with conventional waste to essentially change its nature.

"Everything is in limbo now, but it appears that there will be a global settlement of this matter," said Kerry E. Russell, a lawyer for landfill operator Bob Gregory.

Bill Johnson, a lawyer for Penske, confirmed that negotiations are taking place.

Ten years ago today, a Penske truck, packed with a cargo of Zenith television picture tubes, overturned on its way to a Mexican assembly factory. The picture tubes — just about all 1,248 of them, each containing 31/2 pounds of lead — broke, and they became hazardous waste.

With traffic backed up to the Town Lake bridge in downtown Austin, emergency crews hurried to get the shattered cargo cleaned up. The damaged tubes were trucked to the nearby Texas Disposal Systems landfill, licensed to handle nonhazardous waste.

Thus began a fight between Penske and the landfill over the fate of the lead-tainted waste and over responsibility to dispose of it properly.

The details of the case run as dense as the 1,600 tons of mixed picture tube and household waste now sitting in 99 containers at the landfill in Creedmoor, about 10 miles southeast of Austin.

With deep pockets involved and landfill policies at play, the case has attracted some formidable lawyers and lobbyists. The law firm Baker Botts, as well as some high-powered lobbyists, has represented Penske. Kirk Watson, the former Austin mayor and a current state senator, represents the landfill.

Suits and countersuits have been filed. Lawmakers have authored legislation designed to bring the situation to a close. And the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality has weighed in on the case several times, most lately in July, when it ordered Penske to remove the waste within 30 days and dispose of it as hazardous material. (Penske has appealed the decision.)

Previous settlement talks between the two sides have fallen through, and the state environmental agency has yet to sign off on any resolution.

Zenith has approved the September agreement, according to lawyers involved in the case.

"I think of this as the lead anniversary of an unfortunate e-waste event," said Robin Schneider, executive director of Texas Campaign for the Environment, which has led protests at Penske's Austin offices and at the environmental commission. "I hope to God that it doesn't take another 10 years for this waste to be disposed of properly."

"Best as I can tell, everybody is, you know, trying to come to a reasonable resolution to this matter," Russell said. "It's cost way too much and took way too long. Everybody wants a reasonable settlement that protects the public."

But Bill Wolpin, the editorial director of Waste Age magazine, said the case has not gotten much attention in the national waste industry.

"Like politics, all garbage is local," he said.

The Penske file

The Penske-Texas Disposal Systems case has dragged on for 10 years:

Oct. 9, 1997: A Penske truck transporting 1,248 television tubes, each containing 31/2 pounds of lead, overturns. The tubes, hazardous waste once broken, are transported to Texas Disposal Systems landfill in Creedmoor, southeast of Austin.

1998: Landfill sues Penske to recover costs of handling hazardous waste.

January 2004: About 1,600 tons of tubes and household waste are dug up and put in 99 transport containers to segregate them from regular waste.

April 2004: Civil trial in Hays County over responsibility for television tubes ends in a mistrial.

September 2004: State environmental commission orders the waste to be treated as hazardous and demands Penske take it away.

October 2004: Penske sues state environmental commission over ruling.

February 2005: State senators hold a hearing on the disposal of the waste after landfill refuses to let Penske take waste away, claiming that Penske won't dispose of it properly.

July 2007: Environmental commission reiterates earlier ruling.

September 2007: Texas Disposal Systems and Penske sign a tentative settlement.

asherprice@statesman.com; 445-3643

© 2007 Austin American-Statesman: www.statesman.com

To search TTC News Archives click HERE

To view the Trans-Texas Corridor Blog click HERE