People in Gonzales County, particularly residents of the Nixon area, received an unwanted surprise recently when they were informed that their battle to stop the dumping of up to 23 million gallons of domestic septage near their homes and schools was lost.
On July 19, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) approved Gordon Swenson’s application to dump domestic septage on a 298-acre section of his property just outside of Nixon.
“It’s shocking that TCEQ would approve something like this that will most certainly affect the community in a negative way,” Nixon City Administrator George Blanch said of the decision. “We certainly didn’t want this to happen.”
Last October, Swenson, who lives in the Austin area, submitted an application to TCEQ seeking authorization dump the “stuff ” on his land. The parcel in question is a 401-acre tract of land located on County Road 483 just south of the State Highway 97 and South Rancho Road intersection about a mile south of Nixon in Wilson County.
When word got around the community that the “dump” was a work in progress, citizens came together and signed a petition protesting Swenson’s application.
The city of Nixon provided TCEQ with the petition before the Jan. 2 deadline, and TCEQ responded with a letter suggesting a town hall meeting be convened with Nixon citizens to discuss the project. Since then, two town hall meetings – one in Nixon and the other in Floresville – occurred, with attendees rallying together in vehement protest of the project.
Domestic septage typically contains urine, feces, toilet paper, tampons, condoms, blood, pharmaceuticals, bacteria, viruses and parasites, and may contain human tissue, heavy metals or even radioactive material, since it is not tested for radioactivity.
The consensus among Nixon residents is that the dumping of domestic waste within the Nixon-Smiley CISD boundaries and within close proximity to its schools presents a danger to public health and to the health of the Nixon population, especially children. Many citizens maintain that such dumping could contaminate the community’s drinking water and create noxious odors that would be detrimental to the learning environment, and that the risks associated with dumping domestic waste within the school district’s boundaries could result in other serious student health risks.
Nixon-Smiley CISD also combated Swenson’s application night in an effort to prevent the site from being registered. Superintendent Dr. Cathy Booth is concerned that the project calls for raw sewage to be poured onto the ground within the district’s boundaries.
“Raw sewage is applied directly to the land, causing it to be exposed to animals, insects and runoff,” Booth said in a recent report detailing her concern. “The sewage is proposed to be taken from Nixon area residential septic systems and portable potties.
“There is potential contamination of ground water and spreading of disease,” Booth said. “They can dump up to 22,923,054 gallons annually. That is roughly equivalent to 1,300 average swimming pools, or over 70 acre-feet of sewage every year.”
Booth’s report also said the dumping of domestic waste within the district’s boundaries and within close proximity to its schools presents a danger to public health and to the health of the Nixon population, especially children, in that it could contaminate the community’s drinking water and create noxious odors that would be detrimental to the learning environment, and that the risks associated with dumping domestic waste within the school district’s boundaries could result in other serious student health risks.
J.D. Story, who owns property directly across from the proposed septic site, listed as reasons to oppose the dumping “the very real possibility of contamination of our groundwater resources from which those in the area, including the cities of Nixon and Smiley, obtain drinking water, as well as the contamination of downstream properties, including stock tanks, Elm Creek, Sandies Creek, Willow Creek and the Guadalupe River; danger to the health of domestic livestock and wildlife in the area; danger to public health; unacceptable odor levels; and flies and other insect nuisances.”
The community’s concern is not only for the nuisance levels, but also the possibility of the spread of disease. Citizens also believe the site will pose a risk to hunting and tourism, imposing economic hardship on residents of Nixon and even Smiley.
Opposing viewpoints indicate that the true definition of “septage” is still open for debate. Story defines it as “raw human sewage,” while Donald G. Rauschuber, engineer of record for Swenson’s application, says it is not. Rauschuber also refutes the community’s assertions that the project will adversely affect the Nixon community.
“The term ‘septage’ is used to describe the solids that are pumped from a septic tank,” Rauschuber said. “Septage is not raw sewage. Septage is domestic wastewater sludge that meets treatment standards for use as a fertilizer or soil conditioner. Applying septage to the land uses the available nitrogen, phosphorus and potash as fertilizer for growing forage crops, similar to what was used in the U.S. before the petro-chemical industry dominated the fertilizer business. It is an environmentally sound practice sanctioned by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the TCEQ.”
Rauschuber added that TCEQ regulates the removal, transportation and land application of septage under strict standards, which include standards for pathogen reduction, vector requirements and best management practices to ensure the material is utilized or land applied in an environmentally sound manner.
“Residential septic tanks are designed to retain sludge for one to three years before pumping,” Rauschuber continued. “This long retention time provides a larger reduction in pathogens and vectors in the tank, as compared to other mechanical-types of wastewater treatment. Lime stabilization of septage is the TCEQ-recommended process to meet pathogen and vector requirements for septage applied to forage crops and pastures. To meet these requirements, Gordon Swenson must maintain the septage at a pH level of 12 for at least 30 minutes before land application.”
In detailing the proposed project, Rauschuber reported that, as part of his best management practices, Swenson will provide, at a minimum, the following buffer areas from his site, which meet or exceed all federal and state requirements:
• a 200-foot buffer zone from surface water
• a 150-foot buffer zone from a private water supply well
• a 500-foot buffer zone from a public water supply well, intake, public water supply spring or similar source, public water supply treatment plant or public water supply elevated or ground storage tank
• a 200-foot buffer zone from a sinkhole or other conduit to groundwater, including all inactive wells that have not been plugged
• a 750-foot buffer zone from any school, institution, business or occupied residence
• a 50-foot buffer zone from a public right-of-way (roads, railways, etc.)
• a 10-foot buffer zone from any irrigation conveyance canal
• a 50-foot buffer zone from each property boundary
“With his use of buffer zones, his minimal application rate and the state prohibition of application during rainfall events, Mr. Swenson will minimize the possibility of any septage runoff from his site,” Rauschuber said. “Whenever possible, recycling through the beneficial use of septage through land application is promoted by the TCEQ. Reusing septage on forage crops and pastures reduces pollution of state water, and it eliminates the environmental risks and costs associated with sludge disposal options, benefiting all Texans. Land application practices utilize environmentally-sound nutrients that would otherwise be wasted through disposal at a wastewater treatment plant or a landfill.”
“When TCEQ informed us the application had been approved, they also said that anyone in Gonzales County can file a motion with TCEQ’s chief clerk to overturn the decision,” Blanch said. “So we’re just going to see how it goes from here.”
“Everyone in Nixon and Gonzales County has done their part,” Nixon Mayor Maria Blanch said “But this is primarily a Wilson County issue. It’s out of our hands, for the most part. We’re consulting with [City Attorney] Eddie Escobar to put something together with Gonzales County commissioners in the form of a ban to prevent something like this from happening in Gonzales County.”
Citizens of Gonzales County who want to file a motion requesting the overturning of the decision must submit their request in writing by Aug. 15 to Bridget C. Bohac, chief clerk with TCEQ, PO Box 13087, Austin, Tx. 78711- 3087, in reference to application # 710926, Gordon Clifford Swenson.