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Public Protests Permit Residents ‘air’ concerns over Big K request

Approximately 350 people packed the Tradition Party Hall Room B last week to protest a request by Big K for a permit to expand their waste processing facility on Little York Rd.

Tap Inc., which does business as Big K, has requested a Type V Municipal Solid Waste Permit Amendment to authorize processing of liquid waste from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ).

At the urging of affected nearby residents, State Rep. Armando Walle, and other elected officials, the TCEQ held a meeting in Houston last Tuesday night at a banquet hall about a mile from the facility.

Porfirio Espinoza, who lives near the facility, said that the area constantly stinks from the waste being brought in by trucks. He said that Big K’s presence has caused property values to fall and that he is afraid that if the company is allowed to expand the problem would get only worse.

“My children cannot play outside (because of the smell),” he said.

“We don’t want them in our community,” added resident Maria Hernandez.

Big K has been in operation since 1999. Tom Page bought the facility in December 2003. In January 2008, he filed an application to expand the facility, add additional operating hours and expand into liquid waste collection such as restaurant grease.

The facility is currently authorized to handle only solid municipal waste.

Walle, speaking to the group, offered his opposition to the amended permit. “It always appears that our area gets the short end of the stick.” He recalled during the aftermath of Hurricane Ike that the area was without power for weeks. “Those odors can get pretty nasty when there is no power.”

Walle also said that he was concerned with the possibility of waste runoff in the event of a flood, as well as Big K’s history of violations, documented in a letter to TCEQ from the Harris County Attorney’s office. Page admitted that there were violations in the past, many of which he inherited when he bought the facility and that he was making efforts to come into compliance.

This statement was not accepted by some in the audience who claimed that Big K continued to accept restaurant grease without a permit until they were caught.

The only reason Big K was even seeking the permit amendment, they said, was because “they got caught with their hand in the cookie jar,” as one resident expressed herself.

Mark Hrbeck, an engineer hired by Big K to prepare the permit application, defended his client. He said that the issue over the grease was an “administrative misunderstanding” and that Page was unaware that it was happening until the City of Houston stopped the practice.

The Harris County Attorney’s office has also filed an opposition to the permit request. They cite previous environmental regulation violations and well as the proximity to residents, businesses and churches.

Residents also challenged Big K, saying that the permit would mean heavier truck traffic on the road, with would make potholes that the taxpayers would have to pay to fix.

Residents were reminded that the TCEQ had no jurisdiction over roads and that their concern was what happens at the facility. “The last thing Tap Inc wants to be is a bad neighbor.” Hrbeck said, noting the facility will be safe and claimed that there will be no discharge and that no hazardous material will be handled at the site.

During the time of the meeting designated for questions and answers, several residents used the opportunity to make personal attacks on Big K, Page as well as Hrbeck. “Does he (Page) live here,” one woman asked. “Does he care?”

Page and others were not allowed by meeting rules to answer questions directly. But in response to questions after the meeting, Page told the Northeast News that many of the complaints about smells, hours and traffic were really a result of activity at the adjoining business, USS or United Site Services, a company which he said is not owned or affiliated with Big K. In fact, he said, he only owns two small trucks, and all his collected waste is contained and not open to the air. Walle, when advised of this fact, suggested an additional hearing might be necessary to investigate these facts.

Donna Phelps, regional director of the field operations division for the TCEQ, said that comments taken at the meeting would be put into the record. At the close of the public comment period the commission will consider any requests for a contested case hearing. After that the thee-member TCEQ Commission will decide to approve the permit amendment request, deny the request or approve the request with conditions.

Prior to the meeting, the TCEQ had their own team of investigators examine the application and the facility to determine if the request met state environmental requirements.

“The permit meets all the technical aspects for compliance with TCEQ regulations,” said Ashley Wadzick, special counsel to the TCEQ Executive Director.