A Texas Commission of Environmental Quality (TCEQ) investigation from May 2019 allegedly found unauthorized disposal of municipal solid waste on a county-owned property. TCEQ investigators discovered two excavated pits—one open and one covered— both filled with garbage at the Gonzales County Precinct 3 yard located at 1813 Water St. in Gonzales.
Precinct 3 County Commissioner Kevin La Fleur addressed the alleged violation at the Dec. 9, 2019 commissioners court meeting by reading a written statement. Despite multiple county officials having been alerted to the allegation months prior, Dec. 9 was the first public acknowledgment of it.
“My intentions are to make it known to everyone the chain of events of this situation,” La Fleur said. “That is why I put this item on the agenda.”
The county was alerted to the alleged violation via a letter from TCEQ addressed to County Judge Pat Davis stamped received on July 25, 2019. The letter alleges the county “failed to comply with general prohibition which states no person may cause, suffer, allow or permit the dumping or disposal of municipal solid waste without the written authorization of the commission.”
On May 20, 2019, TCEQ investigators visited 1813 Water St., which features both office space for La Fleur and a laydown yard used to store precinct 3 vehicles and equipment. Investigators reported the open pit on the property, which was approximately 20-by-30-feet wide and 15-feet deep, featured trash including construction and demolition materials, mattresses, light bulbs, furniture and empty and full paint cans. Investigators were unable to inspect the covered pit but suspected it too was filled with garbage because of a satellite imagery assessment done prior to the site visit.
Investigators also used satellite imagery to compile a loose timeline of the two pits. Between Dec. 2015 and Feb. 2017, a pit was filled with what investigators believed to be trash. In Jan. 2018 the first pit was filled with dirt, and a second one was dug. In Dec. 2018, the second pit was filled with trash and two tractor-trailers had been parked atop the location of the previously covered pit.
TCEQ requested the county submit “a written description of corrective action taken and the required documentation demonstrating that compliance has been achieved for outstanding alleged violations” within 21 days of the date of the letter. To achieve compliance, all waste documented in the identified pits would have to be properly disposed of or recycled at an authorized facility. Documentation, including photographs, shipping documents, waste determinations or analytical data verifying cleanup measures, would also need to be submitted to TCEQ’s Corpus Christi Regional Office.
According to La Fleur’s narrative given at the Dec. 9, 2019 meeting, Davis forwarded the letter to County Attorney Paul Watkins shortly after receiving it. Watkins then subsequently informed La Fleur of the alleged violation. La Fleur then contacted County Emergency Management Coordinator Jimmy Harless who referred him to National Response Corporation (NRC), an environmental, industrial and emergency response solutions company out of Cibolo.
Watkins offered two corrections to La Fleur’s narrative by stating one other individual was present for their meeting and that Watkins offered assistance to La Fleur if he needed any in the clean-up. Watkins did also mention he felt La Fleur’s narrative was accurate besides the corrections.
“In factual base, I think you got it absolutely right,” Watkins said.
La Fleur signed a service order with NRC and brought the order to County Auditor Becky Weston. The service order did not appear as its own agenda item at a commissioners court meeting, but rather were listed as a bill and paid out of the precinct 3 road and bridge fund.
“I was never instructed that the service order needed to be placed on the agenda,” La Fleur said. “The county attorney, county judge, justice of the peace, precinct 1 and the three other commissioners were all aware of the situation and no one ever stated that it needed to be put on the agenda.”
Clean up at the site began on Sept. 4. According to daily project reports submitted by NRC, the clean-up crew found 15 one-gallon cans of paint and a battery which were separated from the rest of the debris and stored in containment drums. The report also noted finding tires, old flattened barrels, trash and mattresses.
On top of the disposal of materials found in the two pits, NRC also submitted soil samples from the site to San Antonio Testing Laboratory. Lab results tested by San Antonio Testing Laboratory on Sept. 25 from the base of one of the pits tested above standards for lead and other chemicals. After speaking with TCEQ, NRC recommended further excavating and testing of the site to ensure compliance. La Fleur signed off on the follow up project on Oct. 7, 2019. As of Oct. 28, 2019, TCEQ said the county has provided documentation which demonstrated adequate actions were taken to address the alleged violation.
In total, the county has paid $29,435.29 for the alleged violation. Those bills were approved with the consent of the court at the Nov. 12, 2019 and Nov. 25, 2019 commissioners court meetings. Though they could be requested afterward, bills are generally not read aloud at commissioners court meetings.
“I never once tried to hide any matters and did what I was instructed to do by Judge Pat Davis and the county attorney,” La Fleur said. “I represent our county that I love and have lived in for almost all of my life. I was trying to do everything I could to keep the citizens of this county out of harms way. I apologize if I was unaware of any requirements other than what I was told to follow, but again, that is not my job. I have inherited a piece of real estate that has been with the county for over 60 years. The problem was not only mine but what went on before me. The problem is cleared up and our county is safe again in my precinct.”