TRAVIS COUNTY, Texas (KXAN) -- An industrial company that is being blamed for a hazardous chemical leak that compromised the water supply in Corpus Christi is now opening a facility near Manor and the people who live nearby aren't happy with their new neighbor.
Rob and Robyn Lein are first-time homebuyers and first-time parents to baby boy, Mateo. They moved into the Bell Farms neighborhood in Manor in 2015. They wanted to get away from the city and experience life at a slower pace – this was where they wanted to raise their son, but, not at the expense of their health and peace of mind.
“We’re worried about the long-term effects on our family,” explained Robyn Lein. “It makes the kids cough and it’s just really uncomfortable. So, you can’t really enjoy the neighborhood that you moved into.”
The Leins' say it’s so much more than an inconvenient odor coming from the Ergon Asphalt and Emulsions, Inc. industrial plant down the street.
“Every time you step outside or you open the door, you are hit with that really, really strong smell of asphalt,” continued Robyn.
Her husband agrees.
“It's hard to breathe when the plant is running. You come out and it smells like – it's like you're standing on top of 10 basketball courts in the middle of the day,” said Rob.
The couple is one of several homeowners in the neighborhood who have complained about the new industrial plant being built at 13811 Old Highway 20.
“Both of my daughters and my husband all started in on respiratory issues,” said Caroline Caruso, who first started smelling the odor back in March. “My oldest daughter started in on a cough with no other symptoms. She had it for an entire month and we had to take her in to the pediatrician.”
The girl was placed on a strong steroid for two weeks until the cough was gone. Caruso says the doctor believed her symptoms were likely environmental. Caruso, who is pregnant with her third child, says the possible connection is concerning, to say the least – especially for her young children.
“To have these really disgusting melted rubber smells all the time, I worry about taking them to play in the backyard. That's the whole reason I bought a house was so we could have a backyard and let my kids run around. Now I question whether I should take them outside," said Caruso.
Bonny Krahn and her husband Stephen moved to the area nearly four years ago for the idyllic life and space.
“We moved here because it's rural and you can go outside and smell hay, the farmland and all that, and it's just wonderful,” said Krahn. “Now, it's you go outside and it smells like they're laying asphalt in front of your house.”
Krahn says she has asthma and sleep apnea and struggles to breathe. The odor from the plant hasn't helped.
People in the neighborhood say they didn’t know anything about plans to build the asphalt plant until construction really got underway at the beginning of 2017.
“They didn't talk to the citizens. They didn't interview us. There was no conversation with us, whatsoever and that's less than a mile from our home,” said Robyn. “When they constructed the plant, they pulled up train box cars to actually block the field of vision while they were constructing it. So, as you drove by, you weren't able to see what was happening, and then once the plant was fully constructed, the box cars moved out of the way and you could see it. It seemed very nefarious.”
The homeowners say they don’t understand how and why an industrial plant is allowed to be built so close to a neighborhood in the first place. After numerous complaints to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) along with local municipal leaders, and seemingly getting nowhere with their health and safety concerns, the community turned to KXAN for answers.
KXAN's investigation revealed the plant and the company behind it are not breaking any rules or laws by moving in and setting up shop.
"It smells like... you're standing on top of 10 basketball courts in the middle of the day."
Ergon Asphalt and Emulsions, Inc. uses hot mix to make a variety of asphalt products. The company has locations across the country. The plant in northeast Travis County will be the company's ninth location in Texas. The plant is in its final phases of development, but county officials say the company has gone into full mode production of asphalt at the site.
Experts say an industrial plant can be built as close as 100 feet to homes, so long as the land classification allows.
“You can have an industrial facility with an air emission going up right next door to your house, potentially, if you’re in an area that allows that,” said Jon White, the director for natural resources and environment quality in Travis County.
In this case, because the site is located in the city of Austin’s Extra Territorial District, or ETJ, it meets the standard to build and operate near these neighborhoods, meeting requirements outlined by the city and county. Therefore, Manor stakeholders have no jurisdictional authority concerning the location with regard to use or site development.
Thomas Bolt, Manor's city manager, said in a statement, "The City does understand the concerns of our residents, supports their actions in getting questions answered and issues resolved but needs to allow the authorities having jurisdiction to conduct any investigations they deem necessary and respond to the conclusions reached.”
Travis County code mandates the applicant, in this case Ergon Asphalt and Emulsions, Inc., to mail a notification of the proposed project along with an accurate site location map and a simple exhibit of the proposed project to the local Emergency Services District, the fire marshal, and any homeowners associations located within 1,000 feet of the perimeter of the plant tract.
In short: the people living in the Bell Farms subdivision didn't have to be notified because they didn't live close enough to the plant.
The Permitting Process
KXAN checked city, county and state records and determined Ergon Asphalt and Emulsions, Inc. has all the proper permits required.
Austin approved the building permit, monitors various reviews at the site, heads up the environmental review, and Travis County inspected the site, and still does.
“After recent complaints that we had about nuisance odors, we sent one of our staff members out to take a look at the site,” explained White. “He did not that there was no particular odor, except when he was right next to the facility.”
The county’s largest concern at this facility? Storm water.
“At any kind of development site, you're going to want to be able to manage storm water, and control quality and quantity of storm water that's being discharged on the site,” White explained. “At an industrial site, you’ve got somewhat more extensive concerns. You’d be looking at any potential areas of contamination."
White says the retention ponds the facility will use to handle storm water on site are dug, but they have not yet been fully stabilized.
To comply with TCEQ regulations, county officials say the plant has developed a system of scrubbers to control odors, as well. The company has said they went above and beyond those requirements, installing those mechanisms before the facility is entirely completed.
A Questionable Track Record in Texas
This is not the first time Ergon Asphalt and Emulsions, Inc. has upset its neighbors. The company is currently being blamed for causing a four-day water ban in Corpus Christi after city leaders there say an industrial chemical was released into the drinking water in December 2016.
Business owners and homeowners alike are suing the company for over $1 million in damages. The 300,000 residents in the coastal city were told not to drink or even touch the water during that time. Plaintiffs in the suit claim the company “recklessly exposed unsuspecting business owners, employees, and residents to toxic chemicals, contaminated their water and forced the closure of their businesses.”
Initial reports from the TCEQ indicated that a backflow incident from an industrial chemical tank occurred that may have released Indulin AA-86 and hydrochloric acid into the public water system. Indulin is an asphalt emulsifying agent that's corrosive and can burn the eyes, skin and respiratory tract if a person comes into contact with concentrated amounts.
KXAN contacted the company repeatedly requesting an interview and answers to our questions about operations at the plant near Manor and how it compares to operations at the Corpus Christi facility. The company’s lawyer told us they have “no comment at this time.” The company itself would not verify if it's part of the Manor operation. For security reasons, the state wouldn't tell us either.
However, sources close to the company tell KXAN News the operation near Manor will not use any hazardous materials -- only asphalt, polymer, rubber, and a cross-linking agent.
Earlier this year, the city of Austin and Austin Water awarded Ergon Asphalt and Emulsions, Inc. the Excellence in Drinking Water Protection award for "protecting Austin's drinking water through backflow prevention."
While it may be perfectly legal for Ergon Asphalt and Emulsions, Inc. to operate where they are, homeowners in the Bell Farms neighborhood say they are banding together in hopes of suing the company. That may not move forward, however, until the Corpus Christi case plays out in court.
Unsatisfied with the company's actions, Rob and Robyn Lein have plans to move away.
If you live in Travis County and have concerns about environmental quality in your area, call the Travis County Environmental Hotline at (512) 854-4400.
For more information about how to file a complaint with TCEQ, or check the status of a site as reviewed by the state agency, visit the TCEQ Central Registry Query here.
Editor's Note: The original version of this story had a photograph of another company that is located adjacent to Ergon Asphalt and Emulsions Incorporated. The image has been updated to Ergon Asphalt and Emulsions Inc.'s location.
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