This Texas mayor is concerned about waste dumping near his city’s water supply

Lake Pat Cleburne is the source of the city of Cleburne’s water supply. The city is embroiled in court battles over whether the water supply is threatened by a company dumping waste nearby. Here, people gather at the lake for a Fourth of July celebration.
Lake Pat Cleburne is the source of the city of Cleburne’s water supply. The city is embroiled in court battles over whether the water supply is threatened by a company dumping waste nearby. Here, people gather at the lake for a Fourth of July celebration.

The city of Cleburne is embroiled in a legal battle to stop a waste disposal company from dumping human waste from septic tanks near the city’s drinking water source and has also sued the state agency that issued the permit allowing the practice.

The city has court cases pending against both Harrington Environmental Services based in Joshua and the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality that issued the permit to allow the company to dump the waste.

Last week, a state district judge in Johnson County issued a temporary injunction against Harrington Environmental Services on the basis that the company was violating the terms of its permit.

The company was accused of dumping waste when it rained and when the ground was saturated, heightening concerns that the waste could seep into Lake Pat Cleburne, where the city with 30,000 residents gets its drinking water. The lake is also a flood control reservoir and a popular recreation spot in Johnson County.

The 68-acre site at 7501 County Road 1009 is near the area where Joshua, Cleburne and Godley meet. It is about eight miles upstream from the lake along the Wallace tributary of the Nolan River.

Thomas Harrington, a spokesman for the company, called the allegations false and said he won’t back away from a fight.

“This is not a landfill, and it is not a dump site,” Harrington said, referring to the land near Cleburne. “This is a recycling program sanctioned by the state which is why we were able to get our permit,” he said.

Harrington said the process his company uses involves treating liquid waste from septic tanks which is mixed with the soil to enrich it.

“We believe in property rights,” he said. “Whether you like it or not, we have a right to do this as long as it doesn’t harm anyone.”

Cleburne Mayor Scott Cain said witnesses saw the dumping occur when it was raining and when the ground was saturated, which is why the city took legal action.

“That is why we were so dogmatic about this issue. People can rest assured that Cleburne with the help of Johnson County will aggressively protect and defend Cleburne’s water source,” he said.

“If our water is contaminated, the results would be catastrophic for us economically, as our businesses would be forced to shut down,” he said.

In October, the city of Austin had to issue a boil water notice after flooding led to contamination of the city’s water supply. Businesses including bars and restaurants were forced to close. Ongoing flooding led to silt and dirt flowing into Lake Travis. The boil water notice was the first in the city’s history, and the mayor issued a disaster declaration.

But Harrington argued that the land where the waste is dumped is flat, and it can’t flow into the creek.

Cleburne vs. the state

Cleburne also sued the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality in Travis County, arguing that the agency “erred” when it issued the permit to Harrington Environmental Services and that the company shouldn’t be allowed to dump waste on the property near the lake. In October, a Travis County court ruled in favor of the city, but the attorney general’s office issued a notice to appeal. As a result, Harrington can continue operating on the property.

In a letter to Attorney General Ken Paxton, Cain questioned why the state is spending taxpayer dollars when a city’s water supply could be in danger.

“TCEQ’s actions are placing the interests of Harrington above a community of more than 30,000 who depend upon potable water from Lake Pat Cleburne.,” he said in the letter. “I am not saying Harrington should not be allowed to dump its waste somewhere, but simply saying that dumping on the banks of the Nolan River at the headwaters of a growing community’s water source is a bad idea. Quite frankly, this is a no brainer upon which TCEQ somehow dropped the ball.”

The TCEQ and the attorney general’s office declined to comment, citing the pending litigation.

Meanwhile, Harrington said he is operating a “green” company and that the enriched soil can be used for purposes such as growing hay and planting crops.

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With my guide dog Barbara, I keep tabs on growth, economic development and other issues in Northeast Tarrant cities and other communities near Fort Worth. I’ve been a reporter at the Star-Telegram for 34 years.