The town of Hempstead is the county seat of Waller County, about 50 miles northwest of Houston. Its population of about 6,000 is more than 75 percent black and Hispanic.
For about three years now, a proposed landfill has dominated the topic of conversation here.
Diana Tatum, with the group Citizens Against the Landfill in Hempstead, has environmental concerns about the proposed project.
“The landfill is actually positioned over an aquifer,” Tatum said. “And the aquifer is what feeds the natural creeks of my backyard. So, I have animals, livestock. I’m a gardener. I eat everything that I grow. So the water that feeds the animals and the livestock and the plants, I wouldn’t want that to be poisoned.”
The landfill will mostly receive garbage from the Houston region.
The issue came to a head when the Waller County Commissioners Court voted to pave the way for the Pintail Landfill in February of last year, over the objection of hundreds of residents, including the mayor of Hempstead.
That vote triggered a lawsuit by the city against the county and Pintail Landfill, LLC. Opening arguments in the trial started Monday at the Waller County District Court.
“The city of Hempstead is pretty happy that now we’re going forward to hopefully resolve the issue,” said attorney Corey Ouslander, who is representing the city in the case.
He said the trial is not about whether the landfill is good or bad, but about whether the county acted within its authority when it allowed the landfill to be built in Hempstead’s extra-territorial jurisdiction. That is, an area outside the city limits that the city can exercise authority over.
The Waller County Courthouse
“The problem is the fact that they’ve authorized that area as only the place to put the Pintail Landfill and that’s within the city’s ETJ,” Ouslander said. “And the idea that they can control certain aspects in the city’s ETJ.”
Jim Allison, attorney for Waller County, said the county has an interest in having a court issue a clarification on the jurisdiction question.
“Does the county have the authority to do a solid waste ordinance in the ETJ (extra-territorial jurisdiction) of the city?” Allison said. “And does the county have the authority to do a host agreement? We feel those are questions of law that the court should determine before going to trial on any other issues.”
While he thinks the county acted properly and within the law on its decision, the attorney for the county also said commissioners had no other choice because the company, Pintail Landfill, had already filed an application with the state.
“They opposed the landfill initially and tried to stop it,” Allison said. “But once they found that the application was already on file with the state and their ordinance would not apply to it, they secured the rest of the county from any further landfills appearing in those areas. That’s frankly all they could do at that point.”
The group Citizens Against the Landfill in Hempstead are also involved in the lawsuit. They allege that the county and Pintail negotiated behind closed doors and that the county violated the Texas Public Information Act.
Meanwhile, voters exercised their power and voted out the county judge and the two commissioners who supported the ordinance.
The trial is scheduled to last until Dec. 9. Should it not be resolved by then, it will continue in February.