Granbury’s controversial plans to build a new sewage treatment plant have hit another snag that could delay construction for at least several more months — or kill the city’s permit application entirely.
Leaders of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality voted on Wednesday to send Granbury’s application to a contested case hearing, which is similar to a civil trial in state district court.
The city seeks to build a second wastewater treatment plant to meet the needs of its rapidly growing population, with plans to discharge up to 2 million gallons of treated wastewater per day into a tributary of Rucker Creek, which flows into Lake Granbury and the Brazos River.
Those blueprints have been met with intense opposition from Hood County residents who use the creek recreationally and fear potential odor issues, drops in property values and consequences for the environment, including harmful algae blooms and accidental discharges of raw sewage, also known as sanitary sewer overflows, that can lead to large fish kills and health risks.
Several residents, particularly those who lived within a mile of the proposed site of the plant at 3121 Old Granbury Road, expected to see their heating request granted on Wednesday, said Victoria Calder, who formed the opposition group Granbury Fresh last year after learning more about the plant.
“We were very pleased,” Calder said. “We feel strongly that if there were no valid concerns, the commission would have recommended that the TCEQ issue a final permit.”
All but one of the requesters received a hearing, including a few people who live near Rucker Creek but just outside of the mile radius of the plant.
Commissioners Bobby Janecka and Jon Niermann agreed that the size of the daily discharge meant that many Hood County property owners had personal, “justiciable” concerns about the plant that affected them differently than members of the general public.
“We’re given, really, a challenging task of deciding what’s the difference between a personal justiciable interest and an interest that’s common to the general public, and it’s not a bright line standard,” Niermann said during the Wednesday meeting. “It’s a very difficult standard to apply.”
In a statement Wednesday evening, City Manager Chris Coffman said the outcome was “expected” and that the vote to grant a contested case hearing was not an indication of any issues with Granbury’s permit application.
“Instead, it was merely a process for determining whether the right people asked for a hearing on issues that are within the TCEQ’s jurisdiction,” Coffman said.
A process that began more than five years ago has been extended and could delay approximately $100 million in pending economic development, Coffman added. He was referring to a moratorium, or pause, on new construction and development projects on Granbury’s east side implemented in December.
Now, the City Council will again consider extending that moratorium on Oct. 4. With years to go before a sewage treatment plant could be constructed and ready for use, Granbury city staff are also developing options to “minimize infiltration of the wastewater treatment system during heavy rain events,” when sewer overflows are more likely, Coffman said.
“The City has proposed to the TCEQ a plan that balances environmental, fiscal and logistical responsibilities,” Coffman said. “At this point, proposing new, short-sighted alternative plans driven by political motivation is not the answer.”
City officials want to blame Granbury Fresh for the moratorium, but the failure to plan infrastructure projects and consider alternatives over the past year has contributed to that crisis, Calder said.
“It’s certainly not that we’re just being difficult,” Calder said. “This is a very ill chosen site for many, many reasons that will negatively impact the city for many decades to come for many, many reasons that we’ve detailed with sound science and sound engineering, not opinions.”
Some of those reasons will be evaluated by an administrative court judge, should the hearing go all the way to a decision. Concerns brought forward by residents include whether the permit is protective of water quality and public health, whether it will adversely affect recreational activities on the creek and if the proposed location complies with the 100-year floodplain standards set by the state, according to Janecka.
Commissioners said the contested case process can last up to 180 days between the preliminary hearing and the judge’s final decision, but it can take at least three or four months for the State Office of Administrative Hearings to set a date for the initial hearing. Any decision, along with comments from both sides, will head back to the commissioners for a vote.
As one of the Texans granted a contested case hearing on Wednesday, Calder has already retained a lawyer and expects Granbury Fresh to expand its fundraising efforts in preparation for a legal battle with the city.
She is “cautiously optimistic” that the city could change its course and research alternative sites for a wastewater plant. Since the TCEQ held a public meeting that drew hundreds of comments last September, Granbury has elected a new mayor and City Council member who have expressed support for finding other solutions to stress on the city’s wastewater treatment capacity, she said.
“We have some good momentum on the part of some officials in looking at an alternative,” Calder said. “Hopefully this ruling will at least set the stage for a real look at the ultimate cost of this project, including the ancillary costs associated with things like an algae bloom and a fish kill. The millions of dollars that we depend on from tourism will also be impacted when they smell the stink right at the main gateway from DFW.”