18th District Court Judge John Neal sided with Cleburne and Johnson County on Friday in issuing a temporary injunction against Harrington Environmental Services.
The Joshua company applied for and received a permit from the Texas Commission on Environmental quality in 2016 to apply domestic septage (sewer and water collected from septic tanks) to a tract the company owns at 7501 CR 1009.
Several residents living near the property and several city and county officials protested the application during public meetings held by TCEQ at the time but to no avail.
Several since, including the city and county, have either accused the company of illegal dumping and/or posing a threat to Cleburne’s main water source, Lake Pat Cleburne.
Stephen Dickman, the attorney representing Harrington, objected to the term illegal dumping, which he characterized as a misnomer.
“Harrington Environmental Services performs a beneficial land use that is a highly regulated form of recycling of waste,” Dickman said. “It is strictly regulated by the TCEQ and you have to make a very detailed scientific showing that the site is appropriate through soil testing and showing there in no danger of runoff. Harrington went through all that and received the permit.”
Cleburne and county officials challenged TCEQ’s issuance of the permit in an Austin court. The judge sided with Cleburne but TCEQ appealed the ruling and the case remains ongoing.
Cleburne requested but did not receive an injunction against Harrington while the case remains on appeal.
Cleburne and Johnson County meanwhile filed suit in the 18th District Court claiming nuisance.
A trial date on the nuisance claim is not scheduled until late next year. Friday’s hearing was simply a request by Cleburne and the county for a temporary injunction against Harrington until that time.
Dickman argued that Harrington is not the villain.
“Harrington’s TCEQ permit is still valid and that are authorized by law to apply land domestic septage, which is good for crops. It’s good for soil reclamation. The purpose of their business is to put waste to environmentally beneficial uses. It’s a lot better than having the septic waste disposed of in a landfill or leaving it off on the side of the road somewhere.”
Dickman also questioned whether the 18th District Court has standing to hear the matter.
“The reason a temporary injunction would not be appropriate is because it sets [the 18th] up as an independent environmental regulatory enforcement agency over and above what TCEQ does. TCEQ has inspected the Harrington site five times in the last two years. They have not issued any notices of violation. They have been apprised of all the allegations made in this case and they have not taken any action and closed the complaints.”
Cleburne Mayor Scott Cain testified that he fears runoff from the Harrington property could potentially travel from Wallace Branch Creek on the property to Nolan River and ultimately into Lake Pat.
Such could spell disaster for Cleburne, Cain said.
Cain accused TCEQ of rubber stamping Harrington’s application.
James Parker, an attorney representing the city, noted that an annual required report from Harrington to TCEQ has not be filed and noting that the company self regulates.
Dickman disagreed arguing that the company operates under strict TCEQ guidelines and that TCEQ officials have visited the site several times and have closed out complaints against the property on a basis of no finding.
Cain countered that a written TCEQ reprimand was lodged against another Harrington property nearby, which is used for the same purposes.
Christopher Shane Watts, an inspector with Johnson County’s public work’s department, said he’s received a “plethora of complaints” against the property from residents claiming that Harrington allowed dumping during times of rain and when the ground was saturated, both of which are prohibited under TCEQ guidelines.
Watts provided photos of trucks allegedly dumping during rainfall or when water was running or puddled on Harrington’s property. Nearby residents Johnny Horton and Letha Carmichael provided photographs as well and/or testified that they witnessed such activities.
Thomas Rodney Harrington, principal owner of Harrington Environmental Services, disagreed with all the city and county’s claims when he took the stand.
“I think our rating is very good,” Harrington said. “We make sure everything is in order and diligently follow the dictates of TCEQ and in fact go above and beyond. We’re very concerned from an environmental standpoint.
“I think people are confused as to what we’re doing on the facility and what we’re registered to do. It’s an error on their part. I don’t think they’re intentionally trying to be malicious and don’t understand the benefits and needs for a recycling facility.”
Dickman argued that city and county officials failed to prove any damage or substantiate claims that any runoff from the Harrington property has harmed any other property or waterway, including Lake Pat.
Dickman also said the photos submitted fail to show any proof of illegal dumping.
Company employees took the stand and said the trucks when loaded weight 18,000 to 20,000 pounds.
“The trucks weight too much to discharge when the ground is saturated,” said Robert Powell, Harrington disposal director. “You don’t run a heavy truck out into a muddy field.”
The trucks discharge into holding tanks when it’s raining or the ground is saturated, Powell said. The contents of the tanks is later pulled from the tanks once the ground dries out and spread as usual.
Screens employed during the discharge process capture items not meant to be spread on the ground and the trucks and contents are closely monitored, he said.
Harrington testified that the storage tanks on site have never reached capacity. Should they ever, Harrington said his facility would close down until the ground dried out and divert shipments to similar facilities in other cities in the interim.
One photo of alleged illegal dumping was actually a hydraulics test of one of the company’s trucks, another employee said.
Vivian Harrington, another principal owner of the company, said testified that the annual report the company allegedly failed to file to TCEQ should be finished soon. The hold up, Vivian Harrington said, is that soil samples sent to a lab for testing have not come back. She said that TCEQ has been apprised of the situation and given Harrington permission to turn the report in when it’s ready. All previous soil samples taken from the property have been in compliance, she said.
Parker in closing argued that the 18th District Court has authority over nuisance cases and that Harrington exceeded the limits of what their TCEQ registration allows by dumping in rain and on saturated ground.
Dickman countered that the evidence presented by the city and county amounted merely to inferences, supposition and speculation that fail to show any illegal behavior or damage on Harrington’s part.
Neal disagreed and issued the temporary injunction effective immediately.
Dickman said he and his client will consider all options, which may include appealing Neal’s ruling or waiting until the main case, which will also be in Neal’s court, later next year.
Harrington Environmental will remain open for business, Harrington said, a statement attorneys for Cleburne and the county did not dispute.
“The important thing is that the judge said they created a nuisance because we demonstrated evidence of that,” Cain said after the hearing. “We still have this case and the case in Austin to deal with. But the important thing is that we will do everything in our power to protect our water rights. It’s sad we have to take these measures because if TCEQ had done what they should have done we wouldn’t have to be here.”
Thomas Rodney Harrington after the hearing reiterated that his business benefits the environment and said it would not make sense from a business standpoint for him to pollute neighboring properties or waterways.