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State orders hearing on camp permit

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The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality has agreed to hold a more in-depth analysis of a permit for a proposed wastewater treatment plant at a Christian youth camp being constructed near Tarpley to evaluate several issues raised by critics, including how well the proposed permit protects the area’s water quality both on the surface and underground.

An April 27 interim order signed by TCEQ Chairman Jon Niermann said six individuals living close to the youth camp and its proposed wastewater plant along with the community group called the Friends of Hondo Canyon that has challenged the plant raised relevant issues about the wastewater permit that needed to be referred to the State Office of Administrative Hearings for a contested case hearing, something that critics had worked hard to secure.

Not only will the hearing look at environmental and site suitability issues raised by critics, it also will make a decision on whether the draft permit for the plant should be altered or denied based on the demands of the Texas Water Code.

Margo Denke, one of the nearby property owners and the founder of the Friends organization, said even though TCEQ rules give special consideration to the claims of property owners within a mile of the proposed discharge point for the plant, who include three members of the her group, the order “is an important win for us.”

“It’s a validation that we have significant issues that require a contested case hearing,” she said. “It is progress.”

Denke also said the owners and developer of the camp have said they are willing to go to mediation with critics over the issues raised about the wastewater permit before the contested case hearing is held to see if a compromise is possible. The Friends will participate in those talks. Mediation does not produce a binding resolution, but it could produce positive benefits for the environment, and the Friends are willing to see where it leads, said Denke.

“These are very difficult battles to fight, but it’s worth it,” she said. “This is our land and our water. It’s where we live.”

Sam Torn, a businessman and lawyer who owns the youth camp and another established youth camp in Arkansas, said the decision on the contested case hearing was an expected one since it is part of the process established by the state in reviewing projects like the wastewater plant.

“We look forward to the successful resolution of the matter, which hopefully will end up to everyone’s benefit,” Torn said.

He acknowledged that the interim order called on the parties to engage in an Alternative Dispute Resolution Program, which could include mediation, for fourto-six weeks before the contested case hearing process begins.

The time the hearing will be held was not specified in the order.

Torn said his firm has been open to talking to critics about their concerns at any time and also is interested in seeing what those talks can produce.

One issue scheduled for examination in the planned hearing has to do with whether the Torn’s history of compliance with environmental requirements in other projects raises an issue concerning his ability to comply with the proposed wastewater permit to the point that it would require the TCEQ to alter or deny the permit.

Torn said he and his development team are interested in learning more about that issue since the firm that operates the other camp has never had an environmental violation imposed against it that he was aware of.

“We have no negative compliance history, period,” he said.

Other issues that the TCEQ set for review in the contested case hearing are whether the proposed wastewater permit will adequately protect water quality in the area, including groundwater and water from wells, whether the permit properly protects the health of area residents, their livestock and wildlife, whether the permit accurately describes where the plant’s outfall will be located and whether the application complied with public notice requirements.

The hearing also will study whether the commission should alter the terms of the proposed permit as dictated by the water code or even deny the application.

Critics, led by the Friends group which currently consists of 130 families, have argued that the permit should be altered to a zero-discharge wastewater plant that would dispose of the wastewater over land as fertilizer rather than releasing it into Commissioners Creek.

That creek is currently in a nearly pristine state and any discharge of nutrient-filled discharge into it and other creeks it feeds would contaminate the water, threaten livestock and wildlife and jeopardize the aquifer that the streams feed, critics have claimed.

The camp, on Farm Road 470 east of Farm Road 462, had originally proposed the discharge of 49,000 gallons a day of treated wastewater into the creeks but revised the application to set up an overland discharge system for 75 percent of the wastewater.

The camp would still be able under the revision to discharge 25 percent of the wastewater into Commissioners Creek in rainy periods when the land was too wet to absorb the effluent deposited on it.

Critics said that too would be too much waste for the small creeks to properly handle.