On March 6, people as far as Three Rivers and Pearsall could see a billowing cloud of black smoke in the sky coming from a private residence off Verdi Road in northern Atascosa County. The smoke was the result of thousands of burning tires from an outof control trash fire. The property owners are said to have been running illegal tire operations at the residence for years.
To this day, it is said that thousands of unburned tires still remain onsite and that the property owners continue to run illegal operations.
Atascosa County Commissioners Court held a public hearing Monday morning to figure out a resolution for the ongoing issue. Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) representatives were present via Zoom with Atascosa County Fire Marshal Roger Garcia, Assistant County Attorney Trent Rowell and concerned neighbors of the private residence in attendance as well.
County’s actions so far
The issue first came to Garcia’s attention mid-late October 2019, shortly after he was named fire marshal. Garcia explained this particular property had been an issue long before his arrival.
“We have had multiple conversations over the past year and a half with TCEQ to get this operation put to a stop,” said Garcia. “It has been an ongoing process that we will not let rest until we get it cleaned up.”
In November 2019, his office created a case number and sent the owner a certified letter stating they were in violation of the Texas Health and Safety code 343411, which is what the county uses at their level for abatement. The owner was cited in January 2020 for not abating the property or requesting a hearing within the 30-day timeframe.
“They didn’t make the effort to come forward at all,” said Garcia.
The owners said they were legally running the operation and had a permit through TCEQ, however, that paperwork was never processed. In late January 2020, Garcia and TCEQ Investigator Amanda Butcher went to the residence for a site visit. At that time, Garcia said there were around 5,000-6,000 tires on the property. When the fire occured on March 6, Garcia reported over 150,000 tires onsite.
On February 21, 2020, the owner went to court for the citation and pled no contest. At this point, the county could move forward with the abatement process. However, TCEQ brought in a criminal investigator to look into the property along with anyone who might have been involved with the operations. The county was then waiting for a hearing date. That’s when COVID-19 put a halt on everything. In July 2020, Garcia sent a final 10-day notice to TCEQ so that the case could be brought to court. TCEQ responded in August saying they were looking further into the case and moving forward with the process.
“I let it sit on that because I was looking for something heavier to hit [the owners] with than just the abatement,” said Garcia, who further explained it was going to cost well over $1 million of taxpayer money the county does not have to clean up this one property. Legally, there is nothing else the county can do at this point since it is a private residence in a subdivision.
“We are doing everything, looking at every angle we can work to get this solved without using taxpayer money,” said Garcia. “Make no mistake, we do not tolerate this in our county and with the help of TCEQ, we will put an end to it.”
Assistant County Attorney Trent Rowell commended Garcia for bringing the issue to attention and continually seeking a remedy.
“There is a fix to the problem, but it’s going to involve criminal statutes and I believe we are at that point,” said Rowell. “We just need to gather more evidence on our side, and I am going to need the help of the neighbors to do that, too.”
Rowell encouraged the neighbors in attendance to speak with him after the hearing as TCEQ had some ideas that involved their cooperation to further the criminal case on the residence. As far as pursuing further action in court, Rowell explained that the District Attorney’s Office is well within bounds to step in and help the county prosecute the case.
Neighbors of the private residence in question attended the public hearing with a few speaking during the public hearing about the issue.
Among them were Randy Schulz and his wife Barbara who each thanked TCEQ representatives for their continued hand in solving the case. However, Randy stated he was disappointed in the county’s role and called for the immediate termination of Commissioner Mark Gillespie, Pct. 1, and Fire Marshal Garcia. On the other hand, Barbara was thankful to hear about the many actions the county has taken to get the property cleaned up and how they are working with TCEQ to expedite the process.
Michael Olle stated he held several conversations with Garcia and Gillespie over the past year and a half about the property and disagreed with Randy.
“I think they’ve done a fantastic job. I’m not an attorney and I don’t pretend to be, but I understand how complicated the legal system is,” said Olle. “My concern is, we gotta stop the bleeding.”
Olle stated he was onsite the day of the fire on March 6 and said that only through the leadership of the county commissioners, multiple fire departments, hundreds of people and the grace of God were they able to contain it.
“If this happens again, we may not be so fortunate. We gotta stop the bleeding and I think that’s where TCEQ needs to come in and step up. We are very fortunate that we didn’t have any other loss of property that day or loss of lives. But we gotta stop the bleeding. They are still continuing to haul tires into the property. We all know that for a fact, and they don’t care. We’re going to have another fire. So, we gotta stop the bleeding, meaning we got to stop them from hauling in the tires. We can’t fix the problem until we can stop them first.”
County Judge Bob Hur- ley emphasized that the county would find a way to expedite the process and prosecute the case. “We will find a way to get this stopped and cleaned up. It’s going to take prosecution. I wanted it done yesterday, but let’s just get that paperwork done soon.”
Commissioner Gillespie echoed the residents’ sentiments about wanting to see some timely manner taking place. “It was a problem from the past. It’s now my problem in my precinct and I feel like a red-headed stepchild here. I don’t feel like I’m getting the attention. It’s a shame that it’s taken a fire of great magnitude to wake some people up. I support our residents and I want to see some more action taken on a faster note. I want to see what it would take to keep them from continuing on. It’s understandable where we stand here on a whole.”
Commissioners Stuart Knowlton, Eliseo Perez and Kennard Riley seconded the comments of the residents and Gillespie.
“They know they have to abide by TCEQ requirements. They know they’re in violation. It’s simply criminals doing criminal activity,” said Garcia. “We gotta move fast. They’re going to continue doing this unless we pursue bigger action.”