SPRING BRANCH, Texas – Take a drive north on Highway 281 into Comal County and the beauty of the Texas Hill Country comes into view. In recent years, however, that picturesque landscape has been marred by a large metal and plastics dump in Spring Branch.
The eyesore is located in the 13600 block of Highway 281. The property is home to We Recycle Texas, a plastics and metal recycling business operated by William "Bill" Easley that has ruffled feathers and flouted the law since it began operating in 2014.
In June, a fed-up resident who lives in the area contacted the KSAT Defenders, urging someone to investigate why the dump continues to exist when residents have been complaining about it to local and state officials for the past four years.
The Defenders’ Tim Gerber learned the situation was more than just an eyesore. State and local officials call it an environmental hazard and are in the process of trying to shut the operation down and force Easley to clean up the land.
"It's the bane of my existence as a commissioner. It is a problem to any- and everybody who even sees it, and it's the No. 1 complaint in my entire term in office," said Jen Crownover, Comal County Precinct 4 commissioner.
Crownover was one of the first elected officials asked to tackle the mess in 2014. Despite her best efforts, there wasn't much the county could do to regulate a business in the unincorporated area of Comal County.
"Honestly, I don't feel like we have enough teeth as county government to be able to take care of something like this, or this wouldn't be here," Crownover said. "This is not only a health and safety issue, it's depreciating property values around here, and it's something that people out here don't deserve to live next to."
When the city of Spring Branch incorporated in 2015, it fell on city officials to do something about the growing problem.
Mayor James Mayer got an ordinance passed, outlawing the operation of junk yards, salvage yards, automotive wrecking yards and recycling centers within the city limits.
"(Easley) wasn't grandfathered under any of those things because he didn't operate any of those things with a legal license or permit," Mayer said.
According to state records obtained by the Defenders, Easley began operating We Recycle Texas sometime in March 2014.
Inspectors from the Texas Department of Public Safety's Regulatory Services Division wrote in a Salvage/MRE Inspection Report dated July 3, 2014, "The company has been open for 4 months - has not reported to DPS."
The inspectors noted several violations and issued Easley a notice of reprimand. State inspectors returned to the site in September 2014 and found more violations, resulting in a second letter of reprimand. When Easley failed to act on the letters, his metal recycling permit was suspended in January 2015.
A letter issued to Easley stated: "As of January 13, 2015, DPS determined that We Recycle Texas is operating as a metals recycling entity and not reporting business transactions to DPS. This is the third violation within ... 2 years."
By April 2015, DPS reinstated Easley's permit, but it was suspended a second time in April 2016. Based on the documents, it does not appear Easley fought the second suspension or made efforts to renew his permit.
Despite not having a permit to buy recycled metals, Easley continued to operate the business, which grew in size, eventually filling the 3.6-acre lot.
"He's basically kind of ignored every request by any agency and been very uncooperative," Mayer said.
According to county tax records, the land is valued at nearly $390,000. The listed owners are dead and the land is now owned by their heirs, who allowed Easley to operate the recycling business on it.
The state of Texas is now taking Easley and one of the landowners to court, seeking an injunction to shut him down and laying out a timeline for the property to be cleaned up.
According to the lawsuit, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality began investigating complaints two years ago. When TCEQ investigators visited the site, they found multiple "violations of state laws" and "TCEQ rules concerning municipal solid waste, hazardous waste, discharge of waste, and storage of used oil."
In March 2016, TCEQ investigators estimated there were 10,000 cubic yards of waste at the site. When they returned in March of this year, they found the waste had doubled to 20,000 cubic yards. By comparison, a typical dump truck can haul about 14 cubic yards, which means it could take 1,428 truckloads to remove all the debris.
"We have reason to believe, and some of the investigations that I've been privy to have revealed, that there are unlabeled hazardous waste containers coming in contact with the ground, so there's very much an environmental concern there," Mayer said. "It's a free country and people have the right to fight what they disagree with, so I'm sure he'll have that opportunity."
Easley refused to participate in an on-camera interview for KSAT, but he still gave his side of the story.
"I think I'm being bullied by the state of Texas," Easley said. "They want to sue me for $1 million. You know how they're going to get $1 million out of me? If they can sell my corpse to medical research. I have no money."
Easley said 90 percent to 98 percent of the materials on the property are recyclable plastics that are bailed and ready to be shipped to a buyer. The problem is one of the main buyers of recyclable plastics, China, announced last year it would no longer accept recyclables from foreign countries.
Easley said he's lined up a new buyer in Mexico and is in the process of finishing the paperwork to be able to export the plastics.
"If this deal in Mexico goes through, that will be my saving grace," Easley said. "We have almost all our 'I's dotted and all our 'T's crossed to start shipping this stuff out."
Easley strongly refutes any claims by the state that there's hazardous waste being stored on the property.
"There is no hazardous waste here. I can't recycle hazardous waste," Easley said. "If there's anything here (it’s) oil. It’s because somebody dropped off a 5-gallon bucket of it because they are too lazy to take it to an oil change place."
Easley said the landowners have evicted him because he is behind on his rent, and he hopes to be off the property by the middle of October, taking all of the recyclables with him.
Local officials aren't taking any chances and are placing their hopes on the injunction, which is scheduled for a hearing on Sept. 20 in Austin.
"We're hopeful and we pray that we get some relief from this and the citizens will start to see some results from it," Mayer said. "We're hopeful that (Easley will) be cooperative and we can see the thing start to go away."