SPRING BRANCH, Texas – For the past seven years, Comal County and state officials have tried to force the operator of an illegal dump in Spring Branch to clean up his act.
Despite taking business owner William “Bill” Easley to court and having him arrested twice for failing to follow court orders, the massive mess along Highway 281 remains.
Now, the state is focusing its enforcement efforts on Edward Rifenbury, the owner of the land. Rifenbury inherited the 3.6 acre plot of land located in the 13600 block of Highway 281 North from his parents.
He also inherited the mess left behind by his former tenant, Bill Easley, who was running a plastics and metal recycling business on the land.
“And he was doing decent. And then he just stopped recycling stuff and just kept taking stuff in,” Rifenbury said, recalling how Easley operated the business. “We tried to get him to clean it up. And it wasn’t moving as fast as he should have been taking it off.”
According to state records obtained by the Defenders, Easley began operating “We Recycle Texas”, a metal and recycling business, on the property in 2014. Satellite images of the property show just how quickly the land filled up with debris.
Soon after Easley opened for business, the complaints began to pile up as fast as the piles of plastics and metal.
”The state and everybody has kind of dropped the ball because it should have never gotten this far in the first place,” Rifenbury said. “It’s caused a few sleepless nights. And it’s stressful and the whole thing has been a mess, you know, after trying to get him to clean it up, trying to get answers from the state, why they didn’t hold him responsible and stuff like that. So it’s just it’s been a nightmare.”
While Rifenbury blames others for allowing things to get out of hand on his land, in reality, it only took the state four months to take notice of Easley’s operation. An inspection in July 2014 found Easley was not following state guidelines and he was cited for numerous violations.
A second failed inspection later that year led to his recycling permit being suspended for 30 days in 2015. It was suspended again in 2016 following more violations. After that, Easley continued to operate without a permit.
In 2018, the Texas Attorney General sued Easley and Rifenbury. Inspectors from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality alleged in the suit the site was filled with more than plastics and metals. They said it also contained hazardous chemicals and other harmful fluids.
A judge granted the state a permanent injunction and ordered Easley to begin cleaning up the property. When he failed to comply, Easley was arrested for contempt of court twice in 2019. Now the state is coming after Rifenbury.
”Well, I mean, we’re trying to clean it up and we’ve only had access on the land for like the last nine months,” Rifenbury said.
Rifenbury said he began cleaning up the property after he got Easley evicted but admits it’s a big job for one man.
”I mean, it’s a 24-hour job, basically. You know, we’ve been cleaning, like I said, for the last nine months. And it’s nonstop,” Rifenbury said. “It does take a lot out of me as I’m retired, medically retired, and stuff. And it just beats me up. There’s still an estimated, about 20,000 cubic yards of mess still here.”
Each month he’s required to show the state what he’s removing from the property, sending pictures and receipts to show his progress.
”We’ve hauled off about 60 tons worth of recycling and you know, we’re trying to do what we can,” Rifenbury said. “When we first started this, I was in like total disarray about how we’re going to do it. But it’s slowly gotten to the point for me that I can see an end.”
County Commissioner Jen Crownover said she is frustrated by the snail’s pace of progress.
”We get the monthly email from the Attorney General’s Office, but there’s every now and then I’m like, ‘hey, man, I’ve got six phone calls just this week and, you know, I really need something to tell them,’” Crownover said.
She’s been dealing with the dump since taking office in 2015 and the complaints it draws from her constituents. She’s hopeful Rifenbury will continue to make improvements.
”You know, the man has stood up and accepted responsibility. He has been diligent in his reporting of progress and stuff. And while it’s not enough for any of us, he has been accountable to that,” Crownover said.
James Mayer, the mayor of Spring Branch, is also frustrated with the slow progress of the cleanup.
“They’ve given him a timeline and some specific things that he’s supposed to accomplish in order to get the property cleaned up. And he’s taken some steps, but he’s had some health issues,” Mayer said. “So it’s been a very, very slow process. It’s painstakingly slow to see it day to day. You can’t notice any real progress is being made. So it’s a little frustrating for all of us.”
Mayer has gone as far as helping Easley find potential investors to help him clean up the property but so far none of those deals has worked out. He said he would eventually like to see the state take a more aggressive approach and condemn the property if necessary.
“There’s several options that they could do. All those would not be equitable solutions for the property owner but at some point, it needs to come to that resolution,” Mayer said. “There’s not a defined ending time, which is a little frustrating, but it’s a matter of as long as he continues to make progress and does the minimum, he’s allowed to continue.”
Rifenbury said he’s talking to a new investor who has the tools to clean up the property and could have the job done in as little as 120 days. But he admits it’s tough to give up the land and the more than $391,000 it’s valued at.
“Well, I’ve talked to the investor myself and he’s willing to take all that on,” Rifenbury said. “And again, I’m going to lose money. But, you know, I can’t get anything resolved to sue Mr. Easley or anything, because I know I’ll never get any money out of that. I just have to let it go so it’ll get cleaned up.”