SPRING BRANCH, Texas – An illegal dump along Highway 281 in Comal County has been the source of major frustration for residents and local politicians for the past seven years as they watched it grow out of control into a mountain of a mess.
The eyesore has been the subject of several Defender’s stories and the state even tried to force the dump operator and the landowner to clean it up but with very little success.
Now a new owner has taken over and he’s finally making some progress.
On a recent follow-up visit to the site, the Defenders’ Tim Gerber found crews hard at work cleaning up the long-neglected and abused piece of land in Spring Branch. Local resident and businessman Kevin Ellis is the man responsible for all that activity.
He recently bought the property and is using his experience clearing sites to remove the massive mess.
”We’re here to clean up the eyesore that we have to drive by every day,” Ellis said. “My family goes to the river and the lake here like everybody else and we’re nestled in between some of the most beautiful country in Texas, in my opinion, and for this to be here is just an eyesore. So we’re going to work on it until we’re done.”
High above the 3.6-acre plot, video taken by KSAT’s Sky12 reveals how much Ellis has accomplished in the short time since he bought the troubled property. Once covered entirely with mounds of debris and trash, the land is slowly beginning to clear.
A big change from 2018 when the Defenders first started investigating the man who made the mess, William “Bill” Easley. At the time, Easley was running an illegal recycling company on the land he was leasing.
Within four months of starting “We Recycle Texas” in 2014, state regulators were after him for numerous violations.
His permit to operate was suspended but Easley continued to take in tons of materials that quickly piled up.
By 2016, investigators from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality were visiting the site, declaring it an “environmental hazard.” In 2018, the Texas Attorney General sued Easley and landowner Ed Rifenbury.
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.
Rifenbury attempted to take over the cleanup but quickly found himself in way over his head. He eventually agreed to sell the land to Ellis, who has more than 25 years of experience in demolition and commercial site clearing.
”This is probably one of the worst ones, not the biggest one we’ve done, but one of the worst ones, one of the most just absolutely ignored environmentally properties that we’ve ever done,” Ellis said.
When Ellis agreed to buy the land, he also took on the legal responsibility to properly clean it up as ordered by the state.
So far, Ellis estimates he’s removed more than 150 tons of material. He’s been focusing first on the stuff that can actually be recycled, items someone paid Easley to take that Ellis is now paying to have removed.
”I mean there’s piles of things that just scream he was being a unprofessional recycler. There’s maybe 50,000 remote controls over there that I’ve got to deal with,” Ellis said. “You know, all that stuff comes out of my pocket -- the transportation, so that load alone just to get the guy up there and back is going to be right at a $1,000.”
Spring Branch Mayor James Mayer was pleased to see the land finally getting the attention it deserved, but thinks Easley is getting off too easy.
”Well, (Ellis) bailed them out to an extent, but to my mind, there’s still a criminal offense that was committed I believe (Easley) should be pursued for,” Mayer said. “He deserves to participate financially. I mean, he created the mess. He should help.”
Ultimately it’s up to the state to decide what penalty, if any, Easley could face. But for now, he’s just happy to see the progress Ellis is making.
”Kevin has done a great job. He’s done everything that he said he was going to do,” Mayer said. “It puts a smile on my face when I drive by and see the progress and see, you know, the truckloads of stuff coming out of here. You know, we’ve been patient for a long, long time. We just need to be patient a bit longer.”
So how long will it take to finally clear the land and turn it into something positive?
”We want it done by tomorrow because it’s costing us a bunch of money, so we’re trying to be smart along the way. I would assume that in the four to six-month range, you’ll see a significant difference out here,” Ellis said.
Once Ellis finishes clearing the site, he’ll have to test the soil to see if he needs to remove any of it due to contamination. So far, he’s only come across a few containers of oil and some older TV sets that could have leaked hazardous chemicals into the ground.
While he hasn’t decided what will eventually go on the rejuvenated property, Ellis promised it would be something the community would be proud of.
”We’re going to do something productive with the property and if we, in turn, decide to sell it, then we’re going to make sure that whoever buys it, contract-wise, is bound to something productive for the community.”