Stephanie Marquez / Rivard Report
A pile of construction waste approximately 30 feet tall has been sitting on vacant land next to Leon Creek on the West Side for years, and there appears to be no way to get it cleaned up anytime soon.
The pile is all that remains of a now-defunct company called Alamo Recycle of San Antonio. Made up of mostly roof shingles, the pile was intended to be recycled – the shingles would be remade into asphalt, and other construction and demolition waste, such as wood, also would be turned into usable material, said Robert King, Jr., Alamo Recycle’s founder.
For four years, State environmental regulators, the Texas Attorney General’s Office, and San Antonio Code Enforcement all have been trying to crack down on King, even suing his companies to try to get the site cleaned up.
In court filings from a case that started in 2016, attorneys for the AG’s office alleged that Alamo Recycle was storing waste without the proper permits and in a way that could pollute Leon Creek.
Asked about the allegations against his company, King said having household waste and other trash on-site was simply part of the reality of operating a recycling business. He said his workers were bagging it, putting it in trash cans and other containers, and properly disposing of it. He added that pollution did not reach the creek because of a berm they had built around the waste and because they were storing only dry products, not liquids.
“We had and have every intention of being a legitimate recycler,” King said in a phone interview with the Rivard Report this week. “This isn’t like we were just trying to collect all these shingles and then just skip out of town. That was never our intention.”
In June 2018, a State district judge approved a settlement in which King’s companies did not admit liability but agreed to pay a $150,000 fine and have the waste removed within two years. King said they were able to remove and sell around 10,000 tons of recycled shingle material last year.
But one year after the settlement, a massive waste pile still sits on the property at 6112 Enrique M. Barrera Parkway. One major snag in its removal seems to be the property’s purchase at a foreclosure auction in November.
The new owners’ names are Mahmoud Rafati and Nizar Musa, according to land records. Neither had working numbers listed in Bexar County. After the property changed hands, Code Enforcement has been filing cases against the new owners, a City spokesperson said.
King said he has not been able to get in touch with the new owners to try to get the waste removed.
“We are happy to work with them or anyone else to get the product off there,” King said.
Business Was Good
The saga started in 2009, when Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) issued a memo allowing for asphalt roofing shingles to be reused in hot asphalt mix plants. It was a way to make use of a waste product and offset some of the use of virgin oil in making new asphalt.
“What was so cool about this business and why it was such a unique opportunity … is it was one of the few [materials] where everyone can make a profit,” said King, who’s seen posing in front of a pile of shingles in his LinkedIn profile picture. “We can keep it out of the landfills, and it was great for the environment.”
King, who is also president of development firm Paige Investments, ended up with five permitted shingle recycling sites in Texas, he said. He first applied for a permit at the San Antonio facility in 2013. The facility was his third, the largest market they operated in. All have been shut down, he said.
The plan was to start recycling the other waste products produced by San Antonio’s construction boom, including concrete, metal, and other materials, he said. The shingles would be shredded and sent to hot mix asphalt plants or used as an alternative fuel source, and the wood and brush would be ground into mulch.
At first, business was good. Waste was coming in, and shredded shingles and mulched wood, among other products, were going out. King provided the Rivard Report with some weight tickets and invoices for truckloads of asphalt shingles going to hot asphalt mix plants.
“There was obviously lots of learning because it was a new industry,” King said. “But for the most part, things were going well.”
But around four to five years ago, things changed. King said that’s when the Texas Department of Transportation started shifting its policies on how exactly recycled shingles could be used.
In 2015, environmental investigators with the TCEQ also began investigating King’s business in response to complaints.
Waste Piling Up
In June 2015, the TCEQ received its first complaint about the property. Someone had contacted the office alleging that stormwater running off of the growing waste pile was contaminating Leon Creek.
A month later, investigators visited the site and found trucks bringing loads of roofing and construction materials, along with “a pile of solid waste of various materials,” including roofing cement, paint cans, “various metals,” used oil containers, Styrofoam food containers, and other debris. The pile included no containment barriers to separate the waste and the bare ground.
King said his company was properly collecting, bagging, and recycling or disposing of this waste. Customers bringing loads to the property would often hide other forms of waste inside a load of shingles or wood, he said.
“Like any recycling business, I’m not going to sit here and tell you that people didn’t try to sneak stuff in, because they did,” he said. “It was something we battled constantly.”
After contacting King by email in August of that year, the TCEQ asked for records of all incoming and outgoing material, which they said King never provided, according to court records.
In September, a TCEQ investigator contacted the Bexar County fire marshal, which confirmed it had never received a fire safety plan for the site. King said the fire marshal’s office did have a copy of the plan, which he also showed to the Rivard Report.
During visits to the site, an employee at the site told investigators that Alamo Recycle would charge $30 per load of construction waste or brush and $5 per bag of standard household garbage, according to the filings. King said those disposal rates would constantly fluctuate based on supply and demand and would sometimes even drop to zero.
Court records state that TCEQ investigators measured multiple piles of shingles, mixed waste, and wood, all around 30 feet high. In total, they found about 78,000 cubic yards of waste material, enough to fill more than 10 Olympic-sized swimming pools.
King said the waste began piling up after big changes in the market, driven by the Texas Department of Transportation’s construction policies. He claimed that TxDOT originally allowed asphalt with recycled shingles in base and surface road layers but, as of four or five years ago, is now allowing it only in base layers.
This caused the market for his product to decline as it became harder and harder to sell large quantities of the recycled shingles, King said.
Interviews with TxDOT officials and another local shingle recycler offer some confirmation, though it’s clear some asphalt plants and road builders are still buying recycled shingles.
Diana Rogerio, district lab engineer for TxDOT in San Antonio, said the district’s policy allows asphalt with recycled shingles in the base layer of a road but not for the surface layer. Mark Cross, a TxDOT spokesperson in its Austin headquarters, said in an email that TxDOT allows its use in “certain asphalt paving mixtures, where they provide adequate performance.”
“It’s a market that goes up and down,” said Nick Keller with Atascosa Recycling, which is currently processing and selling recycled shingles. He said his customers are roughly a 50-50 mix between asphalt plants and road builders.
King acknowledged that asphalt plants are still buying the waste, but not at the same rate as before.
“There is a market, but the market is not what it was,” King said.
An Unresolved Mess
With his shingle recycling businesses struggling, King said it became difficult to pay his lender. That’s what led to the foreclosure.
“The company had borrowed the money to buy the property, then whenever TxDOT slowed significantly on the demand, obviously our business slowed way down,” he said. “We just sat on the pile of shingles and explained to everybody … that we were continuing to move this out as demand moved it out.”
At the same time, the State was pursuing its enforcement case against King’s companies.
It took about a year and a half in court, but last June, attorneys for both sides agreed to a settlement in which King’s company would remove all of the waste within approximately two years. A judge also approved $110,000 in civil penalties and $40,000 in attorney’s fees paid to the State.
For its part, the City’s Code Enforcement has filed 22 cases against the site’s owners since 2017, Ximena Copa-Wiggins, public relations manager for the City’s Development Services Department, said in an email. These include eight misdemeanor charges in 2017 and 2018, with another four “in process” for October of this year that affects the site’s current owner.
What happens next is still an open question. Kayleigh Lovvorn, a spokesperson for the AG’s office, said in an email that King’s company “does not currently appear to be in compliance” with the settlement but also that the office must receive a referral from the TCEQ to take further action.
“At this time, we have not received that referral,” she said.
King said he has not heard anything further from the AG’s office or the TCEQ about the matter. Asked what he would do if he couldn’t make the two-year deadline, King said he would try to negotiate.
“All we can do is go back to them and explain the situation and ask for more time,” he said.
Rivard Report intern Laura Morales contributed to this report.