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Editor’s Note: The following story is the latest in a periodic series exploring regional issues of interest or importance outside San Antonio.
Hill Country preservationists are calling on state officials to act after Pilot Flying J, the nation’s largest truck stop operator and diesel fuel retailer, broke ground on an environmentally sensitive site in Junction only a few hundred yards from the banks of the North Fork of the Llano River.
The two forks of the Llano, one of the state’s cleanest and wildest rivers, converge in Junction, population 2,545, giving the small town located 115 miles west of San Antonio on Interstate 10 its name.
Some locals see the 61 promised truck stop jobs and the thousands of truckers who will stop at the 24-hour truck plaza each year as a welcome economic development. Others fear an environmental disaster is in the making by an out-of-state corporation that has shown little interest in protecting the adjacent Llano River.
State Regulators Frustrating Truck Stop Opponents
After local contractors working for Pilot Flying J razed the eight-acre site two weeks ago, bulldozing and burning a centuries-old live oak tree that figures prominently in Junction’s pioneer history, local resident and businessman Bill Neiman filed a complaint with the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ).
“My line of work is ecological restoration, rebuilding native habitat, putting the land back like it was,” said Neiman, co-owner with his wife, Jan, of Native American Seed in Junction. “I am a downstream stakeholder. The native wildflower and grass seeds we produce rely on the quality of the water in the Llano River. We now have a very real fear that the river will be badly polluted and harmed.”
Neiman received written confirmation from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineering Regulatory Branch in Fort Worth confirming that Pilot Flying J started construction without obtaining the necessary permit, yet construction work has continued at the site.
A Freedom of Information request to the TCEQ from the Rivard Report yielded a confusing written response that seemed to confirm the agency was not requiring Pilot Flying J to first obtain the required permits to build and operate the truck stop.
“I checked with our permitting people, and they do not have a record of a new permit application from this entity in the Junction area nor in Kimble County,” TCEQ spokesperson Andrea Morrow stated in an email. “Such a facility would likely need a wastewater permit, storm water permit and petroleum storage tank registrations. However, there may be applications that have not yet been entered into the database.”
Pilot Flying J company officials would not agree to be interviewed for this story.
“Pilot Flying J has obtained all required local, state and federal permits needed at this time to proceed with construction of a Pilot Travel Center in Junction, Texas,” Pilot Flying J spokeswoman Ann LeZotte stated in an email. “Not only will the travel center feature full amenities for area residents and the traveling public, it will add local jobs, state and local tax revenue and other economic benefits to the community. Pilot Flying J looks forward to serving the community, motorists and professional drivers at its Junction store.”
Junction residents who are working to protect the Llano said they are frustrated by their inability to get the company or state regulators to focus on the risks to the river. A settling pond with contaminant filters, a riparian barrier, and leaving trees and grass in place instead of paving over the entire eight acres would mitigate hazardous runoff. Residents who attended a series of hastily called special sessions of the Junction City Council to approve the project say company officials were unwilling to do anything not directly required by state law or local ordinance.
“The TCEQ is ultimately responsible for protecting our state’s water resources. This isn’t the first time something like this has fallen through the cracks. No one should be allowed to carelessly degrade the landscape in a way that sends polluted stormwater run-off downstream, especially along our fragile Hill Country rivers and streams,” said Christy Muse, executive director of the Hill Country Alliance.
“The Hill Country is growing at an extremely fast pace. Water resources are limited, thin soils and slopes move water quickly off the landscape when vegetation is removed,” Muse said. “Our healthy rivers and streams are dependent upon functioning riparian buffers. These special areas should be closely monitored for compatible types of development.”
The Flying J will feature 75 overnight berths for trucks, according to local officials. Unhappy residents say that oil, diesel fuel, and other hazardous wastes that collect on the truck stop’s impervious cover will flow directly into a nearby concrete channel and from there, into the Llano River.
Half of the Flying J site — the overnight truck parking area — is in the floodway, which is subject to flooding every 25 years. The other half is in the floodplain, subject to flooding once every 100 years. So are some of the other fuel stations, a convenience store, and several restaurants.
Those numbers are approximations. Climate change and weather incidents can lead to flooding with greater frequency. When it does flood, the Flying J, an eight-acre parking lot covered by trucks, will “sheet drain” on to a narrow, three-acre strip of undeveloped land and then directly into the Llano River.
“This could be the beginning of the end of the Llano River as we have known it for all our lives,” said Buzz Hull, a Junction building contractor and co-owner of Cooper’s Barbecue located just off I-10 near the future truck stop. “Our barbecue business may benefit from the truckers stopping here, but we don’t want that business if the price means that hazardous runoff is going to first kill the fish and eventually the river.”
Hull said Junction was unprepared for the overwhelming truck traffic that soon will descend on the town, accessed from the interstate by a single multi-lane road already crowded with four service stations and one truck stop.
(Disclosure: Hull owns a recreational ranch 25 miles downriver on the Llano, where my family has owned property and a second home for 15 years. My wife’s father began leasing recreational land on the Llano River more than 50 years ago.)
Junction residents who don’t own river frontage are just as worried about the truck stop’s impact on the region’s tourism and recreational economy.
“I’d expect a new business coming to town would want to be a good neighbor and put in every available environmental protection to avoid harming this river we love so much,” said Dr. Thomas Arsuffi, a biologist and research professor at Texas Tech University’s CASNR Water Center in Junction. “We have enough information to know that 5 percent of impervious cover can have a negative impact on water quality. The truck stop will be 100 percent impervious cover.”
Junction residents say citizen opposition in Boerne and Comfort, two other towns located along Interstate 10, prevented Pilot Flying J from building a 24-hour truck stop in either town, but the company found a willing landowner and agreeable officeholders farther west in Junction.
Some local officials asserted that contaminated runoff from the new Flying J truck stop would be no worse than the runoff now collected in the concrete channel owned by the Texas Department of Transportation that runs from I-10 to the Llano River, passing by four service stations and a smaller truck stop located near the intersection of I-10 and Tx. 83.
“TXDOT and local officials who made those claims are wrong,” Neiman said. “The runoff from the interstate is mitigated by grassy slopes and much of it flows away from the river. There are drainage grates leading to settling ponds in the interstate median and at the four service stations, and runoff there also flows through grassy areas away from the river. The only instance of unfiltered stormwater runoff going directly into the concrete ditch and then into the river will be the Flying J.”
A Landowner and Mayor Who Share Regrets
Janet Meek, a Kerrville businesswoman and owner of the Junction property where the Flying J truck stop is being built, gave the Knoxville company a 20-year lease but said she soon came to regret the terms. She disputed residents who said she will earn $20,000 a month from the agreement, but declined to reveal the value of the lease.
The front page of the Aug. 13 edition of the Junction Eagle, the town’s weekly newspaper, shows Meek seated beneath the giant live oak tree on her property, holding a nocturnal vigil to protest Pilot Flying J’s plans the next day to bulldoze the property of all its trees, including the heritage oak.
“This tree has been here longer than the state of Texas,” Meek told the Eagle’s editor, Debbie Kistler, adding that she believed she had a verbal agreement with the company to leave the tree undisturbed that now was not being honored.
“It Occurred In Kimble,” a 1937 published history of Junction and Kimble County by local historian O.C. Fisher, recounts the 1869 killing of pioneer rancher James Bradbury, who was shot and killed by a native American while giving chase to a raiding party.
“An improvised casket was prepared, and internment was made under a live oak tree on the north bank of the North Llano River, shortly below the present bridge,” Fisher wrote.
No effort was made by construction crews working for the Flying J to locate, remove or preserve Bradbury’s remains as the heritage oak was bulldozed and then burned.
“I definitely did not perceive all the consequences of signing the lease and I am really grieving about it,” Meek said in an interview. “I am actually benefiting from the lease, but the consequences are something else. I am not happy about this. I thought we had come farther than this in terms of raising the consciousness of corporate America.”
Raymond McDonald, Junction’s mayor, said city officials did what they could to make the most of the deal, but were limited because Meek’s property was outside city limits and the county lacked ordinance power to control development. He said officeholders were caught between city residents who are ardent private property rights proponents and saw the project as one that would create jobs and grow the tax base, and people he called “activists,” whose environmental concerns led them to oppose the deal.
McDonald said city officials are now working to convince Meek to agree to a voluntary annexation so the city will receive what Pilot Flying J estimates will be $180,00 in annual sales tax revenues.
“Otherwise, because there is an existing utility line running through the property that the city put in there for the Meek family years ago, Junction will have to provide services to the project without deriving any of the tax benefits,” McDonald said. “We’re hoping we can resolve this soon. They told us they expect to be pumping gas by Christmas. ”
The Eagle Ford and Permian Basin Shale Plays
The fast-growing volume of truck traffic on I-10, officials say, is the direct result of the state’s booming shale play economy, with activity in the Eagle Ford in South Texas and the Permian Basin in West Texas driving the traffic. That, in turn, has created new demand for large truck stop plazas that give truck drivers a place to shower, eat, shop and sleep, and facilities to wash and service their vehicles. The truck plazas cover large swaths of land along the interstates. Idling vehicles contribute to diminished air quality.
Pilot Flying J’s website listing of its “Newest Locations” includes 14 different 24-hour Texas truck stops and plazas in San Antonio and elsewhere around the state. The Junction site will make it 15. Pilot Flying J operates around 600 truck stops nationwide, 40 of them in Texas.
More than 7,000 wells have been drilled in the Eagle Ford since 2008, making an untold number of landowners overnight millionaires and fueling one of the biggest job booms in recent state history, including a constant demand for more truck drivers. This week, the San Antonio Express-News published an investigative series documenting the negative impact on the region from flaring natural gas allowed to burn unchecked into the atmosphere, and the general lack of regulatory oversight in the state.
It’s the same lack of regulatory oversight that has many in Junction worried about the impact there.
The FBI’s Criminal Fraud Investigation of Pilot Flying J
Pilot Flying J has been the subject of an ongoing criminal fraud investigation by the FBI since 2012. Several company executives have entered guilty pleas to fraud charges, and at least one executive who agreed to cooperate with federal authorities said the company’s top executives knew the company was cheating truckers out of fuel rebates.
Company executives recently agreed to pay more than 550 trucking companies a total of $92 million to settle charges that the company’s management defrauded truckers using Pilot Flying J fuel cards by not paying promised rebates. The company is jointly owned by two brothers, Chairman and CEO Jimmy Haslam, who bought the Cleveland Browns for $1 billion in 2012, and Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam. The company was founded by their father and is based in West Knoxville, Tenn.
Click here to access the full archive of coverage of the criminal investigation into Pilot Flying J by The Tennessean newspaper.
*This article was originally published on Aug. 26, 2014.
Correction: An earlier version of this story stated that Bill Neiman received a letter from the TCEQ confirming that Pilot Flying J had started construction without a permit. The letter came from the U.S. Corps of Army Engineers Regulatory Branch in Fort Worth. The story also stated that half of the Flying J site was in the floodplain, which is correct, but omitted that the other half is in the floodway.