Truck Stop in Hill Country Threatens Llano River

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The construction site of a Pilot Flying J truck stop, flanked by the Llano River. Photo courtesy of Bill Neiman.

The construction site of a Pilot Flying J truck stop, flanked by the Llano River. Photo courtesy of Bill Neiman.

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.

A drainage map of the construction site of a Pilot Flying J truck stop, flanked by the Llano River. Graphic courtesy of Bill Neiman.

A drainage map of the construction site of a Pilot Flying J truck stop, flanked by the Llano River. Graphic courtesy of Bill Neiman. Click to enlarge.

“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.”

Barrels on the under-construction Pilot Flying J truck stop during a recent rainfall. Courtesy photo.

SpecChem barrels on the under-construction Pilot Flying J truck stop during a recent rainfall. Courtesy photo.

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.”

Stormwater runoff from the construction site of a Pilot Flying J truck stop near the Llano River. Photo courtesy of Bill Neiman.

Stormwater runoff from the construction site of a Pilot Flying J truck stop flowing into the Llano River. Photo courtesy of Bill Neiman.

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.”

The construction site of a Pilot Flying J truck stop, flanked by the Llano River. Photo courtesy of Bill Neiman.

The construction site of a Pilot Flying J truck stop, flanked by the Llano River. Photo courtesy of Bill Neiman.

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.

A centuries-old oak tree stands tall near the Llano River before its demolition to make way for a Pilot Flying J truck stop. Photo by Bill Neiman.

A centuries-old oak tree stands tall near the Llano River before its demolition to make way for a Pilot Flying J truck stop. Photo courtesy of Bill Neiman.

“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.

A centuries-old oak tree stands tall near the Llano River before its demolition to make way for a Pilot Flying J truck stop. Photo by Bill Neiman.

A centuries-old oak tree stands tall near the Llano River before its demolition to make way for a Pilot Flying J truck stop. Photo by Bill Neiman.

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.

Related Stories:

A Wary Rancher’s Wellspring: Oil and Water

On Shale Properties, Surface Rights and Mineral Rights Come to a Clash

Environmental Costs Missing From Eagle Ford Shale Reports

Eagle Ford Heyday: Economic Boom Obscures Long-Term Issues

Member’s Night at Bracken Bat Cave

20 thoughts on “Truck Stop in Hill Country Threatens Llano River

  1. When will Texas realize we need land use regulations? When will we realize that, despite our size, our natural resources are limited?

  2. I guess Bill Neiman failed to mention that he is responsible for getting a 345 kV powerline to cross the namesake of Junction you mention above, the junction of the North and South Llano Rivers, or the fact that he irrigates “native American seeds” while the City of Junction curtails water for its residents and their lawns and trees.

  3. Oh the Llano is one of the “cleanest” rivers in Texas? Well we can’t have that going on, somewhere a Teapublican is just itching to get that fixed, and right quick. Because when there’s money to be made it’s called “progress”.

    During the gubernatorial campaign, Bill Haslam released a summary for a six-year period through 2008 that showed an average annual income of about $4.75 million from sources other than the company then known as Pilot Corp. and now as Pilot Flying J.

    The same summary showed that he and Crissy Haslam had paid an average of about $634,000 per year in federal taxes and almost $100,000 in state taxes on his non-Pilot income while making the $690,000 per year in donations from those sources of investment income.

    An analysis by the Commercial Appeal, reported Dec. 11, found that Haslam’s federal income tax rate averaged 13.1 percent over the six years period, in part due to the personal charitable deductions made with non-Pilot income.

    Bill Haslam’s donations to the two foundations are apparently based primarily on Pilot income and were excluded from the previously released summary. He has declared that he no longer will release any information on his personal taxes, believing disclosure of the source of his income — as required by state law — is appropriate while detailing the amount of his income is not.

  4. This is Barton Creek Mall in Austinall over again! The promise of careful building close to Barton Springs was not kept and the creek was continually contaminated for years. What is taking place in Junction needs to be stopped.

  5. If they are bull-dozing, grading, and/or removing vegetation in the flood plain, this is a FEDERAL issue regulated by the USACE, which you have reported here is already on the record saying that Pilot Flying J has NOT pulled any permits. From considerable personal experience, I am telling you that NO landowner can do these kinds of things on ANY private property in the flood plain of a major river like the Llano. They MUST have an EIS, a mitigation plan, etc. approved by USACE before ANY work of this type is undertaken, and USACE is not squeemish about requiring mitigation and conservation features in the plans they approve.

    On the other hand, my experience with TDEQ is that they are not the least bit interested in conservation or mitigation. They are interested in allowing as much natural resource degradation as they can get away with.

  6. The Pedernales is a dead river. The San Saba is endangered. Both feed into the Colorado.

    Guess what other river feeds the Colorado?

    The Llano.

    All those folks who work at the TCEQ in Austin get their drinking water from the Colorado. Might they ought to think about this? Just saying.

  7. After dealing with the TCEQ in other arenas, particularly fracking, I’m not surprised. We, the taxpayers and unwitting residents in a state with polluted air, water and soil, are the victims of regulatory capture at their hands and at the hands of their industry “friends.” It’s the same with Vulcan Materials and the years of TCEQ ignoring their water and air quality violations up on 1604. We have to find a way to end regulatory capture or we won’t have any water left to drink or air fit to breathe.

  8. Mr. Rivard,

    Just as an FYI, if a piece of property is located in the 25-year floodplain or 100-year floodplain does not meant that the property is subject to flooding once every 25 or 100 years. It simply means that a 100-year storm (which really is just a term to define how many inches per hour of rain will fall) will result in X inches of rain, which we can assume will most likely result in a flood. There could multiple 100-year storms that all occur in one year.

    I understand that I may be nitpicking facts here and that your point was that there is a concern for flooding from the river to overrun the site with river and storm water; however, I think it is important for people reading the article to not assume that it will only flood once every 25 or 100 years. It may flood more or less than that, and the amount of flooding will vary on the severity of the storm (whether it be the 5-, 25-, 100-, or 500-year storm).

    You can find more information on 100-year floods and their recurrence intervals here:

    • Kate, Our story noted that so-called 25-year and 100-year floods occur episodically and often with far greater frequency and should not be taken, literally, as floods occurring once a century. Thanks, RR

  9. It is a shame that neither federal stormwater nor state floodplain managers have authority to act in cases that involve the transportation industry; they are exempt! This is where the State can act, if it has the will to do so. The unincorporated areas of the state near or in the riparian areas of our rivers SHOULD BE PROTECTED, but they currently are not.

    As a consultant who attended many of the meetings with the city, developer, engineers and landowner, it is only fair to report that extraordinary measures WERE TAKEN to protect the river, even though there was no statutory requirement to do so.

    Civil engineers modeled the river flows and found that the project would actually reduce flooding in the area by a fraction of a foot. Spill-containment plans were documented and the equipment was funded for storage onsite. This alone provides significant pollution control that does not exist to date and should be required for all existing petroleum facilities. Catch basins, with filters, are to be installed leading to vaults at the edge of the property that allow containment before flowing into the DOT-installed concrete ditch. The truck fueling and washing canopy has drains that lead to an oil-water separator before passing to the sanitary sewer for treatment. Even gross pollution such as plastic shopping bags will be contained by a chain link fence surrounding the facility. None of this was required nor do any of the other facilities in the area provide all of them.

    None-the-less, it falls upon the voting public to demand that our elected officials act in our best interests by protecting the remaining undeveloped riparian areas of our rivers. If the Feds and the State have turned their backs on us, and they have, then local authorities must take action.

    The landowner offered the 3 acres of riverfront that is not part of the project to be used as a riparian buffer and bio-mitigation site, but no one cares enough to accept that offer. It would appear that everyone wants SOMEONE ELSE to solve the problems they are so eager to complain about.

  10. It’s a shame that Jack, as consultant, apparently did not have the opportunity to speak to the landowner (assuming she didn’t know already) about the lack of meaningful regulatory protections in this sensitive riparian area before she signed the lease with Pilot Flying J. I wonder, in that event, if she would have made the same decision.

    • I can’t speculate about what would have happened, but I can assure you that the landowner was not aware that the federal stormwater regulations did not apply to this project. In the end, however, the strictest regulations anywhere, i.e. in the Edwards Aquifer recharge zone, WERE FOLLOWED VOLUNTARILY by the developer. The new truckstop is much safer than any other facility for miles around.

  11. This is so very disheartening… we live downstream from here on the Llano. It is an amazing river and a wonderful resource that must be protected. Janet Meek, please PLEASE get out of this lease… no amount of money is truly worth ruining one of Texas’ treasures PERMANENTLY. I will be praying over this every day. God bless you and the people have the right to stop this.

    • There is no plausible reason that this project will degrade the water quality of the Llano River. The best thing that could happen to the river is if all the other petroleum facilities in the area were upgraded to this level of protection.

      There is no legal way for the landowner to back out of the lease at this point. There is no legal way for third parties to stop the lawful development of this land. The only entity that has any choice in the matter is Pilot/Flying J.

      • I beg to differ. There are a host of plausible reasons the project will degrade the water quality of the Llano River – from accidents involving major spills of hazardous materials to the kinds of flooding that have previously lifted and moved the asphalt of I-10 and brought water into the Dairy Queen up to the level of the dining tables.

        The bottom line is that the landowner’s decision to lease to Pilot Flying J is, and will remain for many decades to come, an astonishing demonstration of poor judgment and callous disregard for the real value of the property given to her care.

        • Even during that flood event, no petroleum was spilled and none will be in future events, except, perhaps, from the older establishments due to age of the infrastructure.

          As to possible collisions, they are more likely to happen in the overcrowded and cramped facilities that already exist. Having a modern facility to ease the congestion will actually make accidents less likely.

          I wonder…do you drive an all-electric vehicle? Do you avoid flying airplanes? Is your home heated with LPG? Then put your name on the list of those responsible for petroleum being such a big part of the US economy.

          Nothing lasts forever, petroleum may not even last till the end of the lease. Pilot could be selling hydrogen by then!

  12. Perhaps Flying J could engineer an ecological wonder to become a shining example of environmental concern prior to risking any of the Llano.

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