By Kathi Bliss
Cooperative efforts of nearly two dozen officers from five agencies came together on Tuesday morning as area investigators gained access to two properties in the Lytton Springs area which can best be described as “colonias.”
The two properties, neighboring tracts tucked behind sagging gates and a curtain of shaggy mesquite, first gained attention from neighbors more than a year ago, when complaints began to surface that the property owners or residents were moving in manufactured homes for additional living quarters, but not installing proper septic or utilities. The complaints set off a series of legal wrangling that included aerial photography and flyovers, on-the-ground investigation and attempted sampling of the soil and groundwater.
Several attempts to access the properties were thwarted by residents, who some say threatened violence against anyone who approached their land.
Finally on Tuesday, acting with a warrant to chemically test soil and groundwater samples for toxins, officers from the Caldwell County District Attorney’s Office, the Caldwell County Sheriff’s Department, the Lockhart Police Department, the Travis County Environmental Task Force and the Texas Department of Public Safety “Intel” unit gained access to the properties.
What they found is expected to bear up many of the complaints made by neighbors – particularly the complaints about extremely unsafe drainage of sewage.
In total between the two neighboring tracts, no fewer than 10 mobile homes, most with their manufacturer’s identifying information removed, were found to have been improperly installed. None of the structures witnessed by this reporter had septic systems; instead, each had a sewage pipe running to unlined pits in the ground, some as close as 10 feet away from the front door.
Several areas showed where those pits had overflowed, leaving a constant, foul-smelling muddy sludge across the property.
Extension cords run through PVC pipes scattered across the ground, powering all the homes with no more than three observable meter loops.
Children’s bicycles and other toys dotted the area in startling proximity to the pits and the puddles.
County Judge Tom Bonn, present for a portion of the investigation, said on scene that the county had discussed the situation with one of the property owners, who said that each of the mobile homes on his tract of land was occupied by members of his extended family, each of whom paid $85 per month in cash to place the manufactured homes on his property.
“He said that his family members were here from Atlanta, and from Florida,” Bonn said.
Bonn also noted that, with the exception of the children, all of the residents living on the property were “undocumented workers.”
“It’s hard to understand how people can live like this,” said one of the investigators close to the situation. “But still, even though we think these conditions are horrible, they are living here like kings in comparison to the way they lived in Mexico.”
In general, investigators said, the residents claimed ignorance of the law for the hazardous conditions on the property. They told him, he said, that they didn’t know they were required to install septic systems, and thought that piping the filth directly into the yard was permissible.
The properties’ proximity to a flowing creek and groundwater source in the area triggered the DA’s Office to contact members of the Travis County Environmental Task Force, soliciting their involvement, as fears grew that the volume of untreated human waste being dumped directly on the ground would contaminate the groundwater.
Though simple observation suggests the charges will hold up in court, sampling and scientific tests must be completed before charges can formally be brought against the parties responsible for creating the hazards – which, in one case the property owner said he was unaware of.
The responsible parties could be fined up to $10,000, and face up to five years behind bars.
“The sad thing is that for less than $10,000, he could have done this right and avoided the problem,” Bonn said. “And this situation isn’t rare. These things are happening all over the county. The owners need to know that we’re not going to stand for it.”
Bonn encouraged property owners harboring similar situations to take immediate steps to clean up their property and come in compliance with local and state laws, and warned that other investigations are pending to bring criminal charges against those owners who refuse.