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What to do with cheesy water? Lubbockites weigh in on Leprino plant’s plans to dump in Lake Dunbar

The addition of so much water to the lake will result in a net increase of water for Lubbock’s water system that will eventually become “Lake 7”. Leprino officials insisted only clean water will be sent to Lake Dunbar.
Brad Burt
Texas Tech Public Media
The addition of so much water to the lake will result in a net increase of water for Lubbock’s water system which will eventually become "Lake 7." Leprino officials insisted only clean water will be sent to Lake Dunbar.

A panel of representatives from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) and Leprino Foods met with citizens at Lubbock’s Windmill Museum on Tuesday night. According to the panelists, their goal was to answer questions and take comments on the industrial mozzarella cheese factory and wastewater treatment facilities that broke ground in East Lubbock last year.

Lubbock City Councilwoman Sheila Patterson-Harris represents the area where Leprino’s $870 million facility will be located and where it will eventually drain its wastewater: Lake Dunbar, on Canyon Lake Drive.

Patterson-Harris attended Tuesday’s meeting and said she’s toured another Leprino plant since the announcement of the company’s plans for Lubbock.

“I’ve had the opportunity to make my way to Greely, Colo., and actually see a facility such as this in operation, talk to folks who work within the facility in several different levels,” Patterson-Harris said. “Man, those things are real, and those things are important to families. Those things are important, or should be, to individuals.”

According to Lubbock’s plant manager for Leprino, Scott Conant, building the facility is anticipated to have a $10.6 billion total net impact to the economy of the Lubbock area through 2031, as well as adding 600 full-time jobs when the plant is operational.

The plant could see as much as 8 million pounds of milk processed for mozzarella cheese every day. Of that milk, 87% will be a briny, foamy water byproduct by the end of the process.

The added treatment facility will take that water, filter it with technology like membranes, and disinfect it with ultraviolet light. Leprino representatives said water with too many solids would be rejected after the reverse osmosis process and diverted to “evaporation ponds” at the facility, to attempt to separate it before dumping the treated water from a pipe beneath the surface of the lake.

A preliminary decision on Leprino’s wastewater application was issued by the TCEQ in May, determining that “existing water quality uses will not be impaired by this permit action.” According to the TCEQ, if given final approval, the facilities would be allowed no more than 2,000 gallons of wastewater per day to be dumped.

The addition of so much water to the lake will result in a net increase of water for Lubbock’s water system which will eventually become "Lake 7." Leprino officials insisted only clean water will be sent to Lake Dunbar.

Lubbock resident Sonya Fair told the TCEQ and Leprino she has become ill from smells already in the air. “I have put up with all kinds of odors. The water treatment center smells, the railroad, the cotton,” Fair said. “And we have, I guess, a manure company on the Slaton Highway now.”

One resident from the Dunbar-Manhattan area, Billie Russell, told the panel her concern with the issue comes from previous worries about the environment, and the love she has for her neighborhood.

“There are families and people that go around to the lake,” Russell said. “I want to know what affects their health. And I'm concerned about their health because I love my neighborhood. I'm concerned about the environment because I told you at first, we have a questionable environment.”

Another resident of East Lubbock, from a group he called STOP, or Stop the Oppression of Our People, asked Leprino representatives why they chose to locate their factory in East Lubbock.

Leprino’s representative responded that it was the closest available land to the cows, noting that teams are just now starting to get involved in the community, with “a heavy focus on nearby schools,” something Patterson-Harris said is important.

“They have begun connecting with the community in all facets,” Patterson-Harris said. “Roosevelt school, Estacado school, and all of that, that’s important.”

Patterson-Harris emphasized what the economic benefits could be for those in need of introductory jobs in Lubbock, saying some residents leave high school needing a place to start careers and she sees the Leprino facility as an opportunity for Lubbock.

“I’m glad we had the opportunity for citizens to come out and pose their questions,” Patterson-Harris said. “I’m not sure if some of them received the answers they wanted to hear.”

Attorneys with LegalAid of Northwest Texas came to the meeting, saying what’s happening speaks to a larger longstanding issue of health concerns and racism from industrial zoning near minority-majority neighborhoods in Lubbock.

LegalAid is currently supporting residents of North and East Lubbock in a civil rights complaint addressing historic race-based redlining in Lubbock that they say has led to increased reports of health issues like asthma from residential neighborhoods zoned next to industrial facilities.

“That is an issue that we’re trying to make sure that their area doesn’t get worse, it actually gets better,” said Wendi Hammond, a staff attorney for LegalAid. Her focus is on environmental justice for the organization’s community revitalization project. Hammond said many community members in East Lubbock neighborhoods are tired of industry in their backyards.

“They deserve the same treatment as everybody else in Lubbock. Environmental justice is supposed to protect everybody,” Hammond said. “Unfortunately, there’s a segment of the population that seems to carry the bigger burden of our industrial side of the state and it’s time that wasn’t the case.”

Addressing the panel of representatives, Hammond said, “The TCEQ is notorious for allowing industry to create racial discrimination within the state of Texas.” Petitions have been sent to the Environmental Protection Agency to address continuing claims of racism, discrimination, and favoritism in the TCEQ’s monitoring and accountability when it comes to low-income or minority neighborhoods with dangers from industrial zoning. In 2022 the Sunset Advisory Commission, comprised of state lawmakers who evaluate state agencies, referred to the TCEQ as a “reluctant regulator.

When Hammond asked the panel what is preventing the agency from assessing the cumulative impact of all the industry currently in the area, TCEQ representatives responded, “That’s just not something our agency addresses. It's not something that staff for this wastewater treatment plant or any of that nature, at this point, is addressing at the current moment.”

According to Hammond, when fair treatment of citizens is concerned, the smallest drop in the bucket can exemplify where a deeper problem remains.

“Everything matters when you are already inundated and surrounded and drowning in the pollution already,” Hammond said. “We’re not saying they’re the worst, we’re not saying they’re the best, we just want to be sure this community is protected as best to the ability the state can do and what the community deserves.”

Leprino expects production at the facility to begin as soon as the end of 2024.

Brad Burt is a reporter for KTTZ, born and raised in Lubbock. He has made a point to focus on in-depth local coverage, including civic and accountability reporting. Brad's professional interest in local journalism started on set as a member of the technical production team at KCBD Newschannel 11 before becoming a digital and investigative producer.