SIERRA BLANCA, Texas -
Local opponents of the project also have questioned the speed with which it received state approval.
The Texas Water Commission replaced the state Health Department in March as regulator of projects like Merco's - projects termed "beneficial use" of treated human waste.
Merco's application was submitted two days before the commission assumed oversight of sludge projects, and it was shepherded through the agency by former water commissioner and Austin lobbyist Cliff Johnson, both Mr. Johnson and Merco officials confirmed.
Despite a backlog of at least 60 applications - some dating back to 1990 - and a review process that had previously taken four to six months, the agency approved Merco's contract in 23 days, said Mr. Herrin, a Water Commission official.
"Most of them are taking months. This one did go through at a quick pace, he said, declining to elaborate.
By contrast, state regulators took two years to approve a Valley Mills, Texas, company's plan for applying sludge to another Hudspeth County ranch. An official at Enviro-Processes Inc. said the firm is trying to win sludge disposal contracts with several Texas cities.
Said one Water Commission official who asked not to be identified:
"This thing was pushed to the top of the stack. Giving a $1.5 million grant to Texas Tech helped. ... There were a lot of players involved."