Trashing Houston

To a world worried about waste, Houston may offer an answer -- or at least a place for the garbage to go

For some people, driving down Highway 225 from Houston to Deer Park can seem like driving into the mouth of Hell. Rows of petrochemical storage tanks border the road for miles, and the nearby Houston Ship Channel, which stretches down to Galveston Bay, is lined with refineries, chemical plants and plastic manufacturers in a petrochemical jungle. It is a morass of manufacturing, and the result is, often, a profusion of industrial wastes.

It's just the sort of thing that can make people in organizations such as Greenpeace apoplectic, and often for good reason. Industrial waste can in many cases easily become hazardous waste which then simply becomes a hazard. That sort of equation has, in recent years, led many states to engage in a sort of shell game of waste compacts, shuffling trash across borders in the apparent hope that it might disappear along the way, or else to play a bureaucratic game of Not In My Back Yard. California, for one, hasn't fired up a new hazardous-waste incinerator since 1985, and the federal Environmental Protection Agency last May issued what amounts to an 18-month freeze on new incinerators until a dioxin emission standard and more stringent controls for metals are adopted.

Meanwhile, outside the U.S., some 100 nations have decided to refuse to allow the importation of hazardous wastes -- up from three developing nations in 1987 -- and 119 nations have pledged to ban toxic exports.

It's a changing waste world, and that realization causes some other people to have a slightly different view when they're tooling down 225 toward Galveston Bay. Those people see not so much the plants that make the trash as the plants that handle it, a collection of hazardous-waste incinerators larger than that found in any other state, not to mention any other metropolitan area. Houston is incineration central for the nation, with hazardous and non-hazardous waste fueling three commercial and 16 on-site incinerators.

Evidence of Harris County's pre-eminence in this field is bolstered by records that show that not only is local and national waste being burned here, but foreign waste is being burned as well -- some of it from Third World countries, a fact that leaves a Greenpeace representative who's used to lambasting the industrialized world for dumping on non-industrialized nations a little nonplused when asked for a comment. Last year close to 1,000 shipments of foreign industrial waste arrived in Harris and Brazoria counties to be burned, injected into underground wells or transferred elsewhere.

Granted, the foreign waste that's imported is only a sliver of the thousands of tons of waste burned or buried in Harris County each year. But that Harris County has industrial waste imports shows that its experience and capacity for waste disposal is known worldwide. Indeed, according to Bill Hallam of Laidlaw Environmental Services in Deer Park, foreign waste treatment and disposal is a growth area for Houston.

"Especially with the NAFTA treaty, if Mexico will be held to environmental standards already established in the United States," he says. Mexican companies that don't have good environmental policies will probably be required to find a way to treat their waste, and that way could easily be to ship it to a northern location where waste has historically been big business -- i.e., Houston. In fact, some of that may already be happening. According to environmental consultant Ed Kleppinger, the permitted incinerators around Harris County were, back in 1993, treating twice as much waste as was generated for commercial treatment in the entire state of Texas. The difference between what was being generated and what was being treated, Kleppinger says, meant only one thing: "It's coming in from elsewhere."

Of course, whether it's good or bad that Houston is positioned to take advantage of the waste disposal needs of the world is open to debate. Those living near the waste disposal sites might not think the opportunities so grand. But if you happen to own a treatment facility -- well, it's been said that to a man with a hammer, the whole world looks like a nail. No surprise, then, that to a municipality loaded with incinerators, the whole world may look like trash.

As he walks through the 85-acre Rollins Environmental Services plant near the San Jacinto Monument, Rollins' Rusty Dunn puts it another way. "It's no accident we're here in Deer Park, Texas," says the environmental affairs manager. "We're here because our customers are here."

Indeed, not too far from Rollins can be found billboards that hail waste treatment firms and the safety records of the local plants they serve. The businesses that fill the land near the Houston Ship Channel employ, according to some estimates, about 52,000 people in the Houston area. The companies came here because the natural products were here, the port was here and, some might say, because the powers-that-be in other places wouldn't tolerate the risks associated with production.

Whatever the reasons, the chemical and plastics industries are centered on the Texas Gulf Coast, and they generate industrial wastes. For the sandy-haired, boyish-looking Dunn, such realities are familiar facts of life. Dunn grew up in neighboring Pasadena, working summer jobs at Rollins as he attended Texas A&M, where he majored in chemical engineering. He emptied drums of waste, unloaded trucks, checked gauges and dials and did whatever a college student/summer-job worker was told to do. It was a good job then, and it's a good job now, he says. Dunn describes himself as "an environmental type of guy."

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