Trashing Houston

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

At the time of the hearing, Rollins officials maintained that the company had no way of knowing it was accepting radioactive wastes and that there was no hazard since contamination levels were low. Dunn says wastes are routinely checked before disposal and that no discernible levels of radiation were ever detected.

Those types of problems worry LaNell Anderson, who has a proprietary interest in Rollins and companies like it. Anderson lives in nearby Channelview, sells houses for a living and is a new member of the citizen review panel for Rollins Environmental Services.

Though she can talk like she's handing out pamphlets on Earth Day, she is quick to describe herself otherwise. "I am not a tree hugger," she says firmly, describing herself as "50 and fat" and unembarassed about driving a Cadillac. She says she needs the Caddy for her job as a Realtor -- and besides, it gets 22 miles per gallon. She is anything but anti-business. "We need the jobs, we need the tax base, we need the companies," Anderson says. "We just need them to follow the federal law."

The ten-member citizen review panel consists of six Channelview residents and four residents of Deer Park. "Everyone seems to be surprised that Rollins went for this," Anderson says. "But we really think this is the way to go, dealing directly with the companies."

Anderson cites the burning of radioactive wastes at Rollins as a symptom of an industry-wide problem. "My point has always been that either they weren't testing properly or their testing methods were inaccurate or inadequate," Anderson says.

Word that Rollins might be put under the surveillance of a "monitoring company" doesn't help Anderson rest easy, since the local monitoring firm has received assistance from a state trade organization, the Texas Chemical Council.

"It's hard to find any monitoring company that's not heavily funded by the chemical industry," Anderson says. "So what we're doing is monitoring their monitoring."

She is not without a track record. Anderson and others fought the permit process for American Envirotech, a proposed commercial hazardous-waste incinerator that was approved by the state. Resistance to the American Envirotech plant went on for more than four years.

One of the main concerns about the incinerator was that it was to be located directly over an underground water supply line that went to the East Houston water treatment center. Near the site, the 108-inch water supply line had a valve that took in ambient air. Anderson contended that mercury, arsenic and lead simply vaporized when incinerated and that those substances might be introduced into the water supply.

Protests by Anderson and others did not stop the TNRCC from granting a permit. But economics may have succeeded where activism failed: reports are that a business dispute has led to postponement of construction, and the plant may be in question. This, coupled with the anticipation that environmental vigilance might further strap the incinerator industry, may decrease the chances of American Envirotech ever opening.

Despite the efforts to oppose hazardous-waste incinerators such as the one proposed at American Envirotech, the industrial-waste disposal business that has grown around the Houston area's massive petroleum-related production base is not about to fade away. Opposition to new incinerators in Houston has surfaced, from both environmental activists and local government, but with mixed results. Assistant City Attorney Tim Lignoul says efforts to stop the construction of a Houston Chemical Services commercial incinerator near LaPorte have failed thus far, though a petition is pending before the Texas Supreme Court.

"The only time we can fight these things is when they apply for the initial permit or when they come up for renewal. It was just the timing on this. Some of the other ones that are here, are here," says Lignoul. "There's really nothing we can do to the ones that are already here. It's the permits that we have to fight."

To some degree, foreign industrial wastes will continue to fuel the incinerator owners' side of the argument.

"Non-hazardous materials are not banned from coming," the TNRCC's Faulkner says. "Non-hazardous wastes oftentimes come in to Texas for disposal because we have good disposal facilities with good track records."

And for people in the industry, efforts to shut down what they see as the best way to dispose of the unwanted byproducts of mass production just don't make sense. "Some people think if they get rid of hazardous-waste incinerators, hazardous waste will disappear," says Dunn of Rollins. He shakes his head. "It's not going away.

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