Swinish Behavior

Texas A&M's attempt to push an animal research center on a black neighborhood has raised a sour smell in College Station

In early January 1994, a woman driving along a road near her home outside of College Station noticed something she hadn't seen before: a quartet of 8 1/2-by-11-inch signs duct-taped to the fence posts of Texas A&M University's beef cattle research center. The year-old center sat on 580 acres only a few hundred feet away from some homes, and while the bawling of weaning calves occasionally disturbed the neighbors, nobody had ever made a formal complaint. Many of them worked for A&M, the area's largest employer, and they had learned to accommodate themselves to the university's needs.

For some reason, though, the duct-taped signs sent a small wave of concern through the woman. So she pulled off the road for a closer look. What she saw was a notice that A&M had applied for a state permit to add an animal research center to its beef operation. A call to a number on the signs brought even more information. The research center was planned to be bigger -- much bigger -- than the beef operation. Among its inhabitants would not only be extra cattle, but also sheep, goats and around 1,500 breeding sows and their piglets.

The woman was stunned. The smell from such an operation promised to be horrific, and the animal sounds and threat of pollution immensely greater than that coming from the existing beef farm. The research center was just the sort of construction that could have a serious impact not only on property values, but also on the quality of life of its neighbors. It was also just the sort of construction that the neighbors felt they should have been told of up front, rather than having to find out about accidentally.

In the more than two years since that fateful pause by the side of the road, the reason A&M neglected to inform the residents of its plans has been the object of hot debate. A&M insists that it simply overlooked the matter, and that it was no big deal. The people who live in the Brushy Community, the nearly 100-year-old settlement most likely to be affected by A&M's research center, have some other ideas. The fact that the Brushy Community is primarily African-American has led some to accusations of racism, and a federal suit that was filed last August. But while not discounting the racial angle, others see something equally pernicious at play: a company town mentality that suggests that what's good for A&M is good for the community, and that people who know where their bread is buttered would be wise to keep their mouths shut. After 24 months of what many in the Brushy Community feel to be fruitless attempts to reason with A&M, they believe they can already smell something wafting over from the still incomplete research center. Only it's not the pungent odor of livestock. It's the stink of institutional arrogance.

The notion of institutional arrogance, especially when it comes to A&M, doesn't shock Ruth and Al Schaffer, A&M sociologists who have spent their careers studying community power and leadership -- and who have spent the last two years struggling to get their employer to do right by the neighbors of the planned animal research center. The Schaffers themselves are two of those neighbors, though since their house is east of the livestock center and buffered by woods, they probably aren't positioned to suffer from the odor brought by the prevailing southerly winds. They do, however, worry about contamination of their well.

That's why the Schaffers agreed to lead the Brushy Community residents who have banded together in a group called ROPL, an acronym for Residents Opposed to Pigs and Livestock. Ruth Schaffer, a short, mild-mannered woman with straight, neatly cropped gray hair, has turned her dining-room table into a tactical center where she collects a growing assortment of carefully cataloged files about A&M's actions. Bryan-College Station, Schaffer says, reminds her of company towns such as Hershey, Pennsylvania, or the textile mill towns of the Carolinas. With an annual payroll of $365 million, A&M dominates Bryan-College Station, and lets the community know about it through annual press releases on its economic impact on the area's shops, restaurants and hotels. "What you're talking about here is who controls jobs," says Schaffer, "and 95 percent of the people involved [in fighting the livestock center] have worked at some time for the university."

At least one of the protesting residents who works in an academic position at A&M, she adds, has received threatening anonymous phone calls and has lost a promotion. That's just one example of the tensions that have been generated since A&M made a decision that, to the university's administration, likely seemed a simple one. In 1991, when George Bush agreed to place his presidential library on 90 acres adjacent to the existing A&M pig farm, it became clear that the farm, which was set for eventual relocation anyway, had to be moved relatively soon. The 580-acre property near the Brushy Community surely appeared ideal: situated next to the Brazos River, and bounded on the north by Highway 60, the site is only eight miles from the campus and just ten minutes from the university's veterinary school, making it convenient to students and faculty. The gently rolling hills and good grass were other pluses, as was the fact that A&M already owned the property.

The site had been purchased in 1989, and came to be seen as a solution to a problem that had been nagging the A&M administration for a number of years. Though the plans for the Bush library brought the issue to the fore, the question of what to do with the school's pig, sheep and goat operations as the university's building programs encroached on the western edge of the campus was nothing new. During the early 1980s, university administrators had realized they would eventually have to move their livestock operations away from the central campus. From 1987 to 1988, they compared several locations for a consolidated livestock operation.

One solution was to put it on the university plantation, a 10,000 acre site just to the west of the Brazos River well removed from population centers. But there was a problem: the plantation is on a flood plain.

Another possible site was a former World War II air base six miles northwest of campus that's still largely undeveloped. In fact, in 1988, A&M administrators suggested putting the consolidated livestock center there. The board of regents shot that plan down, saying they had a long-range hope of creating an industrial research park in the area.

While A&M officials today downplay the possibility of any environmental damage from the consolidated livestock center, internal memoranda dating from the time of the first site-search give a far different impression. In a November 9, 1987 memorandum, Neville Clarke, then A&M's interim deputy chancellor for agriculture, pointed out that a major reason to move the livestock operations from the central campus was "increasing environmental concern to surrounding population centers." A consolidated center would be more efficient to manage and secure, he noted, but then pointed out that "a major concern for environmental impact must be considered." A September 1987 list of issues on choosing a site also made it clear that convenience had to be weighed against "environmental and displacement concerns." The memorandum states that "environmental concerns E are predictable and substantial."

Early on, the impact of a livestock center on people living close to it seemed of concern to A&M administrators. In a bar graph attached to a May 10, 1988 memorandum, A&M ranked seven privately owned sites for ten qualities, including "impact on community." Robert G. Merrifield of the Texas Agricultural Experiment Station wrote that one site in particular should be ruled out for purchase because of its impact on the surrounding community. This was called the Cashion/Galindo site, named for two different owners of adjoining properties: Red Cashion, a prominent Bryan insurance man, and Ramiro Galindo, a wealthy Colombian immigrant who owns a health club and housing subdivisions in the area. The Cashion/Galindo site was ruled out for the livestock center for a simple reason: "the extremely high potential for negative environmental impacts on the surrounding ownerships." "Building a major livestock facility at that particular location," Merrifield wrote, "would very likely be incompatible with adjoining land uses."

Land uses, though, didn't seem to be much of an issue when the property owners were the blue-collar, and black, residents of the Brushy Community. In the last statement of his report, Merrifield recommended that the university pursue the area near the Brushy Community, known as the Varisco property. Why weren't the Brushy Community's concerns taken into account? The answer appears simple: nobody from A&M bothered to speak to the people in the area. Although the Brushy Community has existed since the turn of the century, and is indicated on the chamber of commerce map of Bryan-College Station, when the university decided to find a place for its livestock operation, the Brushy Community might as well have been invisible.

A few years before the turn of the century, African-Americans who had worked on the farms of the rich Brazos River bottom lands began moving to the high ground on the east bank of the river above the new bridge at Highway 60, southwest of College Station. Many of these people ending up working for the university, at first as farm hands, maintenance workers and cooks, and later, as opportunities opened, as clerical and laboratory workers. Over the next 90 years, they built dozens of homes on a series of short, dead-end streets north of the highway, most of them hidden from highway view. A few are little more than shacks, but the majority are tidy, compact brick and wooden structures.

Named for nearby Brushy Creek, the community has always been a quiet, country place. Two churches, St. Mark's Baptist and Clayton Baptist, have long been the heart of the area's life. Thomas Williams pastors Clayton Baptist; though he lives in Bryan and works at Prairie View A&M, he was called to the Brushy Community church about a year ago, and quickly became involved in the dispute with Texas A&M.

By that time, concern over the animal research center had escalated far beyond the talk that occurred in the wake of the discovery of the duct-taped notices. A&M had posted the notices because, at the time, the Texas Natural Resources Conservation Commission required permits for concentrated livestock facilities that held more than 1,000 animals. In the early months of 1994, TNRCC became the Brushy Community residents' primary source of information about A&M's project. What they liked least about what they heard were plans for the 1,500 breeding pigs A&M was proposing to house at the site. Several of the residents had experience with pigs, and knew that their odors alone could be unbearable. Both black and white residents in the area began writing and phoning TNRCC, insisting on a public meeting about the permit.

In March 1994, about 60 to 70 people met with A&M officials to express their concern. "We didn't know anything about the three buildings, the lagoon and the other animals," says Al Schaffer. "All we knew about was the pigs. The information about the other facilities came out in subsequent meetings. We were very naive."

But they were also angry. They connected the decision to move hogs into their neighborhood with the Bush Library, which was displacing A&M's antiquated pig farm on the west end of the main campus. Cedric Rowse, a fiery young minister who lived in Bryan and grew up in Brushy Community, put it this way: "Our homes mean as much to us as the Bush Library means to you." The university was asked for an environmental impact statement and for technical data on the site.

A&M's administrators promised to get back to the community in a few weeks, which soon stretched into months. In October 1994, the residents learned that A&M had reduced the number of pigs planned for the facility to under 1,000; as a result, the TNRCC would no longer have any jurisdiction over what was done. The message to the residents was loud and clear: A&M was eliminating one of their avenues for challenging the facility.

Two months later, a number of Brushy residents again met with A&M administrators, and again came away dissatisfied.

"Their aim seemed to be to show us what a great facility it was, but they didn't discuss the number of buildings, or animals. They provided minimal information," remembers Al Schaffer, who by that time was tape recording all the meetings. "We begged the university to perform an environmental impact statement which would take into account the economic and social impact on our property, and they said they would think about it."

Schaffer recalls interrupting Bill Turner, then acting head of the animal science department, with a question about the site-selection process. Turner noted that A&M had looked at several possible sites for its animal farm and, when contemplating the site near Brushy Community, had met with two families who lived nearby.

Those families, Schaffer knew, were among the area's few white families. "When I asked him," Schaffer says, "about whether he had met with any black families, he got hot under the collar." The moderator quickly moved on to other things.

A later meeting between residents and A&M officials at Clayton Baptist Church went little better. Cora Rogers, a private-care nurse who put her life savings into a small house in Brushy, put it this way: "We don't have any college degrees in animal science, but we know better than to put large numbers of animals in a residential neighborhood." Frustrated, the residents demanded a meeting with Ray Bowen, A&M's new president.

Bowen had come to College Station in mid-'94 in part to help stop a flow of negative stories that had been issuing from College Station. The university had been sanctioned by the NCAA for giving football players summer jobs for which they did no work; disciplinary action had been taken against some Greek organizations for racist incidents; charges of sexual harassment and date rape were being lodged against the Corps of Cadets; the Texas Rangers were investigating several administrators for financial improprieties; and state auditors were investigating management problems in the handling of a contract to build a new power plant.

Bowen was supposed to bring in fresh air and a fresh perspective, but by November '94, when he should have been presiding over a public relations boon with the groundbreaking for the Bush Library, he instead had to face a public relations crisis. Rene A. Henry, the university's outgoing public relations director, had written Bowen an analysis of the conflict over the livestock center, weighing the university's defenses against the neighborhood's complaints. Henry concluded that the university ought to put construction on hold and find an alternate site, or else prepare for a PR nightmare. The memo appeared to have little effect on Bowen's thinking.

When Bowen met with the Brushy residents on December 20, 1994, he talked of contrition for A&M's stupidity, and said his staff offered the residents an open invitation to be involved. While stopping well short of offering to find another site, Bowen promised to work hard on getting the pigs out.

Bowen wanted a tradeoff: if the university got rid of the pigs, the leaders of the residents would sign a memorandum of agreement accepting the rest of the animals and facilities the university wanted to install. It sounded like a magnanimous offer, but it was full of pitfalls, given that A&M had yet to provide the residents any detailed plans, numbers of animals or technical studies of the facility's environmental impact. Neither the Schaffers, Rowse nor Williams felt comfortable in signing an agreement for the entire community, especially one that put so much power in the hands of A&M. Ruth Schaffer pointed out that the university didn't even maintain the student chairs in her classrooms. How, she wondered, could it be trusted to maintain something as perilous as, say, a waste lagoon for an uncertain number of animals?

At the meeting, Bowen and A&M administrators talked about building a spirit of "camaraderie" into the negotiations. Two days later, the Brushy residents discovered what that meant. Rather than consulting with them, Bowen announced he was appointing an African-American administrator from A&M to be not only a "liaison" to his office, but the "advocate" for the Brushy Community. The Brushy residents were outraged, in part because A&M was assuming to speak for them when they could speak for themselves, and in part because Bowen didn't bother to alert them to his decision. They learned about it only by reading the Bryan paper. It was, they felt, just more arrogance of the type Bowen had ostensibly been brought in to eliminate.

A&M's "advocate" would attend one meeting, then fade from view. In January of last year, the Schaffers again met with university officials. By this time, they had filed an extensive Open Records request. The university had replied that the request would cost the residents at least $600, money their organization didn't have. But if they would withdraw their legally binding request, they were told, the university would supply records voluntarily, and for free. The residents agreed, and were surprised at some of the records they did receive, such as the memorandums on the site-selection process. But the documents seemed incomplete, and some requests -- such as soil studies of the site, specific numbers of animals planned, the budget of the animal science department and records on the university's sewer treatment plant -- were never answered.

By this time, the residents had turned to a lawyer. Cedric Rowse had driven to Houston to meet Grover Hankins, a law professor at Texas Southern University. Hankins had worked for ten years in the Justice Department, had been general counsel for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and had served as a top lawyer for the Department of Health and Human Services. After listening a while, Hankins said he and a colleague from Dallas, Bob Hager, would take the case.

During the first five months of last year, Hankins wrote A&M four times to request a meeting. Finally, he was invited to come out on June 5. The meeting was held at the office of Bill Helwig, a university attorney new to the issue. Al Schaffer recalls that Helwig kept asking why the residents were concerned. It was infuriating to have to educate another university administrator, Schaffer says. As at every earlier meeting, the residents asked for an environmental impact statement; they were told it would be considered. When it came to plans and precise numbers, says Schaffer, "they would not tell us. They didn't say they would not tell us, they would just ignore the question and go on to something else."

But the university did have one precise number, and that was the number of pigs. The center had to have 75 to 100 on the site at all times for teaching and research purposes. The residents suggested scattering the pigs to various sites, but got nowhere.

Within a week after the meeting with the residents' lawyer, A&M issued a press release saying it was letting the animal project out for bidding. In the Brushy Community, garage sales and barbecues were held to raise money for a lawsuit. Last August, the residents sued A&M in federal court. In the suit, Hankins charged that geological studies showed that the soil on the site was highly permeable and that waste from the operation could contaminate area wells. Such actions, Hankins charged, violated the federal clean water and drinking water regulations. But the charge that carried the most potential for stopping A&M was the accusation that in choosing its site, A&M had violated Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, which forbids discrimination on the basis of race.

So much for camaraderie.

A few months after the Brushy Community conflict came to a head in court, A&M suffered another controversy with racial overtones. The faculty senate offered up a plan to broaden required courses in the university's undergraduate curriculum, it was quickly attacked as an example of multiculturalism run rampant and the administration crumbled in the face of the dissent. Keeping what Barry Thompson, the A&M system's new chancellor, described as the university's constituency of "Bubbas and Bubbettes" happy was deemed more important than a few years of work by A&M's faculty senate.

Still, while A&M may not have changed its undergraduate requirements, it may have nonetheless created an educational experiment in multicultural studies through its dealings with the Brushy Community. If the university gets its way, the largest university animal science department in the country -- a department that has no black faculty and only two black undergraduates -- will be teaching Aggies how to manage a concentrated livestock operation adjacent to an angry, resentful, minority community. It could be an interesting experiment.

John Beverly, A&M's deputy vice chancellor of agriculture, is the administrator given the responsibility of arguing the university's decision to place its animal research center near the Brushy residents. Like many of the agriculture administrators, he wears a heavy gold A&M ring, a gray suit with a crisp white shirt and necktie and cowboy boots. As hedrives to the livestock site to view the construction, he emphasizes that the university is not building an animal production center but a teaching center. A&M has a mandate from the state to prepare agricultural leaders, he notes, and students need hands-on experience with animals. The underlying rhetorical strategy is this: the Aggies are not building the center on this spot just because it was convenient and they've now gotten themselves in too deep to get out easily. They're doing it because they have a moral imperative to help the whole state and the nation. This is bigger than A&M and, though Beverly never directly says so, bigger than the Brushy Community's fears.

As for soil studies and waste management plans, Beverly hefts a thick, three-ring, indexed binder dated January of this year, which he has sent to the residents' lawyer. He's confident, he says, that the soil has a layer of impermeable clay that will protect the local ground water. But more than that, the university has a water management plan that will protect local wells. There will also be odor monitors. This facility will enable the university to teach students how to run an environmentally sensitive operation.

Beverly pulls his Suburban to a flattened, elevated site where the animal facility's waste lagoons are being dug. More than 200 yards long, their purpose is to treat the ton of manure a day that A&M estimates its animals will produce. As much as anything in A&M's plans, these lagoons are a sore point with the Brushy Community. Waste lagoons for a huge hog operation in North Carolina fractured a while back and poisoned a 17-mile stretch of a nearby river. A&M's lagoons are poised directly above the Brazos. The clay in the College Station area tends to expand and contract so powerfully that it cracks foundations and breaks water pipes. The Brushy Community residents, who've been delving into research on waste lagoons, say that such lagoons inevitably crack and leak. And they want to know whether they can trust A&M to build to standards that will prevent such breakage from happening.

As he looked at the long flat scrape from which the lagoons would be scooped, Beverly insisted there was nothing to worry about. The folks in the Brushy Community needed to remember something important, he said: "We helped write the standards."

But the real question might be, who enforces the standards? On a bright, windy, Sunday afternoon in early February, a professor took me to the western end of Texas A&M's sprawling campus where the George Bush Presidential Library is being constructed, and where A&M presently houses its pigs.

It was easy to see why A&M wants to move its animals. Its old hog farm consists of three aging barns several hundred yards from the rising walls of the Bush Library. Only a few dozen hogs live there now, and they'll soon be gone. Manure from the barns is pumped into three treatment ponds. The digestive bacteria in the main treatment lagoon were clearly at work, for the water had a characteristic pink, rosy sheen. Periodically, a bubble of gas would burp from the bottom and ripple the surface in a slow circle.

Standing down wind, I could get a whiff of why the residents of the Brushy Community were so angry when A&M first announced its intentions. Hog smell is often said to be indescribable. It is something like the smell of rotten, scorched leather and sulfur. The odor is vaguely petrochemical and not nearly as sweet as something dead. When hog odor is concentrated in warm weather, it seems to suck the oxygen out of the air. Runners from the central campus who make the four-mile circuit called the "pig loop" have sometimes been forced to turn back, and the air at baseball games nearby has been befouled when the winds blow in the wrong direction.

My guide to see the old A&M hog farm was Brann Johnson, a geology professor who has taught at A&M for the last 21 years. Thinking the dispute over the livestock facility had been settled, last December Johnson bought a home site near the Brushy Community. Then he learned that the plans, as far as A&M were concerned, were still on go.

Johnson's expertise is on the movement of water through soils, and he believes that the university hasn't taken the right borings to know what soil structures lie under the Brushy Community site. After looking at nearby soil outcroppings, he's concluded that it's distinctly possible that leakage from a waste lagoon could migrate into the Brushy Community's water table.

As to whether the lagoons would leak, Johnson figures that the university ought to be judged on its past rather than on future promises. As we walked along the earthen berm on the edge of the old swine lagoon, Johnson paused. "Listen," he said. He mashed his running shoe into the berm, making a squishing noise. "This thing is leaking and is probably leaking down to that landslide."

He pointed downhill to a slump of dirt above a narrow creek that runs through the campus. The length of the berm and a small field behind the pig barn were saturated with water at a time when the ground had been dry for weeks. A&M was promising to build a state-of-the-art facility to handle animal waste at its Brushy Community site, but it didn't seem to take good care of its existing facility. In fact, for the last five years, the state has been pestering the animal science department to clean up its dairy barns, which were leaking waste into a nearby creek. After years of delay, the university is supposed to start construction on another dairy lagoon this spring. What worries Johnson is that money for managing such facilities comes from the animal science department's annual budget, and department budgets have been under a lot of pressure.

So far, the evidence doesn't look good to Johnson. And A&M's actions haven't been of the sort to inspire confidence. Just a few weeks ago a court-ordered mediation of the Brushy Community's lawsuit went nowhere. And although a federal judge could shut down the entire operation if the Brushy residents win their suit, A&M is nonetheless pushing ahead with its project. Neighbors report that A&M construction crews are working hard six days a week. The university is claiming that it has all but eliminated what it says is the residents' most pressing concern, the pigs. Most of the university's pig production operation will go to a prison farm in Navasota, and only ten sows and their piglets (ten to 14 in a litter) and 75 non-breeding research gilts will be left in the final project.

To the residents, that seems like a typical A&M compromise: the university dictates the deal, and the community is supposed to accept it. And they still want to know how A&M can ignore something as basic as the standards of the American Society of Agricultural Engineers, which state that an animal breeding center should not be placed within one mile of a residential area. Many of the Brushy Community homes sit within 1,200 feet of the open waste-treatment ponds that the university is now busily digging.

Despite his concerns, Johnson's still inclined to build his house on his 16 acres near Brushy Creek. His land sits to the east of the livestock center, out of the way of the prevailing winds. But any waste lagoon, whether it is stocked with hog manure or cow and sheep manure, is likely to smell.

"Do I turn my back on my neighbors because I'm in the right place?" he said. "We'll probably be okay, but those people in the Brushy Community, they're going to get nailed.

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