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By Sean Pendergast
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In his years as a petrochemical plant manager, Joe Monk has grown accustomed to pejoratives hurled in his direction. Until recently, though, "radical environmentalist" wasn't one of them. But when you oppose a landfill on which hundreds of millions of dollars are riding, as Monk does, your opponents are likely to use whatever weapons they can muster against you, no matter how far-fetched.
Monk appreciates the irony. As he sits in the stark outer office of the Fina Oil and Chemical Co. manufacturing facility in LaPorte, a smile splits his craggy features and he permits himself a chuckle. "They keep underestimating us," he says. "They think we're well-meaning tree huggers."
The mood doesn't last long, though, as Monk delves into the numerous shortcomings of the Cedar Point Industrial Landfill, a proposed 800-acre dump within a mile of Trinity Bay in Chambers County. The landfill will ultimately rise 15 stories off the ground, a mountain of waste that will be the highest point in the county. As chairman of the technical committee of Informed Citizens United (ICU), a coalition of area citizens fighting the landfill, he's armed with a truckload of objections.
They boil down to this: The landfill will leak, and when it does, the health of the neighboring residents and the economic vitality of the community will be endangered or destroyed. "It's a dangerous site," Monk says.
Not so, insists former state senator Carl Parker, who has been lobbying vigorously for the landfill on behalf of TSP Management Ltd., the group of investors who have been putting the project together since 1993. Parker and former secretary of state Jack Rains, an attorney who is also working the deal for TSP, have dismissed such concerns as the hysterical ravings of special-interest groups -- radical environmentalists, for example -- bent on killing the landfill at any cost. If that happens, they claim, you can kiss the positive business climate in the Galveston Bay region good-bye. "Clearly, our entire economy is threatened," spouted Rains in a letter to area executives.
The issue, says Parker, should be left to an impartial review of the scientific merits by state regulators, and passed or failed accordingly. But the debate has moved well beyond that realm. "It's reached the point where reason has nothing to do with it anymore," he says. "It's the ultimate not-in-my-back yard mentality."
If reason has nothing to do with it, then a lot of people are being unreasonable. The town of Beach City, which lies on Trinity Bay half a mile from the landfill site, has passed a resolution against the facility. So have all the neighboring communities, including Baytown, Mont Belvieu and Cove. The Harris and Chambers county commissioners courts actively oppose it. Even the area chambers of commerce, not generally known for agitating against a business proposition, have gone on record against the landfill. In fact, Chambers County Judge Jimmy Sylvia can't recall a single phone call, letter or comment from any residents who fancy the idea of another landfill (the county hosts several already) inside the county line. "Not one person wants it that I know of," he says.
Unfortunately for the residents, the process that determines whether and where landfills are built has in the past had nothing to do with how the locals feel. The Texas Natural Resources Conservation Commission (TNRCC) reviews all landfill-permit applications and issues decisions, and in almost every case the agency gives landfills the green light. The decisions can be appealed, a costly endeavor that can run as much as $300,000, but even with an appeal, the odds of success don't substantially increase.
This is true even when a potential landfill site violates TNRCC's own guidelines for locating such facilities, which appears to be the case with the Cedar Point facility. This has led an expanding circle of critics to charge that the agency sees its function as greasing the wheels for landfill operators, regardless of the consequences. "It's a real frustration to realize you've got an agency whose primary goal is to make sure a permit gets issued," says environmental attorney Jim Blackburn, who has joined the fray on behalf of the opposition.
When Carl Parker says the matter should be left to the allegedly impartial review of professional regulators, he's talking about the TNRCC. The agency's track record explains why he's so adamant about letting the process unfold in that arena, free from public influence.
But Parker and Rains, whose attempts to persuade the local communities have consisted mostly of bluster and threats, may not get their way. Taking advantage of a rarely used state law, Chambers County recently passed an ordinance restricting landfills to specific locations that do not include the proposed TSP site. And the Harris County Attorney's Office, along with others across the state who have grown weary of the agency's posture, is hammering on the TNRCC to factor local land-use decisions into the permit-review process.
TSP's backers may have figured that a county as small as Chambers (with a total population of only 20,000) would have too little money or clout to stop a landfill, especially with such power brokers as Parker and Rains smoothing the way in Austin. If so, they figured wrong, because at this point the heaviest artillery seems stacked on the opposition side. "I'm real confident that we're gonna beat this thing," says Fina plant manager Joe Monk. "We'll just keep firing away at 'em."