Unstable Ground

Businessman Michael Shelton thought he had beaten the system. Then he learned the legislature can be as unpredictable as the salt domes where he wants to store toxic waste.

Harold McVey seems quite pleased with himself. The 75-year-old president of Wharton County's Concerned Citizens Against Pollution, who has a penchant for wearing his pants just under his chest and his ball cap well above his forehead, has rallied 700 people to the Wharton community center where they're giving the Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission a piece of their minds. McVey works the crowd of ranchers and farmers, oil-rig hands and retired sulfur miners, doctors and lawyers, politicians and volunteer firefighters, white-haired ladies and schoolchildren. Here in Wharton, everybody seems to know everybody else, and it's not just because of the tiny towns they come from. These people have been united in an environmental struggle for 18 years, and together they have sacrificed more than $1.5 million in public funds for the cause. They are more than neighbors.

One person, however, sits quietly on the fringe of the gathering of like minds. No one speaks to him, but everyone talks about him. They point surreptitiously in the direction of a balding man in an oxford button-down shirt. "That's Shelton," they whisper. He doesn't seem to merit the familiarity of a first name. Boling native-turned-Houston attorney Michael Shelton is the reason for this April TNRCC hearing and for the $1.5 million county expenditure. His company, Secured Environmental Management, is seeking a permit to dispose of petrochemical hazardous waste in the Boling dome, an enormous salt formation underneath Wharton County. If approved by the state, the salt project would be the first of its kind in the country.

In an attempt to sway the TNRCC staff, and perhaps the onlooking Shelton, the Concerned Citizens speak into the microphone about the geological instability of the salt dome, about their fear that the hazardous waste will escape the dome and contaminate their aquifer. Their children, some not even tall enough to see over the podium, demand to play outside and drink clean water. They want to grow up to be healthy and "fully functional." One boy claims that God is upset with Mr. Shelton. Perhaps noting the number of his constituents in the audience, Democratic state Representative Robby Cook vows not to let the SEM project come to pass.

Retired from the sulfur plant that dramatically changed his county's landscape, Harold McVey now fights pollution.
Retired from the sulfur plant that dramatically changed his county's landscape, Harold McVey now fights pollution.
Retired from the sulfur plant that dramatically changed his county's landscape, Harold McVey now fights pollution.
Deron Neblett
Retired from the sulfur plant that dramatically changed his county's landscape, Harold McVey now fights pollution.

Through hours of angry testimony, Shelton alternately looks down at his feet and stares into the middle distance. Later, asked how it feels to be the most hated man in his own hometown, he wrinkles up his face and shrugs: The community pressure doesn't bother him. He is not impressed by the passion of their pleas, nor is he frightened by their number.

Years ago Harold McVey ran into Shelton's mother in the grocery store. "What's wrong with Michael? What's his ambition?" McVey asked the woman he'd known since childhood. "Oh, Harold, I don't know," he recalls Shelton's mother saying. "He's hardheaded. He's not gonna take no for an answer."


Michael Shelton sees himself not as a bad guy but as an environmentalist, perhaps a better one than his critics. Secured Environmental Management's proposal is the wave of the future, he says, a better alternative than the dinosaur technologies of landfilling or incineration. "The project is a wonderful thing for the environment," he says. "It's a shame that dealing with pollution, dealing with waste products, has such a bad connotation to it. But it's there, and if you're not doing something about it, you're part of the problem."

Shelton came to his environmentalism by way of capitalism. He has fond memories of his 1950s childhood in Boling, the kind of place where he could walk barefoot to Grandmother's house, where parents always knew their kids were safe. So when he grew up, Shelton and his wife bought a couple hundred acres near town and built a house on it. Over time, the 70-mile commute to his office in Houston became too grueling, and the Sheltons thought about selling their land in Wharton County.

"Although I knew about the dome," he says, "I really didn't think of any economic value to it until we moved back and decided to see if we could sell it for something more than farm value." Shelton listed the land with a couple of realtors who dealt only in salt dome property. They knew the value of Shelton's land lay not in its grassy, green surface but in what was beneath it.

The Texas Gulf Coast is dotted with underground salt domes, explains environmental geologist and Rice University professor emeritus H.C. Clark. About 100 million years ago, the Gulf of Mexico extended all the way inland to Austin, but parts of the basin got cut off from seawater. As the water in these great lakes evaporated, salt was left behind. Over time, different types of sediment were deposited on top of the salt, forming something of a geological layer cake. Because the salt was slightly less dense than these sediments, it migrated upward through fractures in these top layers, forming giant bulbous, lava lamplike structures underground. The Boling salt dome is the largest such structure in the Gulf coastal plain. It begins about 975 feet below the earth's surface and extends down thousands of feet to an unknown depth. It spans 5,486 acres at its crest, beneath both Wharton and Fort Bend counties.

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