Wretched Excess

Sludge, spread across the land, makes some people vomit and others very rich

Meanwhile, the trucks kept rolling in. They rumbled down the gravel roads and dumped the sludge onto a staging area, where manure spreaders picked it up and trundled across the fields, whisking it left and right off conveyors. Or they shot it out in arcing blasts through pressurized water cannons.

"It was just horrible trying to sleep," Massey says. "You could almost taste it, it was so rank."

Complaints about the sludge mounted through the summer. Truck drivers reported picking up loads that were dark and fetid. According to the Herald Coaster, a local newspaper, residents described themselves as prisoners in their own homes. The stench was so bad that children were sometimes unable to wait outside for the school bus.

Synagro's trucks dumped or sprayed sludge on cattle 
pastures near Massey's property.
Provided by Keith Massey
Synagro's trucks dumped or sprayed sludge on cattle pastures near Massey's property.
Massey's grandson, Kade, suffered birth defects.
Provided by Keith Massey
Massey's grandson, Kade, suffered birth defects.

Yet the problems for Massey's family were worse. Fecal dust blowing from the open-bed sludge trucks and nearby fields caused his two young grandchildren to develop coughs and runny noses, he claims. And Massey says a doctor diagnosed him with a bacterial stomach infection and prescribed three varieties of antibiotics. He claims the physician likened his stomach to those of "kids in a third-world country that play in the sewer."

Growing increasingly frustrated with the persistent stench, Massey resorted to threats, according to state records. On a tour of a sludge site with TCEQ and Synagro officials, he stopped his pickup along a road, climbed out and pointed to a Synagro office where a worker was sitting outside. He reportedly said: "I have a .44 that I could take over there right now and put an end to all of this." When TCEQ investigators visited a few months later and told Massey that the odor near his house was merely "slight and intermittent," he bitched them out. He called a high-ranking agency official and complained, saying he knew how to take care of the problem with "a bullet in the back of the head." The agency informed him by mail that it no longer would respond to his calls, but that only provoked him. A truck driver with Enviroganics, another company that was applying sludge nearby, reported that the retired preacher pulled a gun and fired into the air to persuade him to stop working.

Environmental attorneys wanted to charge $30,000 to help Massey sue -- money he didn't have. TCEQ officials in Austin couldn't help him either. "I didn't have enough money even to take them out to lunch," he says.

State officials say they never abandoned Massey or the residents of Guy. "It's been a pretty exhaustive investigation of all of the allegations out there," says Bryan Eastham, who later took over as the region's sludge team leader. "It's gone on for six or seven years, total, and out of multiple investigations out there, there were a couple of minor violations, which were resolved."

Massey eventually changed his approach. He bought a dust mask to wear while mowing the lawn. "I just felt like I had to do something," he says.

But his family's health problems worsened. Less than two years after the sludge spreading began near his property, his daughter delivered baby Kade, who was born with cerebellum hypoplasia, an obscure brain defect caused by a buildup of fluids inside his head.

Although the doctors who diagnosed Kade couldn't be reached for comment and there is no direct evidence pinning his medical condition on sludge, Massey cites anecdotal links. A few months earlier, he discovered a stillborn calf in a pasture where sludge had been applied. Lawsuits in other states have claimed ties between sludge and health and reproductive problems in cattle. Some doctors have argued that sludge also could cause birth problems in humans.

After his birth, Kade stayed in Texas Children's Hospital for six weeks, spending much of that time on a respirator or under an oxygen hood. Doctors drained infections in his ears with plastic tubes. Pressure on his brain mounted, and the physicians eventually performed another operation when he was three years old. They cut his head from ear to ear, pulled the skin down and restructured his skull. Kade had barely talked before the operation. Afterward, his vocabulary was cut in half.

For the other Massey grandchildren, life in the country resembled life behind an urban latchkey. When the wind blew across the pasture, they stayed indoors and watched television. A five-month-old grandchild who moved in with the family later that year developed a 103-degree fever. He had never been sick, Massey says, yet repeatedly ran fevers afterward and saw a doctor bimonthly.

Massey drove to Richmond that May and told the Fort Bend County Commissioners Court that the EPA and the TCEQ were in the pocket of the sludge industry. "I pray that you will help us to protect our children," he preached in the pages of the Herald Coaster. "I'm in this alone..."

Massey might have been a rogue prophet at the time, but his plight didn't go unnoticed. Four months later, Synagro threatened to sue him for defamation based on his comments. "[Y]ou have stated that the spreading of sludge is using land as a 'pay toilet,' " said a letter from the company's attorneys, "and that the spreading of sludge by Synagro produces an obnoxious odor, affects air quality, and is linked to a number of health issues such as increased risk of birth defects, fetal abortions and stillbirths."

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