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Swirling, choking dust clouds first alerted Gerald Long and his wife, Vivian, that the McCarty Road Landfill had begun operations in 1972. The grit-filled air around their home in northeast Houston stung their eyes. They bickered with dump managers, and over the next few months the dust began to clear. The couple almost got used to the constant rumblings of garbage trucks and warning sirens. But they never adjusted to the sometimes gut-wrenching smell of rotting refuse and animal waste. After a few years of landfill decay, the sickly sweet odor of escaping methane gases was unavoidable.
But the dump wasn't an obsession. Not at first. Back in the '70s and into the '80s the couple was mostly crazy for square dancing. As members of the Rockin' R Club, they were some of the youngest dancers on the floor, though they were already past 50. Vivian would spend weeks sewing their outfits -- hers swirling floral jobs, his matching respectable Western-style shirts.
Neighbors up and down the block soon began to report burning eyes, painful headaches and breathing problems. Vivian Long's health also began to fail. Her mother, who had come to live with them a few years before, shared in the neighborhood illness.
Vivian stopped dancing. She kept going to the Rockin' R, but as a spectator only. She would watch, smiling her approval as Gerald walk-and-dodged and promenaded. Out in the car an oxygen bottle and adrenaline-charged nebulizer were at the ready. "Whenever she'd run out of steam, I'd pump her up," Gerald, now 85, says, an impish light illuminating his eyes.
In 1986, she quit going altogether. She urged him to continue, but Gerald says it "just wasn't the same" and gave it up too.
As the health of his wife and mother-in-law worsened, Gerald became their de facto caregiver. To block the bad odors that had come to overpower their lives, Gerald kept Vicks VapoRub steaming in the house at all hours. His wife worked the phones. When she felt able she would walk door to door a petition opposing the dump. She would call U.S. Environmental Protection Agency regulators whenever gas and trash smells got unbearable. After oversight was deeded to the state in the mid-'80s, she would call the city of Houston, or Harris County or the Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission (now the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality). None of it changed a thing, Gerald Long says. "They was just like an ol' dog with no teeth. They would growl and bark, but they never did a damn thing."
Over the years, his wife became so sensitive to chemical smells that Gerald had to quit using shaving cream. The light perfumes of the lubricant set Vivian off on asthmatic fits. He also gave up his lifelong hobby of restoring old cars; Vivian couldn't tolerate the oil and gas fumes that clung to his clothes and skin.
Finally, his wife became too sick to even go outside. She quit calling for help. Then her mother died. A few years later, in 1996, Vivian Long followed. That's when Gerald quit nursing his anger with the neighbor who had sold the hundreds of acres behind his house to Browning-Ferris Industries and got mad at the dump operation itself. He picked up Vivian's petition forms and tried his best to carry on the fight.
Waste companies tend to be politically powerful entities -- particularly ones like BFI, a homegrown success story bought out by Allied Waste in 1999 now enjoying its position as the second-biggest trash company in the nation. When the McCarty Road Landfill first was proposed, BFI paid for chartered lunches to the Galleria, and its representatives talked of local jobs. Community support followed. Donations to civic clubs and local schools kept that support solid in some quarters, but it wasn't long after the trucks and fumes began to roil that Long had former supporters coming to his side. However, the opposition wasn't organized enough to get things done. The petition floundered as the community quarreled about what tack to take. And BFI, Long says, already "had their teeth in the political end of things."
In time, the fight took the wind out of Gerald Long, who lives closest to the methane gas collection plant at the landfill's northern boundary. These days, hard words are just about all that's left of the anger that once fired his activism. "They like to say they're friends and neighbors, but friends and neighbors don't build a pile of shit next door to your house so it all runs down into your yard," Long says, sitting in his carport with the stray dogs that now share his time.
While Long worked petitions with other members of the East Houston Civic Club, Robin Curtis, a local real estate agent and community leader, was tiring of hearing the same old song whenever she approached businesses about locating to her community. She had been working for years to reclaim blighted areas in Houston's First, Second and Fourth wards, but it slowly began to sink in that while her focus had been elsewhere, her own community's suffering had been growing. Groceries, drugstores and dry cleaners had disappeared from the area as white flight increased. Filling the gaps left behind were the undesirables: "no-tell" motels, scrap yards and truck lots, a concrete batching plant and landfills -- lots of landfills. Curtis counted five landfills and waste depositories operating inside the 45-square-mile area.