A Mighty Wind

A mountain of garbage in northeast Houston is looking to get bigger. Neighbors cry foul.

"We would try to pitch it to developers and they said, 'What are you going to do about these no-tell motels and landfills?" So when the McCarty landfill announced late last year that it wanted to take its mountain of trash from its current height of 188 feet up to 316 feet -- making it potentially one of the tallest landfills in the state of Texas -- Curtis's group, the Northeast Environmental Justice Association, filed suit. Despite known groundwater contamination and a long history of air violations, the dump had been on a fast track for TCEQ approval until that point. Others soon joined the request for a contested case hearing.

The area's sensitivity to the topic should not have taken the company by surprise. McCarty had been open for only a few years when Southwestern Waste announced plans for another area dump: Whispering Pines. Marches and protests were the general response, ending in numerous arrests and the first lawsuit ever based on the concept of environmental racism -- the gathering idea that communities of color were intentionally targeted for undesirable, dangerous and unpopular industries like landfills and chemical plants.

By then, local sentiment was so strong against the waste industry that protesters had only to point the finger at McCarty to explain their objections: trucks, stink, pollution, sickness.

Breathing problems in this house north of the landfill have scarred four generations -- from great-grandmother Doris (pictured) to 13-month-old Kaydie. Declining property values have made moving impossible.
Daniel Kramer
Breathing problems in this house north of the landfill have scarred four generations -- from great-grandmother Doris (pictured) to 13-month-old Kaydie. Declining property values have made moving impossible.
The gas plant on the landfill's northern edge is a smelly reminder of health problems in this northeast Houston neighborhood.
Daniel Kramer
The gas plant on the landfill's northern edge is a smelly reminder of health problems in this northeast Houston neighborhood.

Those who remember the spirit of those times have a hard time understanding why their current elected leaders have been mum on the topic of expansion. Relative newcomer Joe Pinzón, who purchased his property without realizing its proximity to McCarty, assembled another petition and was received happily by 13 different church congregations last year. Ultimately he collected more than 2,500 signatures opposing the dump. They proved harder to get into the hands of political decision-makers, however, when copies left at both City Hall and local TCEQ offices apparently were misplaced.

Black, yellow, cute little spots, the report doesn't share much about the physical appearance of the stray dog wandering along Greens Bayou. What is known is that in May 2003 it stopped to drink from a standing pool of water at the base of the McCarty Road Landfill beside the bayou. Then it fell over, dead.

A Houston construction crew there to repair the leaking slope for the flood control district called the event in to the county. They scooped some muddy samples from the stagnant pool and threw some dirt over it to try to prevent the runoff from entering the bayou. Needless to say, the planned excavation and slump repair were delayed while the lab went to work.

Initial test results were through the roof for PCB contamination. PCBs are a toxic class of man-made chemicals known to cause a variety of illnesses, including cancer. Quantum Environmental Consultants reported that the samples' PCB contamination was thousands of times higher than any regulatory limit, state or federal. County employees and contractors were ordered out of the area.

When the issue of landfill expansion came to the city attorney's office for consideration, Iona Givens, senior assistant city attorney, wrote the TCEQ on March 11 asking to join the Northeast Environmental Justice Association in its request for a contested case hearing. The letter complained about issues such as stormwater runoff, rat infestation, groundwater contamination, odor and nuisance problems, gas emissions and truck traffic "that need to be explained and analyzed."

Northeast residents didn't have time to celebrate the victory before City Attorney Arturo Michel retracted those words two weeks later, directing the TCEQ to communicate with the city's solid waste director, Buck Buchanan. Michel blamed Givens's letter on communication problems among his staff. "There was no basis to be opposing it," Michel said recently.

By turning the matter over to Buchanan, the city essentially washed its hands of the matter. In Buchanan, BFI had perhaps its greatest champion. At a December public hearing on the expansion permit, he rose among the protesters at Shadydale Elementary School and made his position clear: "It is my personal belief that this is one of the best-run landfills in the country…Having the landfill is a definite economic benefit to my budget and, I believe, to the Houston region itself." Should the landfill be shut down, city costs to transport waste elsewhere would double, he warned.

Grover Hankins, founder of the Environmental Law & Justice Center at the Thurgood Marshall School of Law at Texas Southern University, shocked many when he also spoke in favor of BFI's permit. "It's going to happen," said Hankins. "The best thing you can do is work with Allied Waste to see that odor is reduced."

So, do the city's support and the silence of the established African-American leadership on this issue mean the company has cleaned up its act? Apparently not.

The landfill has been cited for nuisance odor problems for years. "Nuisance," however, is a misleading term, according to Fred Lee, a Harvard-trained environmental engineer who has worked for more than 25 years investigating the impact of landfills and federal standards. Garbage smells can be far worse than just annoying; they also harbor toxic chemicals that can be dangerous to human health. "Basically, if you can smell it, you're too close," Lee says. Landfill gases release known carcinogens without any odor, he writes in a 45-page report. Landfill gas is typically a 50-50 mix of methane and carbon dioxide with trace elements of volatile organic compounds and several known cancer-causers such as vinyl chloride and benzene. Hydrogen sulfide, otherwise known as poison gas and identified by a rotten-egg odor, also is generated and released by most landfills. The EPA is considering whether to list the gas as a hazardous air pollutant, making future controls more stringent.

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