A Mighty Wind

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

While little research has been done in the United States about the potential health impacts of living near landfills, recent studies in the United Kingdom and Canada have found elevated levels of birth defects and liver cancers for those who live close to city dumps.

Since 1993, Harris County and the state have cited the McCarty landfill repeatedly for allowing explosive gases to reach concentrations far beyond what regulators call the "lower explosive limit." But even though the violations were being recorded month after month, the full story wasn't being told.

The TCEQ criticized BFI's contractor, Waste Energy Technology, for not listing the actual amount of methane in the air being detected by probes at the landfill. When concentrations passed the level where things could go "boom," Waste Energy employees were simply recording that number as "100 percent." Between 1994 to 2001 methane measurements at eight wells were not reported at all, according to the TCEQ.

Gerald Long blames gas escaping from the McCarty Road Landfill for the loss of his wife and mother-in-law.
Daniel Kramer
Gerald Long blames gas escaping from the McCarty Road Landfill for the loss of his wife and mother-in-law.
Dump customers line up to spill their trash at McCarty.
Daniel Kramer
Dump customers line up to spill their trash at McCarty.

Brian Franco, BFI's district manager, insists the landfill's gas-collection system, in which the company has invested millions, has been "very effective at collecting and controlling methane." But more accurate numbers released last summer show wells continue to release methane concentrations into the air far beyond the lower explosive limit of 40 percent gas. The two samplings revealed a range of numbers that included 580 percent, 1,220 percent and even 1,680 and 1,820 percent of the limit. The last two figures translate into 84 percent and 91 percent pure gas. As recently as this March, four of five probes tested were above the regulatory limit. While Franco says his company issued notices of these events to area residents as instructed by the TCEQ, no one interviewed for this article recalls ever receiving one.

The dead dog proved to be a false alarm. Follow-up tests confirmed the presence of PCBs in the leaking slope, though at far lower levels than previously reported. Apparently the lab used by the Harris County Flood Control District had missed it by a few decimal points. Instead of 1,100 parts per billion of PCB contamination, the report should have read 1.1 parts per billion, a level barely above the EPA's regulatory limit for drinking water.

In any event, the scare served to reinforce what was already understood: The landfill was leaking. Regulators had known for more than a decade that hazardous chemicals had leached into the groundwater beneath the site, which was mostly unlined, as it was constructed prior to state and federal laws mandating plastic liners. The company has installed a series of pumps to try to collect the contaminated water and reduce the size of the plume -- an effort the company says is working. The dump, one company official wrote optimistically, "can continue to accept industrial and permitted special wastes without concern."

It can be hard to determine what exactly is buried in the landfill, because of overly general shipping forms, according to a local TCEQ team leader who asked not to be identified. But it's become clear in recent years that a steady stream of prohibited and highly toxic wastes has been buried at the landfill. The site is allowed to accept animal carcasses (the number doubled from about 12,000 per year to about 24,000 per year about four months ago, Buchanan said) and asbestos-contaminated materials, but waste with high levels of PCBs is verboten.

It was 1993 when the dump alerted the TCEQ that sludge containing high levels of PCBs from Oxy Vinyl "may" have been disposed at its site. Debates raged about the amount of contamination released, and an investigation dragged on for years. The volume involved is immense. From 1998 to 2003, the company trashed more than six million pounds of highly contaminated PCB waste from Oxy Vinyl's La Porte plant and its predecessor GEON Company, according to TCEQ records.

In March, TCEQ environmental investigator Bruce Arnett conducted a two-day inspection of operations at the landfill and discovered that little had changed. Just the previous summer the company had disposed of almost 6,000 cubic yards of contaminated oil-field wastes in violation of its permit. Questions also were raised about disposal of shredded automotive "fluff" with high levels of heavy metals and PCBs. The EPA's guidelines for measuring PCBs were still not being followed.

BFI doesn't test for PCB contamination in its groundwater, according to the TCEQ, and state officials say McCarty officials aren't interested in sampling Greens Bayou, though Franco says they will do it if asked. Officials at the TCEQ, meanwhile, say they are too underfunded to do it themselves. While high levels of toxins and heavy metals are being tracked on-site, the company says two underground "slurry walls" are preventing contamination of the bayou that borders the eastern side of the dump. While the overall size of the contaminated plume is shrinking, according to company records, the two monitoring wells outside the slurry wall and closest to the bayou show spikes in certain toxins.

In an interoffice e-mail, Arnett wrote a colleague, "There is considerable amounts of contamination in these wells which are east of the slurry wall. I have concerns as to whether there is impact into Greens Bayou. They say there isn't but I don't think there is enough data to make that statement." In the past year, the two wells showed significant increases of vinyl chloride, benzene, dichloromethane and carbon tetrachloride. Flooding conditions during part of the year prevented sampling from some of the wells.

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