A Mighty Wind

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

After city officials deferred to their waste manager's rosy assessment of landfill operations at McCarty, a letter was forwarded to Mayor Bill White. It tells the story of a household of four generations -- from great-grandmother Doris down to 13-month-old Kaydie -- who live just a couple of blocks from Long and are all suffering varying degrees of breathing problems that they blame, at least in part, on landfill gas.

Concerned for their privacy, they asked that their last names not be used in this article.

"Please help save our lives," 54-year-old Sandra's letter opens. "I have very bad breathing problems. Windie (age 32) is on a nebulizer and medication. She and I have bad headaches. Windie faints, has acute asthma. Kaydie already shows signs of asthma and breathing problems, according to her doctor…We have been advised to move but cannot afford to. Would you let your family live here? As Mayor, you can help save our family."

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.

Weingarten Realty Investors also has begun to worry about its significant area investments, a complex of warehouse and shipping docks abutting the landfill. In its own request for a contested case hearing on the dump's expansion permit, Weingarten's attorneys ask whether McCarty is able to keep toxic wastes and explosive gases out of the environment, where they pose a potential danger to employees. The answer, again, appears to be no.

As he powers his SUV up the winding dirt road to the working face of the landfill, landfill manager Charlie Walker passes an almost bucolic scene. Thistle and yellow flowers are winding up from the clayish soils that cover the buried waste. A water truck intended to keep dust levels below federal guidelines sprays the windshield as it passes. "He just looks for folks with open windows," Walker says as he switches on the wipers.

A Hispanic worker in a hard hat directing traffic has only his orange flag and helmet for protection. No masks are needed, Walker says. "There's nothing really out here that will affect you. It's like working outside anywhere else in the city of Houston."

At the dump's working face, earth-moving trucks are running back and forth over what appears to be a 50-degree slope of city and industrial trash. Customers wait for the chance to dump their payloads over the few acres of swirling chaos. When asked about the high levels of bio-gas on-site, Walker says methane is the primary constituent. The rest is oxygen, he says, and "other types of things." While the company has invested heavily in two flares to burn off unusable gas, it continues to be cited for high levels in the air around the 458-acre facility -- particularly along the northern boundary, where Long and the other families interviewed for this article live. Director Buchanan said he was unaware of gas problems at the landfill. Anyway, he concluded, "the city inspectors don't have an issue with it."

True enough.

The city says it hasn't issued the dump an odor nuisance violation since September 2001 and has logged only four complaints since 2000.

"I am sure that the citizens would be on the phone if there were issues with the McCarty Road site," says Chuck Roosevelt, environmental quality specialist at the city's health department. However, more than a dozen residents interviewed for this story say they have long since quit trying to get satisfaction from the city's health department. It seems only the county and state have paid the complaints any mind.

The county, using a 24-hour hot line, has logged 34 complaints since 1999 and has written the dump 17 odor violations. Typically, inspectors arrive too late to verify residents' experiences. Stories in these streets abound about sleeping inspectors being awakened in their trucks with the windows up and the a/c running. But on December 9, 2004, one alert inspector got a noseful. Twice the investigation report lists gas levels in the neighborhood as reaching "alarming" levels. "While I did not experience a headache," the inspector wrote, "I did feel nausea."

The McCarty Road Landfill is within Houston city limits, but it's Harris County that's in the fight. Negotiations over BFI-Allied's application are ongoing between county and waste officials. Civil prosecution against the dump was considered as recently as last year, according to a letter from Steve Hupp, assistant technical manager at the county's office of pollution control. So far, despite the numerous violations, no fines have been assessed, though nuisance odor violations carry civil penalties as high as $25,000 per day.

One of the first questions Assistant County Attorney Snehal Patel asked when she heard of the expansion request was whether the company hadn't already promised residents not to expand -- a well-worn complaint among opponents in northeast Houston.

One company official took the question seriously enough to retain a third party to review all of the company's written records, reporting back in January that they had found no such written commitment. However, Jim Stipe, the company's general manager, responding to questions at the December hearing, said, "You're absolutely right, there have been commitments by other management members about the landfill, but take into consideration, ladies and gentlemen, that over the last 15 years the need for landfills and waste disposal has increased, it has not decreased."

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