A Mighty Wind
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.
"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.
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.
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.
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.
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."
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."
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."
While the company expects its request to landfill another 35 million cubic yards of trash will take 11 years, the county has suggested that since the license is governed by capacity and not time, decades are also a possibility. It all depends on the market.
In a similar fight over a BFI landfill in Travis County, officials are negotiating a closure date in writing -- something that the TCEQ doesn't typically require. While Travis County officials want better odor and trash control at their landfill, the Harris County Attorney's Office is also arguing for the sampling of Greens Bayou to "verify" that the known contamination beneath the dump has not spread into the waterway. Harris County officials also want PCBs added to the list of chemicals that are tested for in the plume beneath the site, and more enforceable standards overall.
While Gerald Long will put out a dish of water from his well for the dogs as he paints wildflowers under the carport, he doesn't drink the stuff. He noticed long ago the increase in mineral content and the multicolored petroleum sheen. He and his neighbors will shower with it, but rely on bottled water to drink.
The decades of fighting with so little to show for it has imbued the community with a sense of fatalism. Long says residents are used to being put off by company officials and regulators alike. "They just keep on keepin' on and look at you and say, 'You're still alive. Why are you worried?' "
(See "Breakfast of Champions" for more information.)
Get the Weekly Newsletter
Our weekly feature stories, movie reviews, calendar picks and more - minus the newsprint and sent directly to your inbox.