Nothing scared Ginny Anderson more than learning about groundwater contamination more than ten years ago. It was suspected of causing some cancers and even deaths in the section of Brazoria County between Friendswood and Pearland, a place she calls home.
Authorities minimized the health concerns and attributed the problems to leftover radioactive wastes from a petroleum servicing company that closed in Pearland in 1970. It required a $7 million cleanup of soils at nine sites in that area.
Having lived through environmental problems earlier, Anderson and her neighbors recently saw a public notice stating that Crespo Family Services had applied for an air-quality license with the Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission (TNRCC).
And the community's sensory alarms went off.
Anderson learned of the company's big-time pet project: an animal crematory just off County Road 127, not far from her home. Crespo proposed to eventually expand the site into a full-scale cemetery for animals.
"We're not a zoned area, so we try to protect ourselves," Anderson says. She gathered a few neighbors and held community meetings to learn how people felt about the proposed location for a pet-burning facility. It is within 100 feet of some homes and close to Rustic Oak Elementary School, creating some fears that it would impact children with respiratory problems.
"It could affect our health, but it also disrupts the community," Anderson says. "This is a residential community where children play. This is not an industrial area."
While she and others battle the measure, Anthony Crespo -- father of five children and owner of two cats and a dog -- continues to patiently wait to create his supersize pet cemetery.
Crespo and wife Madeleine swear that when they first envisioned the complex to be known as All God's Creatures, they never imagined their pet-friendly proposal would spark such controversy.
As the nephew of Manuel Crespo, the founder of the funeral home of that name, Anthony Crespo had spent 20 years in the mortuary business in Houston. He and his wife moved back to the Friendswood/Pearland area where he grew up. He took a job as a financial adviser; she took a position working with an organ donation center.
They say their experiences with death ceremonies for humans made them aware that pet owners suffer from a shortage of options in memorializing the deaths of their animals.
"We noticed over the years that losing a pet is as traumatic as losing a member of the family," Anthony Crespo says. "In fact, it's like losing a member of the family."
Renters and most homeowners don't have the option of formal backyard burials to honor their dead pets, he says. Crespo says he hired researchers from the University of Houston to study pet loss and ways to dispose of the remains. He contracted with marketing personnel to conduct focus-group studies of pet owners and animal specialists/vets to understand how they wanted to memorialize the loss of their furry family treasures.
The conclusion, Crespo says, is that not only is cremating pets a dignified way to send an animal off, it is the most environmentally sound.
"Cremation is a much more widely used option when it comes to death in the family," Crespo says. "Our research showed that in states such as Florida and California, the cremation rate is as high as 50 percent. That's partly because we have a more mobile society and partly because people in those states have found it to be a much more efficient, cleaner process for burial."
Crespo would initially build the crematory and develop a funeral home for the likes of Fido on five of his ten acres. "My master plan is designed with local architects and environmental engineers. We'll have places for ceremonies and a room reserved for people to come and view their pet before cremation," he explains.
A special section will be dedicated to service-type animals, such as Seeing Eye dogs and police canines. "I want to give people a place to pay tribute to these special animals that enhance and sometimes save our lives," he says.
The other five acres eventually would be developed as a pet cemetery, accented by two ponds, a park with a trail, an aviary and an educational facility for veterinarians.
As a funeral home veteran, Crespo delivers his vision in tones of soft reassurance, contrasting with the combative mode of Anderson and the other neighborhood activists. But both sides appear to be clouding the issues in some key areas.
"It's not so much what he's doing, because I think it's a great idea," Anderson says. "He'll probably make millions at it, but not in the middle of a neighborhood where there are children playing .This is a residential area, and he's trying to build a business. There's a school that's close by, and he's bringing dead animals right next door to people?"
While there are housing developments in the general vicinity of the proposed crematory, it would be straining credibility to say Crespo targeted an exclusively residential area. Businesses line portions of the county road, and directly across from the site is bustling Clover Field Airport.
"One small passenger airplane taking off at Clover Field Airport emits what it would take this burning facility three years to burn off," Crespo says. "The TNRCC agreed that it was well below the allowable rates -- hardly measurable."
He compares his proposed operation to that of other businesses that in effect cook up animal carcasses as well: fast-food joints. Crespo says they spew 7.5 times the amount of organic compounds that will be emitted by his facility.
Nancy Firestien, a spokeswoman for TNRCC, did liken it to burning wood in a fireplace, although the crematory would be even less threatening because it would burn natural gas instead of wood.
So why the fiery overtones in Anderson's opposition?
Crespo and the TNRCC are saying that everything is on a small scale, "but everybody is on a small scale," Anderson laments. "You know, the airport is on a small scale, this is on a small scale. When do you add them up and see that it becomes a large scale?"
Opponents have voiced fears about the potential fallout. They have said that cremating or burying disease-laden lab animals could contaminate the air and well water, not to mention having it tainted from embalming fluid. However, the TNRCC permit application specifically states that Crespo would be banned from burning lab "test animals, in whole or part" -- as well as human remains of any kind. And there's no embalming involved. The crematory, of course, could seek to modify the restrictions at some later point, although that would require another series of hearings and TNRCC evaluations.
Thus far, the opponents are mostly on their own in the battle. Pearland City Council notes that the property is outside its jurisdiction. And the Pearland school district remains neutral. "From what we have ascertained, it is not going to be a health hazard," says Susan Lenamon, a PISD spokeswoman. "We're not for it or against it; we're silently listening."
As for Crespo, his much-stated compassion for pet owners may be coupled with a less proclaimed motive: money. He hardly needs marketing research to discover that pet cemeteries and crematories are a hot business now. The trend toward more humane treatment of animals has created a growth industry of international proportions. In January, even the Russian capital of Moscow made plans for its first pet cemetery and crematory.
The latest Houston yellow pages lists nine companies now in that business. And there may soon be ten.
While hardly coming up with a comforting name like All God's Creatures, Cabredon Animal Disposal went through the same TNRCC hearing process last October. It plans to build a small incinerator just off Lee Road, near FM 1960 north of Bush Intercontinental Airport. Subdivision activists in Cypresswood are mounting similar complaints about the potential effects on children, especially those with respiratory problems. The TNRCC's Dick Lewis says that the application remains in the review stage.
Four years ago a brief glimpse of the business of pet burial came in a civil lawsuit filed by Little Friends Pet Memorial of Houston. It sued to halt the opening of a Tulsa pet cemetery and crematory. That Oklahoma operator had paid an initial $5,000 to Little Friends to learn the inside operation, marketing techniques and trade secrets, such as invaluable contacts with referring veterinarians. Little Friends was supposed to also get a $25,000 fee and an 8 percent cut of revenues from the new operation. Instead, the man canceled the contract -- but allegedly used his newfound expertise to open the business anyway.
The books of these businesses are proprietary, although pet cremation services seem to be capable of firing up profits. A typical natural gas furnace and installation is estimated at $50,000 to $100,000.
Fees to customers vary according to the size of the dead animal and the desired accessories, such as ornamental containers for the ashes. A typical terrier can be torched for about $30 if the ashes are merely scattered by the crematory; that goes up to more than $100 if the owner wants to store the remains in a stylish urn. A cemetery plot for the ashes pumps up the price much higher.
Many owners still recoil at the budget-conscious option: throwing a beloved and faithful Fluffy out with the trash.
The price is much cheaper than that for a human's cremation or burial, although the prospective client pool is much broader. A person might live 70 years before death requires disposal; animal mortuaries can count on about four pets dying in that same amount of time.
According to the draft permit, Crespo's All God's Creatures could burn the equivalent of 100 pounds of animal carcasses hourly, with the oven operating up to ten hours a day, or 3,640 hours annually. He notes that he does not plan to fire it up anywhere close to that capacity. However, the crematory could conceivably gross about $700,000 annually if it could incinerate an average of four 25-pound pets hourly, at $50 each, over the course of a year.
Of course, financial stakes are not limited to that side in this dogfight. Listen to the opponents long enough, and they invariably get around to a bottom line: They believe that burning animals would hurt the real estate market.
"People are worried about it driving down their property value and what they're going to be exposed to. I understand that he wants to make money," Anderson says, "but why couldn't he do it somewhere else?"
Crespo counters: "I bought this land because it's in a convenient high-traffic location, close to my house -- and because I can [buy it]. I would never create something that would harm my children or any other children."
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