Waste Not, Want Not
In his years as a petrochemical plant manager, Joe Monk has grown accustomed to pejoratives hurled in his direction. Until recently, though, "radical environmentalist" wasn't one of them. But when you oppose a landfill on which hundreds of millions of dollars are riding, as Monk does, your opponents are likely to use whatever weapons they can muster against you, no matter how far-fetched.
Monk appreciates the irony. As he sits in the stark outer office of the Fina Oil and Chemical Co. manufacturing facility in LaPorte, a smile splits his craggy features and he permits himself a chuckle. "They keep underestimating us," he says. "They think we're well-meaning tree huggers."
The mood doesn't last long, though, as Monk delves into the numerous shortcomings of the Cedar Point Industrial Landfill, a proposed 800-acre dump within a mile of Trinity Bay in Chambers County. The landfill will ultimately rise 15 stories off the ground, a mountain of waste that will be the highest point in the county. As chairman of the technical committee of Informed Citizens United (ICU), a coalition of area citizens fighting the landfill, he's armed with a truckload of objections.
They boil down to this: The landfill will leak, and when it does, the health of the neighboring residents and the economic vitality of the community will be endangered or destroyed. "It's a dangerous site," Monk says.
University of Houston Cougars Football vs. Louisville Cardinals College Football
TicketsThu., Nov. 17, 7:00pm
Rice University Owls Football vs. UTEP Miner Football
TicketsSat., Nov. 19, 11:00am
SWAC Football Championship
TicketsSat., Dec. 3, 3:00pm
TicketsSat., Jan. 7, 7:00pm
Not so, insists former state senator Carl Parker, who has been lobbying vigorously for the landfill on behalf of TSP Management Ltd., the group of investors who have been putting the project together since 1993. Parker and former secretary of state Jack Rains, an attorney who is also working the deal for TSP, have dismissed such concerns as the hysterical ravings of special-interest groups -- radical environmentalists, for example -- bent on killing the landfill at any cost. If that happens, they claim, you can kiss the positive business climate in the Galveston Bay region good-bye. "Clearly, our entire economy is threatened," spouted Rains in a letter to area executives.
The issue, says Parker, should be left to an impartial review of the scientific merits by state regulators, and passed or failed accordingly. But the debate has moved well beyond that realm. "It's reached the point where reason has nothing to do with it anymore," he says. "It's the ultimate not-in-my-back yard mentality."
If reason has nothing to do with it, then a lot of people are being unreasonable. The town of Beach City, which lies on Trinity Bay half a mile from the landfill site, has passed a resolution against the facility. So have all the neighboring communities, including Baytown, Mont Belvieu and Cove. The Harris and Chambers county commissioners courts actively oppose it. Even the area chambers of commerce, not generally known for agitating against a business proposition, have gone on record against the landfill. In fact, Chambers County Judge Jimmy Sylvia can't recall a single phone call, letter or comment from any residents who fancy the idea of another landfill (the county hosts several already) inside the county line. "Not one person wants it that I know of," he says.
Unfortunately for the residents, the process that determines whether and where landfills are built has in the past had nothing to do with how the locals feel. The Texas Natural Resources Conservation Commission (TNRCC) reviews all landfill-permit applications and issues decisions, and in almost every case the agency gives landfills the green light. The decisions can be appealed, a costly endeavor that can run as much as $300,000, but even with an appeal, the odds of success don't substantially increase.
This is true even when a potential landfill site violates TNRCC's own guidelines for locating such facilities, which appears to be the case with the Cedar Point facility. This has led an expanding circle of critics to charge that the agency sees its function as greasing the wheels for landfill operators, regardless of the consequences. "It's a real frustration to realize you've got an agency whose primary goal is to make sure a permit gets issued," says environmental attorney Jim Blackburn, who has joined the fray on behalf of the opposition.
When Carl Parker says the matter should be left to the allegedly impartial review of professional regulators, he's talking about the TNRCC. The agency's track record explains why he's so adamant about letting the process unfold in that arena, free from public influence.
But Parker and Rains, whose attempts to persuade the local communities have consisted mostly of bluster and threats, may not get their way. Taking advantage of a rarely used state law, Chambers County recently passed an ordinance restricting landfills to specific locations that do not include the proposed TSP site. And the Harris County Attorney's Office, along with others across the state who have grown weary of the agency's posture, is hammering on the TNRCC to factor local land-use decisions into the permit-review process.
TSP's backers may have figured that a county as small as Chambers (with a total population of only 20,000) would have too little money or clout to stop a landfill, especially with such power brokers as Parker and Rains smoothing the way in Austin. If so, they figured wrong, because at this point the heaviest artillery seems stacked on the opposition side. "I'm real confident that we're gonna beat this thing," says Fina plant manager Joe Monk. "We'll just keep firing away at 'em."
Whoever christened Beach City was perhaps feeling generous that day, or maybe just optimistic about the future. The thin strip of land stretching along Trinity Bay about eight miles east of Baytown boasts about 1,500 residents clustered in small bay-front subdivisions, with no business district or even a modest strip center or grocery store. Neither hustle nor bustle are in evidence. Everything about Beach City screams small town.
And wanderers in search of the sandy shores implied in the name will be disappointed. "Essentially there are no beaches in Beach City," says mayor Jim Standridge. "Hurricane Carla wiped 'em out."
Standridge sits in a cluttered office inside the Beach City Community Center, surrounded by the business of government. "This room is City Hall," he says in an unhurried drawl that fits the surroundings.
A resident for the past ten years and mayor for the last six, Standridge enjoys the advantages of living in the relatively sleepy environs of Beach City: little crime, regular deer and eagle sightings in his back yard, a close-knit community. "I know on a first-name basis more than half the people in town," he says.
The town has an annual budget of less than $70,000, a third of which goes to the volunteer fire department and ambulance service. Beach City levies no property or sales taxes. A periodic survey distributed to the residents asks for responses to such statements as "The city should keep its hands out of my pockets and its nose out of my business." Generally speaking, the residents prefer their government on the minimalist side. "I like the fact that the people are so independent," says Standridge.
With his spectacles, his mild manner and two pens in his plaid button-down shirt, Standridge would hardly seem a candidate to take on the rich and powerful. But like the other residents of Beach City, the mayor doesn't like outsiders ramming things down his community's throat, and he's tangled with the likes of Houston Light & Power over unfair utility rates -- and won.
When Standridge got a call in October 1996 saying that a company called TSP was planning to put a landfill in an industrial park virtually adjacent to Beach City, the alarm bells rang. The prospect of yet another landfill close by -- a municipal solid-waste landfill a few miles down the road has been a chronic source of odor pollution and other irritations -- didn't exactly appeal. "We were very concerned," he says.
Standridge called Carl Parker to verify the details and request a copy of the permit application. The mayor then invited Parker and anyone else connected with TSP for a show-and-tell at the community center. About 200 people jammed into the building.
The members of the TSP contingent apparently believed they could convince people to embrace the landfill with a slew of charts, photos and glib assurances. But after a lengthy presentation followed by a question-and-answer session, most of those in attendance came away suspicious and angry. Standridge summarizes the responses to many of their chief concerns, such as where the waste would come from or the names of TSP's principals, with a single phrase: "None of your damn business."
"There was no information there," Standridge says. "If they had any hope of establishing credibility with the community, they blew it that night."
As TSP's emissaries appeared before other groups, the perception of the project went from bad to worse. At a public hearing last August before the Chambers County Commissioners Court, Carl Parker succeeded in offending just about everyone present with his sweeping dismissal of the landfill opponents and their concerns, and barely veiled threat of legal action if anyone tried to get in his way. Leave the decision to the "orderly process," Parker told the commissioners. "That's the thing that will keep you out of court and keep you out of an endless mass of expenditures that this county can ill afford, in my opinion."
County Judge Jimmy Sylvia says Parker's demeanor damaged TSP's case. "That was his attitude, that they were gonna put [the landfill] in," Sylvia says. "Frankly, commissioners court did not like that attitude. The arrogance really stirred the gourd."
If TSP had an inkling that its public-relations strategy was backfiring, no one made an effort to soften the approach. Rains and Parker wrote huffy letters to the Baytown Sun accusing naysayers of trying to ruin the local business climate and undermine basic property rights, and Rains also penned a plea to local business executives last June urging them to speak out in favor of the landfill at an upcoming Baytown City Council meeting.
Sometimes the attacks took a more personal turn. Ted Hollingsworth, a Texas Department of Parks and Wildlife employee who recently bought his dream waterfront property in Beach City and is working with Informed Citizens United to stop the landfill, was surprised to get a phone call at work one afternoon from TSP partner Imre Szekelyhidi. According to Hollingsworth, Szekelyhidi accused him of doing ICU work on state time and acting on behalf of the department in opposing the landfill, and implied that the matter would be investigated. Hollingsworth, who says he's gone overboard to make sure he doesn't cross any lines of propriety, was stunned. "I just know better," he says. "This is my career."
Szekelyhidi admits he made the call to Hollingsworth, but defends the thrust of his comments. Wouldn't you want to know if a state employee was breaking the law by doing personal work on the taxpayers' clock? As for Hollingsworth's denial, Szekelyhidi says, "There will be people making inquiries to validate that."
Far from intimidating Beach City residents or anyone else, TSP has only succeeded in galvanizing the opposition. The Baytown Sun has taken an aggressive editorial stand against the landfill, blasting Rains and Parker at every turn. In response to Rains's letter to area business executives, only one of them showed up at the Baytown meeting -- Fina plant manager Monk, an avid foe of the project.
The following month, the Baytown Chamber of Commerce passed a resolution against the proposed landfill, skewering TSP's arguments about sending the wrong message to industry. "The construction and operation of the proposed Cedar Point Industrial Landfill undermines the community's effort over the past years to promote Baytown as a quality place to live and do business," the resolution read.
Eventually, almost every government or civic body with a stake in the outcome, including Harris County Commissioners Court, weighed in. The verdict was unanimous.
Szekelyhidi doesn't understand the criticism levied against TSP. The company has gone the extra mile to respond to community concerns, he says, informing the various local governments of their intentions and initiating meetings to fully air the particulars. "We have done everything above board," he says.
The TSP partner traces the opposition back to Beach City Mayor Jim Standridge, whom he believes turned the other cities and counties against the project for his own political reasons. When TSP first broached the matter, he says, the response was ho-hum. It was only later that the resolutions started rolling in. "Other than Beach City, no one was particularly concerned," Szekelyhidi says, though every public official interviewed by the Press disputes this.
Eventually, Szekelyhidi takes the fallback position, that the landfill design uses the latest technology and meets all the legal and technical requirements to get its permits. And that should be the basis for supporting or opposing the project, he says. Instead, his adversaries play on emotion. "The general concern is, 'We don't want it here,' " he says. "I don't know how to respond to 'We don't want it here.' "
Throughout its life, the proposed Cedar Point Industrial Landfill will process up to 2,000 tons of industrial waste per day, or the equivalent of 100 large semi truckloads. Cedar Point is designated as a Class 1 industrial-waste facility, which means that in addition to inert debris and other harmless materials, the landfill will contain such carcinogens and poisonous heavy metals as benzene, mercury, chromium and arsenic.
Holding all that material in place will be a layer of clay and a plastic liner somewhat thicker than a couple of heavy-duty garbage bags. Leachate -- the toxic liquid that filters through the material and collects on the bottom -- will be collected, pumped out and treated. A series of test wells circling the perimeter will monitor for leaks. "Our facility is state of the art," says Imre Szekelyhidi, who will manage the operation once it's up and running.
But state of the art doesn't mean foolproof. The EPA has published several reports over the past 15 years concluding that all landfills will eventually leak. As TNRCC Executive Director Dan Pearson recently acknowledged to a legislative environmental committee chaired by Lake Jackson Senator Buster Brown, "I think every landfill we've sited in the state of Texas has the potential to leak."
When landfills do leak, the consequences vary, depending on where they're located. Far from residential development, in a drier climate with less-permeable soils, the damage can be minimal, or at least take years to accrue. But in areas prone to heavy rains and flooding, where nearby residents are dependent on well water that would be contaminated by a leak, landfills pose a more immediate hazard.
The Cedar Point landfill will not only dominate the horizon, but will be dug 42 feet below grade. The water table, according to TSP's own application, varies between a mere six and 12 feet below the surface, depending on the season. The area has been hit several times by major hurricanes and is regularly buffeted by severe weather systems. After even a moderate downpour, the site stays flooded for hours. "It goes underwater in a heavy sweat," says Beach City Mayor Jim Standridge.
Moreover, every citizen of Beach City and Cove draws water from wells, and the landfill will sit atop the aquifer that supplies them. And the ground in the vicinity has experienced subsidence of several feet the past decade, which could well continue in the future. (Subsidence does not occur uniformly -- imagine the stress on the plastic liner if one part of the site drops several feet and another remains stable.)
If Cedar Point's plastic liner were to crack or rupture, the leachate would have very few travel options. Only one, in all probability -- into Trinity Bay, though it might reach the water via a thousand different underground paths, and how long it would take is anybody's guess. If the poisons did flow into the bay, the local seafood industry would be at serious risk, to say nothing of area property values.
Given these negatives, Cedar Point would seem an unlikely candidate for a Class 1 industrial-waste landfill. And it's not just area residents who feel that way. Rich Hill, who has run and operated landfills and is now president of the environmental engineering firm Waste Min Inc., examined the property in 1990 as a possible landfill location and rejected it cold. "It's just bad," he says, reciting the deficiencies from memory. Hill has been hired by ICU to lend his technical expertise to the opposition.
TSP defends Cedar Point as "an extremely good environmental setting," according to Imre Szekelyhidi, though he won't discuss the details beyond stating that "we have designed and sited and will build a facility that will be in conformance with all the requirements."
The state has its own guidelines for the siting of landfills, published by the TNRCC. And at first glance, they argue as strongly against a site like Cedar Point as the most vocal critics. "Submergence of an industrial solid-waste landfill below mean sea level and inundation by waters of the Gulf or of a bay is a hazard which must be avoided," reads one guideline. "Wetlands must be considered highly unsuitable as locations for landfills," states another. Among the siting criteria, the guidelines list the following "areas in which a landfill shall not be established without special safeguards and/or additional governmental approvals: low-lying areas with high subsidence rates or subject to shoreline erosion; sole-source aquifer recharge areas; coastal high-hazard areas; and wetland areas."
Asked if the Cedar Point landfill-permit applications should have been rejected from the start because the site violates TNRCC's own guidelines, the agency first tried to beg the question. "We're still reviewing the application," said Minor Hibbs, who directs the Division of Industrial and Hazardous Waste. "Quite frankly, that's my general response."
When pressed, however, Hibbs refused to address any of the ways that the site appears to clash with the guidelines. "I can't specifically get into that detail with you," he said. "You have to look at our process holistically."
But Hibbs did eventually offer the TNRCC an out. "Violation is a word that would normally be used when you're looking at regulations," he said. "Guidelines are not regulations."
And it's an easy out, because when it comes to industrial-waste landfills, state regulations are in short supply. This has enabled the TNRCC to conduct its technical reviews with an eye toward granting permits, free from the burden of having to defend its decisions against a regulatory backdrop. "We have got to have rules," says environmental attorney Jim Blackburn. "I think it's illegal to issue a permit without having rules that are binding."
Not only that, but some of the permit requirements have a certain softness that allows the applicant considerable leeway. TSP is supposed to prove its ability to operate and manage a landfill, but the company refuses to disclose the names of its partners, and Szekelyhidi says he's the only member of the group with any practical landfill experience. And any facility that will emit more than 25 tons of air pollutants annually triggers a more intensive review of the application. TSP claims that Cedar Point will emit 24.9 tons. "That's pure and utter B.S.," says Blackburn, who plans to challenge that figure. "They are making a joke of the process."
Equally frustrating for landfill opponents anywhere in Texas has been the TNRCC's refusal to consider land-use compatibility as a consideration in siting. Executive Director Dan Pearson reiterated the agency's historical position before Buster Brown's Senate environmental committee in January, that the TNRCC is limited to a review of the technical merits of a given permit application. But that's not how state law reads. According to the Texas Solid Waste Disposal Act, which authorizes the TNRCC to regulate solid waste, the agency "may, for good cause, deny, amend or revoke a permit ... for reasons pertaining to ... land use."
In addition, the TNRCC's own regulations -- not guidelines -- direct it to weigh land use as a factor in the permit-review process. "The impact of the site upon a city, community, group of property owners or individuals shall be considered [emphasis added] in terms of compatibility of land use ... and other factors associated with the public interest."
Why the TNRCC persists in claiming it has no authority to consider land use is beyond Cathy Sisk, who heads the Environmental and Community Protection Bureau of the Harris County Attorney's Office. "It's baloney," says Sisk, who has most recently done battle with the agency over a proposed Spring-Cypress landfill. "The TNRCC is attempting to completely abdicate its responsibility, and I think that's inappropriate."
The explanation may be quite simple. The TNRCC has a well-deserved reputation as being friendly to business, streamlining the regulatory process and otherwise making life simpler for companies that need to dump waste into the earth, air and water. To blend land use into the mix means opening the door to disgruntled citizens who want nothing to do with landfills. And as Dan Pearson noted before the Senate committee, "I am not aware of a single landfill siting or a single modification that the surrounding community was in favor of."
Jim Loerch takes a draft from his can of beer and surveys Trinity Bay. "Fish, right there!" he practically shouts. "I've fished this bay fortysomething years."
Loerch, a Beach City resident of 11 years who worked in the gas industry before retiring in 1994, is explaining why he has devoted a good deal of his time of late to the fight against the Cedar Point landfill. "I do it because I love this place," Loerch says.
An imposing six-foot-ten, Loerch nevertheless comes across like an old friend, casual and relaxed, his finger ever jabbing the humor button. His engaging style helped gain him entry into Cedar Crossing, the industrial park owned by USX where the Cedar Point Industrial Landfill will go if it leaps all the hurdles. After getting involved with Informed Citizens United, Loerch took it upon himself to visit the existing tenants of the park and ask their opinions.
As it turned out, none of them knew about the plan to stick a landfill next door. "Not one of them had been told that that toxic dump was going in there," says Loerch. "They were completely flabbergasted."
So flabbergasted, in fact, that two of the companies pledged a hefty chunk of cash to the cause. "We support the ICU," says one company executive. "There are a lot of people here who are seriously concerned about this."
The efforts of people like Loerch, ICU technical committee chairman Joe Monk and Beach City Mayor Jim Standridge have created a groundswell of support that has reverberated far outside the borders of Beach City. Whether the TNRCC responds to the will of the masses and denies TSP's permits remains to be seen (a decision is expected sometime in July).
But the landfill may not survive that long. On February 17, the Chambers County Commissioners Court unanimously passed an ordinance that will restrict any new landfills to designated areas in the county. The ordinance is permitted by an obscure 1971 state law that has been utilized only once before, by McMullen County. If the ordinance holds up in court (TSP immediately filed a lawsuit challenging the move), Cedar Point will no longer qualify as a potential landfill site.
That's not the only roadblock TSP must dodge. Environmental attorney Jim Blackburn will soon file suit against USX, the property owner, for illegally filling in wetlands. The company, which will sell the land to TSP if the landfill is approved, applied for a permit from the Army Corps of Engineers to fill in 9.7 acres of wetlands for an unspecified industrial project (USX failed to mention that the project in question was an industrial-waste landfill). The permit stated that the wetlands were to be filled on an as-needed basis as the project was developed, but USX simply filled in the wetlands.
A USX representative later claimed that the Corps had told the company to go ahead and fill the wetlands, but Corps regulator Kerry Stanley denies it. "I'm not aware of any conversation between USX and us where we told them to [fill the wetlands]," Stanley says.
If TSP wiggles through the litigation, other obstacles loom. The Coastal Coordination Council, which has jurisdiction over coastal matters, may have the authority to reject the landfill for being inconsistent with the state coastal management plan. Garry Mauro, who chairs the council and is running against George Bush for governor, has stated his opposition to the project and may make it a campaign issue. And Buster Brown's Senate environmental committee, which held a January hearing in Houston and heard testimony on the Cedar Point issue, seems to favor more community clout in landfill-siting decisions and will likely push for legislative action next session.
All this gives opponents like environmental consultant Rich Hill reason for confidence. The multipronged attack opens plenty of possibilities to defeat the landfill. "We only need one of these [strategies] to work," says Hill. "The applicant needs everything to work."
TSP isn't likely to retreat any time soon, though, because the group has already invested heavily in the Cedar Point location. "We have spent millions of dollars on our project," says Imre Szekelyhidi. Nor will the group pack up and move to one of Chambers County's designated landfill locations. Because while Cedar Point may have dubious environmental credentials, it has one big advantage that can't be duplicated elsewhere in the county: The site has barge access from the bay and a rail spur already in place, and will be easily reached by truck via the proposed Grand Parkway, which will swing by the northern corner of the property when it's completed. Since transportation of waste is one of the biggest costs of disposal, the combination of options will expand TSP's potential client base and give Cedar Point a huge economic edge on the competition.
Cedar Point has nothing to do with need -- it's about competing with other existing landfills for business. Chambers County is already home to one of the seven Class 1 industrial-waste landfills in the state, and another sits nearby in Harris County. Both have plenty of capacity left. And a July 1996 TNRCC report on the need for additional Class 1 landfills concludes quite clearly that even if demand is high, no new facilities are necessary. "This is just one guy wanting to make money versus another guy wanting to make money," says Standridge.
Even TSP tacitly acknowledges this truth. "These kinds of facilities under the present law are free market," says Szekelyhidi. "The market determines whether or not they succeed."
That's not good enough for the residents of Beach City, whose persistence and unity will stand as a model for other grassroots environmental efforts in the future. "We don't need the landfill," says Mickey Eastman, founder and president of the Gulf Coast Troutmasters Association. The group will hold a special fishing tournament in July to raise money for ICU. "There is no such thing as a good location for a toxic dump, but goddamn, why do they have to put it here?
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Houston, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.