Nobody wants to take responsibility for the pile of appliances that appeared in Curt Fletcher's front yard.
Nobody wants to take responsibility for the pile of appliances that appeared in Curt Fletcher's front yard.
Photo courtesy of Curt Fletcher

Why Are Harvey Debris Crews Dumping Rancid Refrigerators on Front Lawns?

A Houston couple doesn’t know why Hurricane Harvey debris removal crews – either working for the city or as private contractors – are dumping refrigerators, washers and other heavy appliances on the front lawn of their gutted home, but they know the smell is unbearable.

“It’s nasty because the damn food has been in there six weeks now,” said Curt Fletcher, who is staying at a temporary apartment with his wife, Peggy, but sees the pile whenever he stops by his home in Memorial Glen, a subdivision in west Houston.

Fletcher isn’t the only one. At least one other plot in west Houston has been transformed into a graveyard for ruined appliances since debris removal efforts started, although the reasons why are unclear. Other debris collectors in Fletcher’s neighborhood told him that his lawn was a drop-off site for appliances. His complaints to 311 were answered and then disregarded, he said, even though two inspectors from Houston Health and Human Services visited the site and told him the fridges — with rotten food, attracting rats and black flies — were a health hazard. 

The appliances started appearing around September 15 as Fletcher returned to the neighborhood, where about 135 homes flooded after the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers released water from the Addicks and Barker reservoirs. When Fletcher asked contractors working in the subdivision about the dumping, they told him his lawn was a “designated drop-off site.”

“I said, ‘No, it’s not. This is my house,” he said.

At its peak, the pile had about 30 appliances, by Fletcher’s estimation. It would grow and then decrease and then grow again as trash arrived, scrap metal collectors picked up a few items and then more debris was dropped off.

But the nastiest fridges were never collected, and now the smell of putrid, rotten food is wafting through the street. Fletcher said he spoke with 311 representatives twice before receiving emails the next day saying his case was closed.

Discarded fridges remain at another plot in the Fleetwood subdivision in west Houston.
Discarded fridges remain at another plot in the Fleetwood subdivision in west Houston.
Photo by Joseph Fanelli

The Federal Emergency Management Agency labels household appliances like fridges, freezers and water heaters as specialty items to be disposed of at places like hazardous waste facilities, and Houston Solid Waste Management asks that those items be separated for crews picking up debris. A debris management site in northwest Houston operated by city and Harris County contractor DRC Emergency Services had designated piles for appliances when the Houston Press visited the location last week.

When asked for an explanation about the dumping on Tuesday morning, Solid Waste spokeswoman Irma Reyes sounded distressed and said she was unaware of any dumping on private lawns. She said the department would look into it.

Much of Fletcher’s frustration has come from agencies hearing his situation and then dodging responsibility. He said the Houston Health Department helped to quickly assess the situation, but ultimately said its hands were tied as far as removing the debris. Sharon Reese, an environmental investigator with the health department who spoke with Fletcher, told the Press she contacted Solid Waste about the appliances, but was then directed to FEMA. When the Press asked FEMA about the Fletchers’ yard, a spokesman said the agency does not designate or select debris sites and said to talk to the local department running debris removal operations – which is Solid Waste.

The Memorial Glen Property Owners Association eventually hired a contractor to remove the appliances from the Fletchers’ yard, but a few fridges remained as of Tuesday morning, along with the stench. Fletcher considered filing an illegal dumping complaint with the city, but ultimately decided against it. He hopes he can solve the problem himself.

“If I could catch them doing it, I’d actually try to do something about it,” he said.

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