The Trashing of Ferris, Texas

When a giant came to a tiny town, it soon became clear that almost everyone has a price.

Ferris residents recall many problems during the nine years Dunn ran the landfill--unbearable odors, fires in the garbage pits, trash blowing across old highway 75. The state noted persistent violations as well, such as inadequate dirt cover for fresh, rotting trash.

To an observer like Bill Malloy, it seemed like Dunn had foolishly gotten in over his head--just as the city once had, when it gratefully ceded operation of its landfill to its sitting mayor.

In any case, Dunn wouldn't have to struggle much longer. In 1987, Waste Management bought the Skyline landfill. Dunn's firm, Trinity Valley Reclamation, promptly requested a transfer of its state permit--the one originally held by the city of Ferris--to Waste Management.

At the time, increasingly strict environmental regulations and disappearing open space had multiplied the complexity of disposing of municipal waste, prompting cities across the country to turn to private companies to handle their trash. This has made the landfill business highly profitable. Waste Management, in particular, has been aggressive in seeking new landfill sites--and skillful in winning the necessary permits to open them, a highly political process. It is now the world's largest waste-disposal firm, part of a company with $16 billion in assets and $453 million in 1993 profits.

Waste Management controls more than a dozen landfill sites in Texas. Even so, Ferris' dump had the potential to become a jewel in the world of trash. The biggest landfill in the heavily populated Dallas-Fort Worth area--McCommas--was setting aside most of its remaining space for waste from the city of Dallas. Someone had to pick up the slack for the area's growing suburbs. Skyline was the obvious choice. Easy access to interstate highways 45 and 20 would enable it to serve much of Dallas County, as well as Arlington and neighboring towns--but only if it could expand.

No wonder, then, that the company, even as it took over the Skyline landfill, was plotting a massive expansion.

The citizens of Ferris first learned what was up in 1988, a year after the purchase, when Waste Management sought state permission to expand Skyline from 73 to 340 acres. By then, residents of The Flats were buying rat poison in 50-pound bags, and carrying around little tokens of their sufferings--such as plastic baggies of rat droppings and photographs of blown trash.

The Waste Management expansion would turn Skyline into a regional landfill; their once-humble little dump would become the repository for the refuse of many North Texas cities.

Citizens began to wonder when Waste Management, Inc., had first trained its rapacious gaze on Billy Don's dump.

Landfill foes now allege the existence of a long-term, trash-based conspiracy--that Dunn and Waste Management worked hand-in-glove from the beginning, plotting the steps needed to acquire and build a giant regional landfill at the foot of The Flats since 1978.

Dunn won't comment. But on two occasions during an interview with the Observer, Waste Management's Jim Lattimore insisted his company had no involvement with Skyline prior to its negotiations for purchase of the facility from Dunn in late 1986 and early 1987.

Records filed with the state, however, show that Waste Management did some expensive sniffing around the site eight years earlier--the very year that Billy Don persuaded his city council to let him take it over.

Waste Management, records show, commissioned borings--drillings to determine conditions beneath the ground's surface and collect soil samples--at Skyline in 1978.

Five years later, Waste Management ordered an extensive series of borings on the acreage adjoining Dunn's 73-acre site--a tract included in the proposed expansion. Southwestern Laboratories of Dallas conducted the tests, and incorporated the results into a "Geotechnical Investigation for Proposed Sanitary Landfill" prepared for Waste Management. It is dated September 12, 1983.

Confronted with evidence of his company's early involvement, Waste Management's Lattimore commented: "We may have done some early studies. We do so routinely, before we ever entertain options to purchase."

The company's first bid for more space, in 1988, stirred up formidable opposition in Ferris and throughout southern Dallas County, where residents were already engaged in a handful of landfill fights. A coalition of black and white Ferris residents, dubbing themselves "SOC"--for "Save Our Community"--sprung up and waged a fierce fight against Skyline that initially won most of the town's support.

Its leaders included Earline Jackson--who was appointed to Ferris' city council in 1990, and later elected; the Rev. Coumpy, a lifelong Ferris resident; Billy Hassell, a retired TU Electric employee and one of the town's most prominent white citizens; and Lorrie Coterill, an anti-dump veteran who lived outside of neighboring Wilmer. SOC whipped up a wave of support that washed through the city elections in 1990 and 1991, gaining the organization a majority on the Ferris city council.

The SOCers, in turn, faced an organization called TUFF--Taxpayers United for Ferris. The group's leadership wasn't identified in its newsletter, but everyone presumed TUFF to be a front for Billy Don Dunn and friends. In fact, the return address on TUFF's newsletter--Post Office Box 355--is the same as that noted on Dunn's Trinity Valley Reclamation letterhead back in 1982. Lattimore acknowledges that Waste Management channeled funds to TUFF, and that Dunn was indeed a member.

The group made its presence known through TUFF News, a slickly packaged newsletter distributed throughout town. TUFF's favorite cause was voicing concern about the money the city was spending on legal fees as it fought Waste Management's powerful expansion machine. A cartoon published in one of its early issues depicts Earline Jackson, Billy Hassell, and two other pro-SOC council members blindfolded, marching in line toward a frightened taxpayer with a target painted on his rear. The first man in line wields a legal bill stuck to a pin. "The SOC members of City Council enjoy another game of pin the bill on the taxpayer," the caption reads.

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