The Trashing of Ferris, Texas

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

TUFF News, in fact, was one of the milder strategies that Skyline supporters employed in 1990, '91, and '92--the craziest years of Ferris' landfill fight.

For its public defense--and eventual counterattack--Waste Management deployed a crack two-man team: Billy Don Dunn, who the company hired as a consultant and "community liaison," and Calvin Booker, a black former city councilman in Pine Bluff, Arkansas, who would later apply his considerable political charms to residents of The Flats.

The state denied Waste Management's first expansion application in December 1990 on technical grounds, citing problems with its drainage plan.

But SOC got no reprieve. Waste Management turned right around and filed a revised expansion application, eventually calling for 667 acres of dumping grounds in and around Ferris. It is the same application that stands before the TNRCC, the department of health's successor agency, today.

The new application, filed in 1991, would fuel SOC's last major bid to block the expansion. The Ferris City Council had voted the year before to annex all of Waste Management's property into the city. If the annexation stood, city ordinances calling for residential zoning on the newly annexed property would automatically preclude expanded landfill operations.

Undeterred, Waste Management responded with a pair of lawsuits--suing council members who opposed the dump individually, as well as the city's board of adjustment, which helped craft the annexation move.

Meanwhile, the town began to descend into a phase of unprecedented small-town nastiness. Earline Jackson and Billy Hassell caught the brunt of the anonymous threats, harassment, and ridiculing cartoons circulating at the time. One such unsigned scribble, left in conspicuous places downtown, depicts three SOC members hung upside down in a men's bathroom, their wide-open mouths serving as urinals. The caption reads: "What to do with a dead SOC member."

Jim Lattimore of Waste Management reminds people today that nastiness was in abundance on both sides. Residents say the town split "straight down the middle," pitting friend against friend, neighbor against neighbor.

Earline Jackson struggled to hold together The Flats, while Waste Management's Calvin Booker flashed the prospect of big bucks in residents' faces.

Jackson says she received dozens of harassing, often obscene, phone calls during the entire time she was fighting the landfill. The calls came from white and black residents alike. "Dirty money," as she brands it, had taken hold in The Flats. Some residents were dazzled by all the talk of buyouts. And Waste Management supporters seemed to have singled out the black councilwoman as their most dangerous foe.

"Maybe it's because I was so outspoken," Jackson says in retrospect. "I would just say what I felt--that the black area was targeted for this expansion because Waste Management didn't care about the people that lived out there. I knew they would never try to put it over on the east side."

One night, Jackson says, she left the city council chambers and passed a group of landfill supporters. She heard a voice from within the gathering.

"Well, I wouldn't worry about that," the man said. "You give those niggers a few dollars and they'll go somewhere and sit down and shut their mouths."

Jackson stopped in her tracks.
"Here's one nigger you can't give a few dollars," she shot back.
Ferris city councilman Victor Burnett has vivid memories of the city elections in 1992--the year SOC lost control of the council.

"I started out helping them [Waste Management] with the elections," Burnett says. "That was in 1992--maybe late 1991. Then I wound up with a job."

Burnett says he made about $30,000 a year driving a dirt-hauling truck at Skyline. Like a lot of Ferris residents, though, he'd pinned his hopes on a much greater payoff once Waste Management got its expansion permit. Burnett claims he was promised a supervisory position at $150,000 a year--something the companyR> denies.

During the 1992 elections, before he entered Waste Management's employ, Burnett says he ferried cigarettes, cheap booze, and barbecue to a gathering of residents in The Flats--as part of a campaign to get out the vote.

While conducting a personal tour of Ferris a few weeks ago, Burnett pointed out a dilapidated home that's known as a hangout for winos. A lot of the barbecue reached its destination there, he says.

"Me and Danny from Danny's Automotive--Danny cooked the barbecue," Burnett said. He waved to some idlers parked on a rotting sofa--"I know we got their vote.

"Ribs, briskets, links, beer, potato salad, wine..."
He chuckled.
"...Thunderbird."

(Danny Satterwhite acknowledges that he and Burnett whipped together some barbecue to deliver to prospective voters in the 1992 elections, but says it had nothing to do with the landfill or Ferris city council races.)

During 1993, Burnett says Waste Management gave him a two-week vacation he hadn't earned--once again, to get out the vote. He says he planted campaign signs for city council candidates all over town, signs that Billy Don Dunn personally delivered to Danny's Automotive, a hangout for Skyline supporters.

Later that year, Burnett was injured when his truck tipped over at Skyline. He still has difficulty walking.

Today, he's mad as hell at Waste Management--and he says it's not because of his bum hip. "They gon' mess up all these peoples," he says. "And we have some weak-minded people on the city council. We'll be stuck with a big fat dump ground. The dump will be bigger than the town."

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