The Trashing of Ferris, Texas

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

Waste Management's lawsuits effectively paralyzed city-organized opposition. Ferris' attorney fees quickly multiplied to the point where the city could no longer pay them. In 1992, after SOC lost its majority on the council, the city conceded defeat.

Mayor Jimmie Birdwell says there was no use fighting anymore. "We were spending a tremendous amount of money on attorney's fees. The majority of tR> he people in town were tired of paying for it."

In fact, dozens of folks who once fought the landfill tooth and nail had thrown their support behind Waste Management. The result: a July 1992 settlement between Ferris and Waste Management.

Waste Management agreed to drop the lawsuits. The solid-waste giant also picked up the tab for Ferris' past-due legal fees--$80,000 accrued while the city was fighting the dump.

The city, in return, agreed to support Waste Management's expansion application before the TNRCC--then and forevermore.

Some city residents made their comment on Ferris' fadeout the best way they knew how. Lorrie Coterill says a few loaded up their big brown plastic garbage bins with the Waste Management logo--a 1992 gift from Skyline to every Ferris household--hauled them to city hall, and dumped them.

A few casualties were left along the way.
Billy Hassell says he'd been repeatedly threatened by anonymous callers and harassed by both Ferris police and Waste Management employees, who drove by his house at all hours of day and night. He got so disgusted with Ferris that he literally picked up his house and moved it outside the city limits. He lives there today, a couple of miles south of Ferris, where his reminiscences about the landfill fight sound like those of a broken man.

It was also in 1992 when Waste Management installed something called an "explosimeter" in Earline Jackson's front yard.

The device--a little box at the end of a stalk with a red light--was supposed to measure dangerous concentrations of methane gas, a potentially explosive by-product of normal landfill operations. Earline's neighbors got explosimeters, too. Pearlie Faye Richard, who had the distinction of living closer than anyone else in The Flats to Skyline's slopes, had one inside her house.

Jackson and her neighbors were supposed to keep their ears trained to the explosimeter. A letter to Richard, dated March 25, 1992, explained what to do if it began buzzing:

"1. Put out any open flames... 2. Open windows. 3. Leave the house. 4. Do Not flip electrical switches because that makes a small spark which might ignite any gases which might be present. 5. Call Skyline Landfill," and then--basically--head for the hills, to spend the night "with friends or relatives," or be "our guest" at the Quality Inn in Ennis.

Fortunately, the explosimeters lived quiet lives in The Flats, and Waste Management eventually fixed the "gas migration" problem, which the state had documented in a letter to the company following a 1992 inspection. Waste Management says it's solved the problem by installing a gas monitoring and collection system to channel and burn off methane gas.

By then, the many trials of The Flats had become the subject of a nuisance lawsuit filed on behalf of Jackson and some 200 other neighborhood residents. The suit is still pending. Jim Blackburn, a Houston attorney who's handling the case, says he recently rejected a settlement offer from Waste Management. The company's Skyline newsletter valued the offer at $1 million.

If there's anything that illustrates Ferris' ambivalence toward Waste Management today, it's the Andrew and Ella Holley Park at the end of Pecan Street--a piece of land that includes a baseball field, basketball courts, and a few picnic tables. Directly behind it is the landfill, separated from the outfield by a cyclone fence. Waste Management built the park this year.

But this was no field of dreams. The company built it, and they didn't come. And they won't come.

Hardly anyone showed up at the dedication ceremony, according to Rev. Coumpy and others. And virtually every day the park is empty. On a recent visit, a single set of footprints creased the dirt between home and third base.

The bitter feelings spilled out again this past July and August, when the TNRCC held a series of public hearings spanning three weeks. Hearings examiner Linda Sorrells seemed visibly moved by some of the testimony from Ferris residents. Landfill foes shed tears as people from the Flats detailed the lives they'd led since the late '80s.

One neighbor of the Jacksons offered especially poignant testimony:
"My name is Foris Nichols," she said, adjusting the microphone down to her height, directing her comments to the Waste Management table. "I live at 1008 Ash Street, and I'm about 200 feet from the dump. I oppose it. I've been opposing it, and I yet oppose it. I've suffered many things with the landfill. See, I'm not a person that live a long ways [away] in other cities. I live in Ferris, Texas. I live right up under the landfill.

"I've suffered many things," she continued. "Respiratory, headaches. My grandchildren couldn't even play out in the yard because of the smell and the dust and whatnot. Can't hang my clothes out because of the drippings of the bird. Not only that, I've had people come to me and offer me peanuts. My husband and I worked hard to get the place that we have--we have about seven lots. It may not mean much to the other side, but it means a whole lots to us. I don't think it's fair...

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