The Trashing of Ferris, Texas

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

"We're living like Ezekiel said about the beast--we're living in that time now. Don't care about anybody. Just want to control the city. Want to control everything.

"But I want you to know--God sits high and he looks low. It is not right. It is not fair for us to go through all of this...I didn't dump any filth in your yard, you dumped it on me."

Waste Management supporters supplied their own testimony, some of it equally poignant. One man talked about how he was a bulldozer operator, and Skyline offered the only decent jobs around for men like him. Others predicted the company could lead Ferris out of its economic slump, providing a powerful source of jobs and revenue for the city.

The hearing also became the tableau for a flareup of the decades-old conflict between the cities of Dallas and Fort Worth. Dallas city officials testified against the expansion, saying the birds attracted by a larger landfill could jeopardR> ize air safety around a planned cargo airport the city wants to see built in nearby Lancaster.

Fort Worth officials backed the landfill, saying Dallas-Fort Worth Airport and their city's Alliance field meet all the region's air-cargo needs.

But the strangest event of the hearings, by far, occurred in July, during the first two days of testimony at a Waxahachie motel.

Witnesses recall the arrival of several vans filled with men and women in green hats bearing the slogan, "We Need Skyline." Along with SOC members, Waste Management employees, and numerous lawyers, the group helped pack the hearing room.

But there was something funny about these folks in the green hats. No one from Ferris recognized them--and in a town of 2,200, you get to know your neighbors' faces pretty fast.

Billy Hassell and others took it upon themselves to find out what was going on. They questioned the arrivals, many of whom were Hispanic. Several admitted they had been hired as day labor, promised an hourly wage and two solid meals to sit through the hearing, wearing the pro-landfill hats. No matter that some hadn't a clue about what was going on that day.

"We just shook our heads," recalls Jim Blackburn. "It was apparent that many of these people had no interest in the proceedings. Here's vanload after vanload coming in, with people wandering around, saying 'where's the food?'

"It was totally manufactured," he says. "Waste Management was trying to say these people had a legitimate interest in the landfill. So we asked people, 'what's your connection with this?' 'Oh, somebody told me I could get some food.'"

Linda Sorrells, the hearings examiner, had to silence the hungry gathering on at least one occasion--as well as some SOC supporters in the audience, who'd offer snide comments while Flats residents were being cross-examined.

"How did you know the rats came from the landfill?" a Waste attorney might ask.

A voice from the audience would murmur back: "'Cause when they crawled out they was wearin' little green hats."

Sorrells expressed her amazement at the manufactured show of support. "I've never seen anything like it in my years as a hearings examiner," she told the Observer recently. "I've heard about tactics like that being used in big cities, but this is the first time I'd actually seen it."

Questioned about the episode, Waste Management's Lattimore did not deny that someone in his company might have paid day laborers to attend. He stated, however, that neither he nor his employees had any specific knowledge that this had happened.

Besides, Lattimore added, the green-hatted day laborers had a direct interest in the hearing--as does everyone who's ever generated trash.

By the time of the summer hearings, Earline Jackson had made an extraordinarily painful choice.

She'd watched Calvin Booker buy out some of her neighbors on Ash Street for six-figure sums. And he was there at her door all the time, wanting to make a deal.

"My husband had ran him off our front steps two or three times," Jackson says. "But he kept coming back."

The tide had definitely turned in Ferris--even in The Flats. Jackson knew it. And she says she knows why.

"Dirty money--that's exactly what it is. And to tell you the truth, the ones that haven't gone after it haven't had a chance. Black and white, they've all taken whatever there was to take. And they [Waste Management] bought just about everyone they wanted to buy."

Except Earline Jackson.
Now Jackson's relatives were urging her to move--for the sake of her husband, who is disabled. For the sake of her elderly mother. For the sake of her family's future. As Jackson recalls it, there was a point where she looked around, and there was hardly anyone else standing. Earline felt alone.

Hardly anyone from The Flats turned up to represent the opposition at meetings anymore. She'd spent so many days away from her husband, chasing down hearings, making trips to Austin armed with pictures of her backyard gorge.

At 64, she was tired of fighting.
And Booker was there at her door--ready with relief.
In March 1993, Earline Jackson sold her house and an adjoining lot to Waste Management for $140,000 cash. The house had been appraised at $21,170.

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