By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
The decision whether to grant an expansion permit for a controversial Ferris, Texas, landfill has been delayed several weeks--amid allegations that a state hearings examiner has been pressured to change her recommendation.
Waste Management, Inc., the Illinois-based garbage giant, is seeking to expand Ferris' Skyline landfill from 73 to 667 acres--which would make Skyline one of the largest facilities in the state and reap hundreds of millions in revenues for Waste Management.
The Dallas Observer detailed Waste Management's efforts to manipulate Ferris' city government and residents in a November 10 cover story, "The trashing of Ferris, Texas."
The story also reported that the FBI is investigating allegations of public corruption in Ferris involving Waste Management and one of its consultants, former Ferris mayor Billy Don Dunn. An FBI affidavit filed in federal court in August alleges that Dunn offered a bribe to the mayor of Lancaster while seeking her support for Waste Management's landfill expansion application.
Linda Sorrells, an independent hearings examiner for the Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission in Austin, finished writing a recommendation on the expansion permit several weeks ago. But the examiner's recommendation--which is usually accepted by the three-member commission--was not released as expected in mid-November.
The FBI has questioned Sorrells and other TNRCC officials to determine whether Waste Management has tried to influence the hearings examiner's recommendation. But Sorrells told the Observer that Waste Management had not, in fact, pressured her.
This is consistent with statements Sorrells made at a special meeting of the commission that it was her bosses at TNRCC who were applying the pressure, according to a December 15 story in the Austin American-Statesman. The newspaper reported that Sorrells said her commission supervisors repeatedly "badgered" her and "suggested she could lose her job if she didn't change her findings..." on the Ferris expansion application. The commission had called the special meeting on December 14 to discuss the ongoing FBI investigation.
Sorrells told the Observer she'd used the word "badgered," but didn't entirely agree with the Austin paper's characterization of her comments at the meeting. (The Observer wasn't able to obtain transcripts of the public meeting by press time.) When asked if she had, in fact, been pressured by her superiors to change her recommendation, Sorrells replied, "No comment."
She also would not talk about the content of her recommendation, which she says will be released by January 15. The matter then goes before the commission, which generally abides by the hearings examiner's recommendation.
The Austin events are no surprise to some residents in Ferris, a town of 2,200 that straddles the Dallas-Ellis county line. It's been rumored for weeks that Sorrells had recommended that the permit be denied--and was under intense pressure to change her opinion.