By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
The Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission's Office of Hearings Examiners issued the long-awaited "proposal for decision" last Friday. The matter now goes before the three-member commission, which is scheduled to vote on the controversial landfill permit application on February 8.
Waste Management, Inc., the Illinois-based garbage-industry giant, is seeking to expand Ferris' Skyline Landfill from 73 to 667 acres--which would make it one of the biggest landfills in the state.
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."
In her recommendation, TNRCC hearings examiner Linda Sorrells wrote that Waste Management "...has not adequately provided for the safeguarding of health, welfare, and physical property of the people" in The Flats, a poor black community directly south of the landfill.
"The proposed landfill expansion is detrimental to the public interest and welfare and is an incompatible land use," she added. "The application should be denied on this basis."
Residents of The Flats, an aging community originally built around Ferris' now-defunct brickyards, have complained about rats, roaches, unbearable odors, blowing trash, and even deluges of bird droppings resulting from the landfill's existing operations on 73 acres.
Though Waste Management has offered to purchase all homes within 800 feet of the dump, landfill opponents say the city-mandated buyout plan has divided and all but destroyed The Flats.
Sorrells also disagreed with Waste Management's contention that expanding the landfill area won't cause a "significant bird hazard" to aircraft flying in and out of the nearby Lancaster Municipal Airport. Lancaster is also the proposed site for a major regional cargo airport.
Waste Management "has failed to establish that its bird control program would be an effective method of preventing the likelihood of a significant increase in bird/aircraft collisions as the landfill elevation increases and the site expands closer to the runway," she wrote.
In addition, she stated that Waste Management's permit application "does not contain accurate and reliable hydrologic data and calculations" to support an analysis of drainage for the 50-foot landfill.
Waste Management, owner of Ferris' Skyline landfill, issued a written statement on Friday saying it "remains optimistic that the proposed expansion of Skyline will ultimately be approved because it is both environmentally and technically sound."
Jim Lattimore, Waste Management's business development manager for the Ferris project, said "Skyline's is one of the best technical applications ever submitted in Texas." He believes the landfill will prove to be a tremendous economic boon for Ferris, which has struggled since its heyday as a brickyard town.
The commission, in the past, has typically abided by the independent hearings examiner's recommendation. But Sorrells' opinion sharply conflicts with the views of the TNRCC's executive director--who had earlier recommended granting Waste Management's permit.
The release of Sorrells' recommendation, in fact, was delayed more than two months while the examiner's supervisors reportedly "badgered" her to change her findings, according to a story in the Austin American-Statesman.
The whole permit process has created more than a few cynics in Ferris and neighboring communities, who see themselves as potential victims of Waste Management's political clout in Austin.
Closer to home, the FBI is investigating whether a Waste Management consultant, former Ferris mayor Billy Don Dunn, attempted to bribe Ferris and Lancaster city officials in an effort to gain their support for the landfill expansion application.
Ferris residents say the town is evenly divided on the landfill issue, while neighboring towns are split in their opinions--depending on what they stand to lose or gain from a bigger place to dump their trash.
Dallas, for instance, opposes the landfill because it would like to see the cargo airport built in southern Dallas County--possibly Lancaster. Lancaster city officials have attacked Waste Management's plans because of its possible effects on their existing airport.
Vic Buchanon, a Lancaster city councilman, said he was "delighted" by Sorrells' recommendation and believed a majority of Lancaster's council would support it. "I hope the [TNRCC] commission upholds her decision like they usually do," he added. "If the commission for some reason overrides it, I think the attorney general needs to investigate. This particular case has definitely taken a number of turns that are unusual--and that should be looked at."
Billy Hassell, a former Ferris city councilman and longtime landfill opponent, said he's "tickled pink" by the hearings examiner's recommendation. "This is another step in a good direction, and it really doesn't surprise me. I just had a good feeling about how the hearings went."
The flaw in Waste Management's plans, he said, was its disregard for residents of The Flats. "You can't lose the people," he said. "The engineering can be corrected, but the people can't all be moved out of town.