Dumped On

How greedy property owners and careless bureaucrats let a massive illegal landfill grow in the back yard of a black Dallas neighborhood

On a ferociously hot day in July, Harold Cox carefully affixes aluminum siding to his modest home on a hilly, tree-shrouded street in Pleasant Grove. His two young grandchildren look on as Cox, with rivulets of sweat running down his face, patiently explains to the boys how to post the ivory-colored aluminum, which is as slick and shiny as the underbelly of a cod.

Cox is sprucing up his three-bedroom house with a mind to sell. But that wasn't the original plan. Instead, Cox had always expected to keep it as "the family homestead," a small treasure to pass on to one of his three grown children. Sadly, though, they're not interested.

"None of us wants the house," says Cox's daughter, Pamela Coulter, an immigration officer with the U.S. Department of Justice in Dallas. "Who wants to live next to a dump?"

Nobody, it turns out. But Cox--and some 2,000 neighboring residents--are stuck there.

His house sits within smelling distance of 40 acres of piled crud--junked cars, sewage, building scraps, empty oil drums, plastic bits, tires, and god-knows-what-else that's packed 30 feet deep in putrid heaps. Located at the southernmost end of Jim Miller Road, the dump is a mere two blocks from the Cox homestead.

The dump, which has existed for years in flagrant violation of city, state, and federal laws, made headlines earlier this year when it caught on fire and blanketed the surrounding community with noxious fumes for two months. City leaders reacted with predictable sound-bite outrage. "How could this have happened?" City Councilman Larry Duncan asked indignantly in the pages of The Dallas Morning News.

No one in the city, however, bothered to ask the fundamental question: how that massive dump came to be in the first place.

Though the fire is yesterday's headlines, the dump remains an ever-present headache for the predominantly black, working-class residents whose neighborhood it has ruined. This illegal landfill did not spring up overnight, nor was it built covertly by dumpers sneaking into the area under the cover of darkness.

For 15 years, two white property owners--who, not surprisingly, live nowhere near this stinking heap--knowingly allowed organized, efficient, lucrative, and completely illegal dumping businesses to operate on their property. They did so with impunity, defying feeble attempts by the city and state to shut them down and utterly ignoring the protests of people who lived nearby.

Through the years, Terry Van Sickle, owner of the East Dallas-based V.V. Construction Co., and later Herman Nethery, who runs a house- and auto-demolition business in Balch Springs, blew off hundreds of city citations demanding that they cease dumping and flouted court orders to clean up the property. Neither Van Sickle nor Nethery responded to requests for comment for this story.

The men were partners in profiteering with dump operators Sampson Horrice and Herman Gibbons, two black men who also lived many miles upwind of the neighborhood they dumped on.

They were aided in their illicit activities by careless city bureaucrats who awarded the property owners permits for which they didn't qualify; failed to carry out required inspections; and ran a laughably ineffective enforcement campaign that ultimately allowed Van Sickle and Horrice to walk away scot-free from the mess they'd created, and enabled Nethery and Gibbons to do millions of dollars of damage in record time.

Residents do not think it is a coincidence that the dump grew virtually unchecked in the back yard of a black neighborhood. They detect a similar attitude of prejudice among city officials, who--after years of bungling--refuse to pay to clean up the dump, which has become the largest illegal landfill in the state of Texas.

Harold Cox, 49, has spent the better part of the last decade and a half fighting in vain to save his once-bucolic neighborhood from the ravages of illegal dumping.

Sitting in his cozy, wood-paneled den, he spreads out a large deck of photographs on a glass coffee table that doubles as a fish tank. It presents a damning chronicle of how ruthless landowners and inept city and state officials allowed his neighborhood to be systematically destroyed.

One snapshot shows an ominous-looking bottle resting atop a heap of trash. The bottle is labeled Ethylene Glycol, a chemical commonly used in antifreeze. "What else is in there?" reads the caption Cox wrote in blue marker. The photo is dated February 1983: the dump's early days.

Other pictures record the heap of trash as it grows and spreads over the years. They depict trucks--overflowing with garbage and tangled metal--rolling down narrow residential streets shared by children riding bicycles. One picture shows a neighborhood basketball court in the foreground, just a few hundred yards from the dump, which is visible beyond a thin screen of trees. It is included as evidence of just how close the menace is to this neighborhood of young families.

Cox's snapshots don't tell the whole story, though. They don't convey the nostril-burning stench that permeated the neighborhood or the rumble of trucks moving through the streets all day and night. They don't capture the fear residents lived with that a neighborhood child might someday get hit by one of those trucks. And they don't capture the infestations of near-Biblical proportions visited on the neighborhood: One year, the community was overrun by cats, another year by feral dogs. Now the residents must contend with snakes and swarms of mosquitoes.

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