By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
Assistant Dallas City Manager Charles W. Daniels has not returned my phone calls concerning the potential of an explosive and toxic waste dump on city of Dallas property on the shores of Lake Ray Hubbard and within a few hundred feet of a hotel. I notice that over the course of several months he also has not returned calls from other media, according to their reports.
There's a reason for that. Daniels does not want to be questioned on the record about his continuing cover-up of a dangerous dump site at a city drinking-water reservoir.
Under Daniels' command, a criminal investigation into the dump site at Lake Ray Hubbard was quashed by city code compliance officials last summer. City marshals, ordered off the case by Daniels' employees, filed a formal grievance with the city over it. The marshals, who are the law enforcement arm of the city court system, kicked up such a hullabaloo that the city's Illegal Dump Team, of which they are members, was taken out from under Daniels' authority.
Right after Daniels' employees got caught trying to cover this thing up, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality jumped into the case with both feet. The TCEQ (formerly the TNRCC) hired consultants to use ground radar on the site at Interstate 30 and Dalrock Road, on the little peninsula you cross when you traverse the lake on the highway.
The state's consultant found strong evidence that somebody had buried something at the site. The original case developed by the Dallas marshal included evidence from two whistle-blowers: They said their former employer, Granite Construction Co., a highway and bridge builder based in California, had dumped oil, batteries, concrete-cleaning acid and other toxic wastes at the site over a period of years.
We're talking three feet under, a short distance from the shoreline, a few hundred feet from a hotel. The site belongs to the city and was leased to Granite for several years during the 1990s while Granite built the I-30 bridges. Granite operated a concrete batching plant there and maintained large supply dumps.
I talked last week to Dean Parsons, a former crane operator for Granite who was the original whistle-blower. I asked him what kinds of things were buried at the site. He told me his own original source of information had been a truck driver for Granite who had witnessed the dumping. I learned from state files that the truck driver is now cooperating with authorities.
Parsons said the truck driver came to him several times over a period of years in the late 1990s to share doubts and anxieties about what he was being told to do:
"The truck driver came to me two to three times and told me he personally watched while they put a barrel of concrete-removal acid [in the ground]." The acid, he said, "is used around batch plants to remove concrete. Plus there was a huge amount of used motor oil buried out there. The employees complained about it, that they couldn't keep it underground. It kept pumping up and they kept wasting [burying] material [over it], trying to keep it underground or covered."
Parsons said the arrangement and location of the Granite site made it difficult to see into from outside. "They could pretty well come and go as they pleased around there," he said.
Last July 22, the TCEQ sent Granite an official notice of violation and ordered the company to begin negotiating with the state and city on a cleanup plan. That cleanup was supposed to have begun last September 9, but when I took a little tour of the site last week, it was clear the dirt had not been scratched.
I called two of Granite's attorneys repeatedly--Albert Axe Jr. and H. Campbell Zachry of Jenkens & Gilchrist--but did not hear back from either of them. I was able to reach a company official, Mike Bonnino of Granite, who has been involved in meetings with the city and state on the case. He did talk to me (I wonder what he pays the high-dollar mouthpieces for). He said the company had proposed a plan for the cleanup. He said Granite was having trouble getting the city and state off the dime.
"They don't like our plan for some reason," he said. "We don't know why, and we're trying to meet and find out why. We damn near forgot about it. I thought they might have decided there really wasn't anything there. We're ready to do the work, which involves digging some trenches, seeing if there's anything down there."
Ummm...bit more than that, it seems.
I don't want to alarm any of the regular fishermen in that area, but my reading of the state's files in the case would indicate that there is some serious anxiety about the nature of what's down there. I guess if you take a bunch of barrels of concrete-cutting acid, a pickup-load or two of old batteries, several truckloads of used motor oil along with assorted other chemicals and substances, mix it all up real good, pour it in the ground, cover it up tight and let it cook for several years, you must be able to come up with some really bad stuff. I say this because of the precautions the state wants to impose on the cleanup operation.
In the document describing how the state says a cleanup must be managed, environmental officials say first: "As previously indicated, there is a potential for a variety of unknown materials, including but not limited to reactive/explosive materials. The close proximity of Lake Ray Hubbard and the potential for having hazardous materials contaminate those waters is also a concern that should be constantly monitored."
The document directs that trenches be dug around the site before any excavation to "absorb the concussion of a blast and potentially circumvent or minimize shock damage to both the highway and the hotel."
Another little idea that came to my mind: How about getting the people out of the hotel first? Just a thought. And I personally will not be doing any cat-fishing in the vicinity any time soon, thank you, Mr. Both-Hands-Over-His-Mouth Daniels.
Or maybe I should not be such a chicken and should go fishing out there anyway, as long as I wear the kind of clothing the state says the cleanup team must have on before it sticks the first shovel in the ground, including but not limited to "encapsulated chemical resistant suit, air supplied respirator, inner/outer gloves, 2-way [radio] communications...reactive /explosive flash protection suits, flame and fire retardant aluminized Tevlar suits with second chance body armor."
See, I just never have been able to enjoy fishing in second-chance body armor. Oh, and one other thing the state wants the tidy-up crew to take with them: a "bomb pot." You know: one of those big concrete coffin-looking deals that the police set off bombs in.
Can you imagine? Right next to this site the city has picnic tables. You're out there with the kids, and you see the team going in with their chem suits and their second-chance body armor, dragging the bomb pot. I think it's time to throw everybody in the car and burn rubber.
In spite of the evidence from the ground sonar and in spite of what Parsons and the other whistle-blower have told investigators, it is true that nobody knows what is really down there. They could dig it all up, and it could be harmless. The kind of precautions being taken in this case indicate that people are pretty worried, not to say scared silly like me, but there is always the chance these worries and heart-stopping fears will turn out to be unfounded.
Bonnino, the Granite official who talked to me, said his company is ready and willing to get after it, as soon as everybody comes up with a protocol. And this is, after all, a major firm that isn't going to steal away in the dark of night over something like this.
What is so terrifying to me, however, is the callous, screw-you, nobody's-business attitude of the city. This is city land around a city-owned drinking-water reservoir. The city's record of mismanagement in the first place, compounded by the appalling obstructionism ever since, is especially scary when you think about how the city must be handling other municipal resources.
While I was out at Lake Ray Hubbard last week looking at the dump site, I heard a deep rumbling and saw a plume of dust not far off. Ah, the siren call of dump trucks. I climbed into my car and soon found myself following a great big fat roaring dump truck full of huge chunks of concrete rubble as it wended its way along a dirt road, right past a Dallas Police Department facility and deep into wooded city-owned land along the lakeshore. There was a sign telling me I couldn't drive out there, but I couldn't understand it.
Imagine my surprise and consternation when I saw the truck stop, back up and rumble out onto a long causeway into the lake. It dumped its entire load of rubble right into the middle of the lake!
I sat there for a while and watched the operation as other trucks came along and dumped into the lake. After each dump, a Caterpillar tractor scrambled out onto the causeway and smoothed out the latest deposit with its blade.
I figured out that they were building a breakwater to shelter a little marina on the inland side of the causeway. And one supposes that it's all OK and copacetic. Of course, the city must be inspecting those loads, or it must have some kind of agreement, because obviously the city of Dallas would not allow a construction company to poison us.
Right? Tell me I'm right.