Up the Crick

To Deep Ellum's problems, add this: an underground raging river of poop

Jeff Swaney owns about 20 properties and developments in Deep Ellum. He wants to know when the bickering will end; he sees a Deep Ellum that isn't thriving as it was in the late 1990s. Businesses have left. So have residents. One woman who spoke to the Dallas Observer says she moved out because of the crime and the Monday-morning stench of piss and sewage that wafted up from the streets. "My eyes would burn," she says. The latest figures from the city show the value of Deep Ellum properties down 1 percent. Uptown properties, by comparison, were up 8.9 percent. For the vitality of the district, the sooner the new lines are put in, the better, Swaney says. Because then Deep Ellum can move on. The plaintiffs "think they're doing something good, but they're really shooting themselves in the foot," he says. Don Blanton, who filed the suit, is "creating more problems than he's solving."


Mark McCay is on his belly, crawling. He's beneath Deco-Dence, with its posh furniture, its big bands on the stereo, its expensive artwork. McCay talks as he creeps. "Sometimes, you get a whiff of it, and it's just like, 'Whoa,'" he says.

He wants to better explain the smell that now taints Mill Creek, the storm water drain running directly beneath Deco-Dence. So he's opened the trap door behind the showroom and wiggled through, crawling now on the soil and rocks beneath his store, with the ground floor two feet above his head. After about 10 feet, the soil drops off, the result of floods in years past. It lets McCay stand, and he walks now to the cement wall in the middle of this area beneath Deco-Dence, which looks like a parking garage with dirt lumped everywhere. The air is moist. Around McCay are the thick foundation beams that support the building. He climbs up a pile of dirt and takes a seat on the cement wall. Six feet opposite is another wall, and between the two runs Mill Creek.

The three planned Deep Ellum sewers will be installed in the road beds of Commerce, Main and Elm streets instead of in the alleys where the old sewers exist and leach into Mill Creek.
The three planned Deep Ellum sewers will be installed in the road beds of Commerce, Main and Elm streets instead of in the alleys where the old sewers exist and leach into Mill Creek.
Mark McCay's art deco store on Canton Street sits atop the contaminated storm drain that was once Mill Creek.
Mark Graham
Mark McCay's art deco store on Canton Street sits atop the contaminated storm drain that was once Mill Creek.

It's during the summer months that the smell of raw sewage in Mill Creek is strongest beneath Deco-Dence. Tonight is no exception. Near McCay, as he sits on the wall and smokes a cigarette, you can taste the stench. And once you do, you gag. It's somewhat metallic on your tongue, and when you swallow, you feel like it's entering your body. All around you is the overwhelming smell of shit.

You climb some dirt, certain something disgusting is visible in Mill Creek. But the creek is only a trickle of water now. And there is nothing but water to see. "It's broken-down fecal matter," McCay says, still sucking on his cigarette. "It's not going to be lumps, if you will."

Raw sewage from somewhere--most likely the Deep Ellum sewer pipes--is seeping into Mill Creek.

Last summer, McCay and Burgess had their store tested for raw sewage. Dallas' Certes Environmental Laboratories ran a petri dish through the water of Mill Creek beneath Deco-Dence. The particles of fecal coliform counted on that petri dish would indicate the extent to which raw sewage flowed through Mill Creek in Deep Ellum.

A storm water drain always has some raw sewage floating through it: Cats and dogs urinate and defecate outside; with the help of rain water, some of this waste makes its way into a storm drain. The EPA says a petri dish count of 100 to 200 particles of fecal coliform is acceptable. The city of Dallas says 200 to 400.

On July 11 of last year, the fecal coliform count for Deco-Dence was 1,100. On August 11, it was 1,800. On August 15, 5,400. On August 22, 7,600.

As an apparent result of these high counts, Burgess developed a fecal-borne parasite called Blastocystis hominis, which can survive as aerosolized water in a moist place like a basement before rising through cracks in a wall or floor and entering the body through a quick suck of breath, says James Maguire, the chief of the parasitic diseases branch at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta. The parasite made Burgess violently ill, and the cramping in his stomach was sometimes all he could focus on. He was put on antibiotics, but the parasite fought back. Burgess is still living with it.

Since last summer, McCay has traded e-mails with Frances Verhalen, who specializes in storm water management for Dallas' department of public works. In November 2003, she told him she didn't know for certain what's causing the high fecal counts but that an investigation was under way. It still is.

"It's just another example of the city dragging its feet," Burgess says. "It's the height of total inefficiency." Burgess says he's considering a lawsuit.

Although Cesar Cavazos provides no conclusive evidence, the environmental inspector for the city says there's a "strong possibility" the fecal counts beneath Deco-Dence are a result of broken sewer mains. But he doesn't know for sure, because Mill Creek runs throughout Dallas. The sewage could be coming from anywhere.

Wherever it's coming from, Mill Creek eventually empties into the Trinity River. The EPA in February issued a 41-page administrative order demanding that the city address several serious environmental problems. Among the many orders was one to find how raw sewage is getting into storm drains that empty into the Trinity. If the city doesn't comply, the order calls for a $27,500 fine per day and per violation. This pleases Burgess, though he says, "I think the EPA has backed off a bit."

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