By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
Now a small town is fighting back. At the Dallas Crown horse-slaughtering plant, located alongside a poor but friendly black neighborhood in nearby Kaufman, the specter of death spreads far past the guarded boundaries of the industrial facility. Horse hides flop off a rickety conveyor belt and lie for hours in an uncovered trailer, unleashing a vicious, far-reaching odor that swarms up and down the narrow residential streets. Discarded bones lie in an adjacent backyard, perhaps thrown over by Crown employees or licked dry and left by stray dogs that gnawed off the meat when no one was looking. Then there are the horses. You can hear them rustle and neigh nervously as they await a trip to a sterile pen to face the lethal bolt that will pound them in the skull.
Slaughtering around 300 horses a week, Dallas Crown has enraged animal lovers and local residents alike. The plant ships horsemeat overseas for human consumption and processes leftover parts for scraps. But the grim and unusual task of its business is only half the story. For at least five years, the plant 30 miles east of Dallas has frequently clogged the local sewer system with blood, grease, hay and manure and has failed to pay nearly 30 fines levied for alleged violations of city ordinances. Now, after years of apathy, angry city officials have taken steps to close the plant, belatedly fulfilling the dreams of the long-ignored African-American residents of the tiny Boggy Bottoms neighborhood, which takes its name after the mud that once gathered on top of their unpaved streets.
"I can't describe the smell. It's that bad," says Stella Jones, an elderly woman who has lived in Boggy Bottoms for 15 years. "That smell keeps me sick all the time. Every day you can smell it. I wish the owners of the plant and the people who work there can come here and wake up to it."
That's unlikely, but two weeks ago the Kaufman City Council made a strong statement nonetheless when it unanimously recommended that the city's Zoning Board of Adjustments decide whether the plant has violated the city's nuisance laws. The vote followed stinging reports from the Kaufman city manager, public works director and police chief, who chronicled in individual reports how Dallas Crown allegedly breaks the law and mocks the surrounding neighbors' modest expectations of a life without horse stench.
"I'm not sure the only solution isn't for them to pack up and move," says Police Chief James Smith, who doubles as a preacher. "To be on the safe side, there is no other solution--not one that's going to stem this growing resentment."
With second-term Mayor Paula Bacon calling for the facility to be shut down, many residents expect the zoning board to vote to rescind the plant's non-conforming use designation that allows it to operate against current zoning laws. Also, next fall the U.S. Senate is expected to take up legislation already passed in the House that could force horse-slaughtering plants like Dallas Crown out of business. For now, though, the company's lawyer vows a fight.
"There is an ongoing attempt by the mayor to manipulate the city to interfere with their business," says attorney Mark Calabria, who donated money to a political action committee that funded one of the mayor's recent opponents. "She's been quite open and notorious about it."
A tall, blond woman in her mid-50s with a healthy streak of righteous indignation, Mayor Paula Bacon has, in fact, been a lively critic of Dallas Crown and the first local leader to take the pleas of Kaufman's tiny Boggy Bottoms neighborhood seriously. Two weeks ago, Boggy Bottoms resident Robert Eldridge gave a tour of the outside perimeter of Dallas Crown to the mayor. Under a mid-afternoon sun, walking amongst weeds, brush and discarded horse bones, she snapped digital pictures of an uncovered trailer on the grounds storing horse hides, a practice that has beckoned rats and dogs and is yet another potential violation of a city ordinance by Dallas Crown. Later, when a stern Dallas Crown employee stood outside the plant's front gate and warned this reporter that he was dangerously close to trespassing, she firmly informed the employee that the city owned the land approaching the fence and that anyone can come right up to it and take a look inside--which she then proceeded to do. When the man dismissed her, she told him she was the mayor. Nervously, he grabbed his cell phone and was heard explaining what had just happened to someone who sounded like his supervisor.
"They are a nuisance by their very nature situated next to a residential neighborhood," she says of Dallas Crown. "And while they're capable of complying with our regulations and ordinances, they disregard them. They're a stigma to our town and a hindrance to development."
Dallas Crown has at least 29 unpaid summonses at $2,000 each, most of which are for too much blood and grease in the plant's wastewater. Clinically referred to as biochemical oxygen demand, Dallas Crown's nasty blend of discharge can strain the local wastewater treatment plant. Last year, the company threw out the city's outside inspector, who had repeatedly cited it for violations, and enlisted its own lab to perform the testing. Now Calabria says that Dallas Crown, which according to court records has grossed in the neighborhood of $10 million annually, won't pay the $58,000 in fines without a fight.