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.
Nor do they detail the lengths Cox and his neighbors have gone to in an attempt to get someone in City Hall to take their complaints seriously. That evidence is contained in hundreds of pages of documents--correspondence with city council members, complaints to assistant city managers, newspaper clippings of city leaders characterizing the citizens' efforts as a witch hunt, toxicology reports--that Cox has accumulated in a briefcase.
Cox's daughter, Pam Coulter, remembers accompanying her father to city council meetings to complain about the dump. "It takes a guy with endurance," she says.
That's for sure. Cox's earliest recorded complaint to the city is dated November 1982. While the city concluded that the property owner was guilty of massive illegal dumping, city officials merely slapped the property owner's hand with a tiny fine and gave him another chance. That sort of half-hearted response would become a pattern.
The city finally closed down the dump in September 1996 after a two-year enforcement effort marred by inefficiency and mistakes. It wasn't until the dump caught fire this February that the egregiousness of the situation finally registered on the city's radar screen--perhaps because it cost $1.5 million to fight the blaze. Adding insult to injury, the firefighters, while digging through the layers of burning trash, cut a sewer line, spewing thousands of gallons of partially treated sewage into the dump.
Now the dump just sits there, a foul stew of debris and sewage marinating in the hot summer sun. After a rain shower, the entire neighborhood smells rank.
It will cost anywhere from $5 million to $16 million to clean up the mess, according to city records. But the cleanup has become a jurisdictional hot potato, with the city, state, and federal governments all looking to each other to foot the bill. Now neighborhood residents are planning to sue the city and state, claiming they have violated the federal Solid Waste Disposal Act--as well as the residents' civil rights.
Dallas attorney Mike Daniel, who is representing the residents, believes many of the city and state's actions--or lack thereof--had racial overtones. "There is a difference in treatment in what the city is willing to allow in that neighborhood, and the protection they are willing to give a white neighborhood," Daniel says. "Here they virtually allowed serial dumpers for 15 years. But when the city looked at a place to put wet dirt from White Rock Lake, a white neighborhood objected, and the city immediately retreated. And look at how far the city was willing to go to protect a North Dallas neighborhood from the terrible hazards of having a movie house."
Cox and his neighbors should only wish their biggest problem was a multiplex.
"It has been frustrating, disappointing, and humiliating," Cox says of his 15-year campaign against the dump. "I see it as pretty much a kind of environmental racism. I'll keep digging deep enough until I find someone who hears me. We still haven't gotten anyone's attention."
In the mid-1970s, young black couples such as Tony and Shirley Davidson began moving from Dallas' inner city to an all-white Pleasant Grove neighborhood called Shady Hills, just south of Loop 12. It was safe, clean, and quiet, and the small lots and sturdy houses fit into the working-class budgets of these first-time home buyers. Surrounded by a stretch of urban forest, their neighborhood was situated among streets appropriately named Deepwood, Satinwood, and Gayglen.
Patches of undeveloped land gave the neighborhood a rural feel. One such swatch existed at the end of the Davidsons' block on Deepwood. On the far side of an earthen berm lay dozens of acres of land that had been mined for gravel and sand. By the time the Davidsons and their children moved in in the mid-'70s, the mining operations had ceased.
"We called the area 'the pits,'" says Shirley. "My sons used to take cardboard and ride down the steep hill. They would take the dogs down there and fish in the holes left behind."
By the early 1980s, the area called the "the pits" took on an entirely new character. Trash-filled trucks idled on the residential streets, waiting their turn to dump their loads into the abandoned mine pits. The smell of rotting garbage lingered in the neighborhood. The kids stopped playing outside.
The dumping of solid waste anywhere but in landfills permitted and regulated by the Texas Department of Health had been outlawed for years. Enforcing the law was another matter. It has always been tough to catch the illicit dumper, who usually performs his deed late at night in undeveloped, sparsely populated areas--or in places no one seems to care about.
During the last two decades, an especially pernicious type of illegal dumping has developed, involving a loose network of black-market dumps throughout the state. Taking advantage of lax enforcement and increases in municipal landfill fees, these dump operators offered manufacturers, roofers, and contractors a cheaper and faster way to unload their refuse. They were organized, efficient, and operated for a handsome profit right out in the open.
The mine pits at the end of the Davidsons' block--known as the Deepwood dump--proved an ideal spot for one such black-market dump.
In June 1982, Terry Van Sickle, who owned a Dallas company called V.V. Construction Co., bought an 80-acre tract of land at the end of Deepwood. A portion of it lies on the floodplain of the Trinity River. It is more than a dozen miles from the handsome home Van Sickle still lives in on sprawling acreage around the corner from the Dallas Arboretum.
Shortly after purchasing the property, Van Sickle leased the land to Sampson Horrice, owner of a sand and gravel excavation company. Several years earlier, Horrice had been busted for dumping waste on land he owned a few miles away in an all-white neighborhood near Hutchins. The City of Dallas sued him for not obtaining a proper permit, and got a permanent injunction against Horrice that effectively shut down his first known dump. When he moved his operation to what was now an almost exclusively black neighborhood in Pleasant Grove, the city would not act with such urgency.
In March 1982, before he actually purchased the property, Van Sickle had applied for a city permit to mine the Deepwood land. But a look at Van Sickle's permit application makes clear his real intentions. The application stated that, in addition to taking sand and gravel out of the property, Van Sickle planned to fill the "old pits with solid waste." This included "all putrescible [things that rot] material," as well as "unwanted rock, dirt, metal, sand, gravel, wood, etc."
State law allows excavated areas to be back-filled with inert materials, defined by the Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission as materials that are not hazardous, combustible, or capable of breaking down and leaching into the soil and ground water, according to Samuel Barrett, director of TNRCC region IV, based in Arlington. Things that rot or break down--such as wood and metal--obviously do not fit into this category.
Technically, Van Sickle shouldn't have been allowed to mine the property. Part of the land was zoned residential, and the other part was zoned industrial-manufacturing. At the time, mining was only permitted in the portion zoned I-M. Even if he wanted to mine that part of the property, Van Sickle would have had to apply for a Specific Use Permit (SUP), which required approval by the city's planning commission as well as public hearings and an ordinance passed by the city council.
Van Sickle, however, managed to land an SUP without jumping through any of these bureaucratic hoops. City records show the permit was issued to Van Sickle on April 6, 1982, although no public hearings had been held and no ordinance was passed by the city council. No record exists showing who was responsible for issuing this permit. Though he did not work in the building department at the time, Ed Levine, an official with the building inspection division of the city's Department of Economic Development, says the city probably gave the SUP based on the contention that mining had been a continuous use on this property. But the city has no record of anyone making that argument, nor any proof that such a claim was true.
Just a few months after Van Sickle received his permit from the city, Cox and Shirley Davidson began complaining to the city about terrible odors emanating from the property. They watched in dismay as convoys of trucks started moving down their once-quiet streets en route to the dump. In one complaint filed by Cox with the city code enforcement office, he alleged that Van Sickle and Horrice were guilty of "massive illegal dumping" on the property.
A city investigation substantiated Cox's allegations. "On November 10, 1982...a Neighborhood Services representative and supervisor...found truckloads of garbage materials were being dumped in this area," says a memo filed by an assistant city manager at the time.
The owner was fined $35--the equivalent of what the dump operator would have made at the time from two truckloads of trash--for each of two counts of illegally operating a sanitary landfill on land zoned residential, according to city records. Van Sickle did not contest the citations. He promised the city he would stop dumping illegal materials, but stated that he would continue to shovel proper fill--dirt, concrete, sand--into the pits. The city inspected his property during the next four weeks and found no evidence of further illegal dumping, according to city records. The city didn't make him clean up what he'd already dumped.
In a brief phone conversation, Sampson Horrice told the Dallas Observer that he never stopped dumping garbage, though he claims he also mined the land for sand and gravel. He admitted he knew what he was doing was illegal, and that he didn't care. "Well, the city dump charged so much, and they weren't going by code either," he said.
Through spring of 1983, the neighbors continued to complain about the smell, the trucks, and the possibility that hazardous materials were being dumped on Van Sickle's land. They demanded that the city test the site for toxic substances. When the tests came back negative, city councilman Max Goldblatt, who had represented a portion of the neighborhood before it was redistricted in the early 1980s, accused the neighbors of conducting an expensive witch hunt.
That the property owner had dumped heaps of refuse in the neighborhood didn't seem to concern Goldblatt. In newspaper interviews and in memos to city leaders, Goldblatt seemed more upset that the protesters claimed to represent Pleasant Grove homeowners. Goldblatt disputed that classification, claiming Pleasant Grove was further north of the neighborhood.
What isn't disputed is that the illegal dumping continued unabated. The city didn't act on the neighborhood complaints again until 1987, when it filed a lawsuit against Van Sickle and Horrice in state district court for operating a solid waste disposal site without a state permit. Court documents allege they had been dumping garbage there since at least 1985 and were liable for fines of up to $25,000 a day between March 1985 and December 1987, when the suit was filed.
By this time, Horrice and Van Sickle had parted ways. Horrice says that Van Sickle was "money-thirsty" and no longer wanted to share the dump proceeds with him. He claims Van Sickle forced him off the land.
For two years, the case languished in the courts, and the dump remained a neighborhood eyesore. Finally, in December 1989, the city attorney, the state attorney general, and the defendants signed a settlement agreement, though Horrice claims he doesn't remember signing it. The agreed final judgment required each of the defendants to pay a $5,000 civil penalty, maintain a locked gate at the entrance to the site, and fully implement a Texas Department of Health-approved site closure plan by September 1, 1990. Among other things, the site plan was supposed to incorporate state-approved methods for protecting surface and groundwater from contamination, installation of methane gas monitors, and the placement of an appropriately thick earthen covering on the landfill.
But Van Sickle and Horrice blatantly defied every term of the agreement. They never paid their fines and never submitted a closure plan that the health department approved, according to court documents. In a feeble attempt to hold the two men accountable, the city filed a contempt motion against them in November 1991, more than a year after the dump was supposed to have been properly closed. That was the last legal measure the city took against the defendants. No contempt hearing was ever held. The city simply let the case lapse, and the dump just sat there, open, stinking, and spawning vermin.
According to attorney Mike Daniel, the city and state had a legal obligation to make sure the dump was properly cleaned up. In 1979, the federal government had passed the Solid Waste Disposal Act, which requires states to close down and clean up unpermitted dumps.
"The federal law gave states both a mandate and money to help cure the problem of open dumping," Daniel says. "The city had an obligation, because they helped cause the problem. What should have happened was, when it was clear that Van Sickle and Horrice weren't going to do anything, the city or the state should have closed the dump, removed the trash to a proper location, and assessed the costs against Van Sickle and Horrice."
The city and state were remiss for never enforcing the court order against Van Sickle and Horrice, Daniel says. No doubt, the state and city were balking at the cost of cleaning up the site. "But the costs would have been negligible compared to what they are now," Daniel adds.
Terry Van Sickle never cleaned up the mess he made on his Deepwood property. He retreated to his $120,000 ranch house near the Arboretum and never looked back. In 1992, he defaulted on a loan for which the property served as collateral, and First State Bank assumed ownership of the dump.
In 1994, the bank sold the landfill property--appraised at $92,520--to Herman Nethery, a Balch Springs resident who lives on a rural road near a huge junkyard.
Using the same tactic as Van Sickle before him, Nethery--doing business now as Herman Nethery Recycling--applied to the city on August 1, 1994, for a permit to "fill and mine" the property. This time, Nethery was required to meet several conditions before the city would grant a mining permit. A few years earlier, the zoning on the property had changed to commercial service, on which mining wasn't permitted. The only way Nethery could obtain a mining permit would be to prove to building officials that mining had gone on continuously since Van Sickle's certificate of occupancy had been issued in 1982.
"The way the process normally works is that we get affidavits from adjacent property owners stating that the use had continued," says Ed Levine of the city's building inspection division, headquartered in the Oak Cliff Municipal Building on Jefferson Boulevard.
But the city simply took Nethery's word for it. City records show that the day after Nethery applied for a permit, he returned to the building inspection office with an affidavit he'd written by hand claiming Van Sickle's company "is in fact in business and continuing business on said property since 1982 to present time."
When shown a copy of Nethery's affidavit, Levine says, "I suspect we had additional information that led us to conclude it was a continuous use."
Ed Simons, the city zoning chief at the time who accepted Nethery's affidavit, concurs that he probably saw additional proof. When asked what it was, he said he couldn't remember. Simons' answers seem particularly hollow, since a bank had owned the dump property for the two previous years, and it's highly unlikely they were running a mining operation on the side.
Simons issued Nethery a permit for mining the Deepwood property. Simons, who now is development coordinator in the city's building office, says he was unaware of the property's troubled history because he wasn't required to check a computer program of code enforcement complaints. If he'd bothered to look, he would have found numerous complaints.
Four months later, the city gave Nethery a certificate of occupancy, a document that supposedly requires a site inspection. But according to city records, this inspection never took place. Simons simply rubber-stamped the certificate, waiving an inspection because, he explains today, "there was no structure to inspect."
With one boneheaded bureaucratic move, the city essentially awarded the good housekeeping seal of approval to a man who was about to create what the TNRCC now calls the largest illegal dump in the state.
Once Nethery obtained city-approved entree to the property, he immediately began using it as a garbage dump. Getting him to stop proved almost impossible.
Nethery wasted no time picking up right where Van Sickle and Horrice left off, charging truckers a cut rate to dump all manner of solid waste onto the property. According to state investigators, he was charging one-third to one-half of the price charged at the city landfill. Surveillance logs kept by city code enforcement officers and TNRCC investigators show that 100 trucks a day rolled into the dump with payloads of roofing shingles, household trash, bottles labeled sulfuric and nitric acid, bones, and other debris.
Residents immediately began to complain--and for good reason. Nethery's operation was even worse than Van Sickle's. "Trucks were tearing up the street," recalls Shirley Davidson. "The odor was awful. Boards with nails were always falling off the trucks into the street and tearing up our tires." About the same time, Davidson says, neighborhood property values began to plummet. Her house was appraised in 1996 for $23,000, down $10,000 from previous years.
City code enforcement officers investigated the site, and for the next year and a half--between August 1994 and December 1995--wrote a total of 560 citations to Nethery, dump operator Herman Gibbons, and several haulers. Code enforcement officers can only write tickets for Class C misdemeanors--in this case, littering. Packing about as much legal wallop as a parking ticket, a Class C littering citation carries a fine of up to $500. Nethery simply ignored the tickets. As it turns out, a judge dismissed all the tickets anyway, claiming they were filed in the wrong court.
According to one code enforcement officer, Nethery should have been charged with operating an illegal commercial landfill, a Class A misdemeanor. Those tickets can only be issued by law enforcement officers and must be filed in state district court.
"This was a major fiasco," says the code enforcement officer, who asked that he not be named. "Nobody checked what the violation was and who had authority to write the tickets. All those man-hours were wasted, and we had to start all over again." This official blames code enforcement assistant director Ramiro Lopez for not properly training his staff. Lopez refused to talk to the Observer.
A frustrated code enforcement team turned to the city building inspection office for help. "There was a hue and cry from code enforcement," Simons recalls. "They wanted us to cancel the guy's certificate of occupancy for mining, because it appeared to give status to Nethery's illegal landfill operation."
Simons, who has never set foot on the property, refused to yank the certificate of occupancy (CO). He told the officers that they would have to come up with evidence that mining had been discontinued for six months--the condition for losing nonconforming usage rights. In other words, Simons was requiring a much stricter burden of proof for the code enforcement officers than he did for Nethery when he issued him the mining permit in the first place.
The irony--and the injustice--is lost on Simons and his boss, Ed Levine. "I don't see where authorizing a CO for mining gave him the legitimacy for filling the land with illegal waste material," Levine says.
"He was real tickled to get a piece of paper from the city that allowed him to do something," Simons adds.
Levine shoots him a dirty look, but Simons keeps on talking. "It may appear that the city helped Nethery by responding in a way that allowed the situation to be protracted. The public trust is going to be skeptical whether we did it properly or not," he says. Simons isn't the least bit contrite. "Our sensitivity to code enforcement issues has since been heightened," he says.
Since the city was getting nowhere with its building inspectors, it attempted to get the TNRCC to help. But it took a while before the state agency charged with protecting the environment offered the city any support. Sam Barrett, director of the TNRCC Arlington office, says, "We don't have the resources available and as big a staff to deal with municipal solid waste violations."
The TNRCC did eventually assign a staff person to assist the city code enforcement officers. With evidence they amassed, including pictures of waste-filled ponds and 30-foot mountains of trash, the city and state filed a civil suit against Nethery in 1995 in state district court, which ordered the site closed. But even a $2,000 fine and the threat of jail time didn't stop him. Nethery was jailed twice for a total of 21 days--the first time for failing to answer the state's discovery motion, the second time for violating the temporary restraining order against dumping. He was supposed to spend 42 days in jail, but was released early because his son was suffering from kidney failure.
Even while Nethery was sitting in Lew Sterrett Justice Center, his dumping operation continued. In a deposition he gave to state attorneys, Nethery asserted that it was legal to bury "unearth material" on his property. He probably meant inert materials. When asked what he meant by inert materials, he looked around his lawyer's office and said "everything in this room." As for the composite shingles he was letting in by the truckload, Nethery says he was recycling them into "hi-pro mulch."
Nethery's mulch excuse is utter garbage. Sam Barrett of the TNRCC says, "Shingles are typically made from asphalt and gravel. They wouldn't biodegrade. You won't have any biological or agricultural support for his claim on that one."
Finally, in the summer of 1996, a special state and federal environmental crimes task force got involved in the Nethery dump. The city takes credit for this last step, which finally led to results. According to a city manager's report of the events surrounding the Nethery dump, "the city stepped up enforcement efforts by involving EPA, TNRCC, the district attorney, and police."
In reality, the enforcement push came about almost by accident.
In June 1996, a lawyer for the TNRCC showed Dale Burnett, an Austin-based assistant director for TNRCC special investigations, a videotape of the Nethery dump. Burnett, who works mostly on hazardous waste cases, was attracted to the case because of the dump's enormous size and the failure of routine enforcement to stop Nethery.
"I figured we could find a way with the penal code to stop him," Burnett says. He dispatched one of his investigators to see if local enforcement officers would accept their help. They readily agreed.
After several weeks of surveillance, Burnett's team gathered enough evidence to obtain a search warrant. Burnett's team raided Nethery's operation and home in September and seized more than 20 cars, trucks, and bulldozers, as well as $200,000 in cash. Interestingly, none of the equipment seized was mining equipment, and as far as Burnett can tell, no mining of sand and gravel had been done on the property for more than a decade.
The state and federal task force gathered enough evidence to indict Nethery on a charge of organized crime, a first-degree felony. In addition to mountains of construction debris, his team found drums of oil and chemicals and medical waste--as well as dozens of junked cars.
"I am not going to comment on whether it meets the definition of hazardous material," Burnett says. "It's part of the evidence in the case."
The criminal case against Nethery is pending.
The TNRCC, however, didn't do anything that the city couldn't have done. If Dallas had a specially trained task force with coordinated efforts among police and code enforcement officers--and an aggressive, cooperative DA--Nethery could have been stopped much earlier. Houston's illegal dump task force was launched in 1993 and has brought tremendous results, according to Houston police task force member Steve Dicker. "We've saved the city over $1 million in cleanup costs and had 264 convictions," he says.
Nethery's dump was finally shut down in September, but it didn't cease to be a menace. Residents found out just how real a threat it posed in mid-February when smoke enveloped their neighborhood, making it difficult to breathe, and for some, triggering flu-like symptoms that would not go away for months.
Several days after neighbors began reporting smoke, the fire department determined that the Nethery dump was on fire. "This looks like a World War I battle scene," a fire official told the Morning News. Because of lateral underground burning, it took several battalions of firefighters nearly two months to douse the blaze, an effort that required scores of earth-moving vehicles to dig up debris. In addition to accidentally severing a sewer line that dumped 20,000 gallons of partially treated sludge into the landfill, firefighters battled the fire primarily with untreated water from the Trinity River, adding to the neighborhood's odors.
While the fire raged, the EPA and the city's Environmental Health Service tested the air for volatile organic compounds and metals. Although an elevated level of the cancer-causing substance benzene was detected, the concentrations of pollutants weren't considered dangerous. But a memo from the toxicology and risk assessment office of the TNRCC cautioned: "It is unlikely that limited sampling can adequately represent emissions from this fire...and public exposure to smoke from the fire should be limited to the extent possible. Residents should avoid areas impacted by smoke from the fire."
Dallas Water Utilities monitored run-off water and found that the level of benzene exceeded state limits. (Benzene is an inflammable liquid chiefly found in tar.)
Many residents of the neighborhoods surrounding the dump believe the fire made them sick. Harold Cox claims he'd never suffered sinus problems until this spring. Robert Stubblefield, a 27-year resident of this area, has been seeing his family physician since February for a sore throat that, he says, feels like he swallowed gravel, as well as a persistent sinus infection. His doctor eventually referred him to a specialist. "It seems to be getting better, but it is a long process," says Stubblefield, a building manager at Medical City Hospital who serves as president of the Pleasant Grove Homeowners and Residents Association.
To convey the anger, hurt, and exasperation they felt, many of the residents donned bright orange T-shirts identifying the wearer as a "Victim of Dallas Illegal Dump Site." The back of the T-shirt sums up their plight: "We've got a fire out of control. Many surrounding residents are suffering from the Smoke!! WHERE IS THE JUSTICE??? When the owner, the judge, the mayor and all of our Dallas officials have ignored our complaints???"
Even after the fire had alerted the city at large to the evils of illegal dumping, Cox and his neighbors weren't ready to let their guard down. After all those years of bungling, they didn't trust the city to protect them from further abuse.
It turns out that their fears were justified. Just weeks after the fire was extinguished, residents pulled on their orange T-shirts and ushered Councilman Don Hicks to another site adjacent to the old dump that they believed was also being violated.
The 40-acre site is owned by T.E. Frossard. In the late 1980s, the city sued Frossard and dump operator Maurice Foulk, who is now deceased, for the unauthorized dumping of solid waste. Code enforcement officials cited Frossard and Foulk for dumping building debris, paper, plastic, and cardboard into sites previously mined for sand and gravel.
In his defense, Frossard's lawyer wrote that the fill was being used to "reclaim the area so that is can be raised to an elevation that would make it usable as commercial or industrial property that would be improved for more jobs and economic development in the area."
The state and city, however, didn't buy Frossard and Foulk's claims that they'd come to make the neighborhood safe for development. They obtained a court order requiring that Frossard and Foulk remove the solid waste and cover the buried debris with two feet of soil.
In the following years, Frossard and Foulk continued to fill the land, supposedly with proper fill material. But the Pleasant Grove Homeowners and Residents Association didn't believe that the land was being filled with harmless dirt and stone. When the neighbors arrived in May with Councilman Hicks to inspect the property, Phyllis Foulk, Maurice Foulk's widow and manager of the dump at the time, would not permit them on the premises.
The homeowners' hunch was correct. Earlier this summer, the city finally got around to doing what it was supposed to be doing all along--protecting the neighborhood. Ed Levine's building inspection office revoked Foulk's certificate of occupancy after discovering improper fill and an illegal metal salvage operation on the site.
Frossard, however, claims today that he "never permitted" improper fill. He blames the presence of any illegal materials on sneaky haulers.
Even after the CO was revoked, the dumping continued. On July 21, trucks were lined up to get into the site at 6512 Loop 12. Cox and Davidson were also there, and called in code enforcement. All the officer could do was write another meaningless citation to Frossard--for littering.
Sounding tired and defeated, Cox says, "This has tore up the neighborhood again. It's gotten us all emotional. It's done got me battle-scarred."
A few weeks ago, Councilman Al Lipscomb wrote an angry letter to his fellow council members, as well as Mayor Ron Kirk and City Manager John Ware, on behalf of the frustrated residents who live near the illegal dumps.
"I find it amazing that after two stories air on Lake Ray Hubbard about trash in the lake, the City of Dallas runs right out to clean it up," Lipscomb's letter reads. "These people have lakeside property and pay absolutely no taxes in this city, but they have no problem getting the garbage cleaned up. The citizens of District 5 and 8 have complained of an illegal landfill for over 20 years and can't get it cleaned up...It appears to be another situation of the voices of the affluent being heard and the poor and middle class being ignored. When will we demand a cleanup plan for this area...?"
Relief may be a long time coming. According to a city manager's report, it will take anywhere from $1.8 million to $4.3 million to properly close the site and another $3.8 million to $12 million to transfer the debris to a proper landfill. It is TNRCC's responsibility to enforce the site closure. But who is going to pay for it?
The EPA and TNRCC aren't willing to fund the cleanup because they're only required to do so if the site is hazardous, and they do not believe it is, according to city documents. A scientific assessment of the site's health risks, however, has not been conducted. Representatives from the city and TNRCC met in May to discuss whose responsibility it was to perform and pay for the study, but nothing was decided. The city will seek civil damages against Nethery, but the likelihood of exacting enough money to defray the costs of the fire and a proper cleanup are next to nil. The city is also considering asking the EPA to take control of the property and provide $21 million for trash removal.
The way Mike Daniel sees it, if the neighbors rely on the city and state to get the job done, they'll be disappointed. "The mechanism to cleaning this up is filing a lawsuit," says Daniel, who sent letters of notice to the city and state--as well as to Van Sickle, Horrice, Nethery, and Gibbons--that he plans to file a federal suit against them in the next 60 to 90 days. "Under federal law, if you had a role in causing the problem, then you are responsible for solving it," Daniel says. "This is not a case where the city and state were innocent bystanders."
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
Daniel discounts the city's limp efforts to stop the dumping over the years. "There's a point at which good intentions don't count, and results should start to count," he says. "That point was back in 1982, '83, and '84."
"We didn't have anyone come to the defense of the community," Harold Cox says. "We had no one saying this was wrong, unjust, and illegal. They were constantly telling us that it would take 65 days to enforce a citation, that it was legal within these boundaries. There hasn't been anyone [who] said to us these people were illegal other than Mike Daniel."
Cox says he's weary of the fight against the dump, but vows to see it through. "They were wrong," he says. "The city was wrong. I live here. And it affects me."
Dallas Observer intern Rebeca Rodriguez contributed to this story.