The Trashing of Ferris, Texas
By 1989, Earline Jackson recalls, the convoys were rumbling down old highway 75, trailing behind them that awful smell. They'd line up at the gate to Skyline Landfill--dozens of trucks from God knows where--dumping ton after ton of trash in the tiny burg of Ferris.
Residents of the little town were vaguely aware that some big company called Waste Management had bought out their city dump in 1987. But this was something new: all those trucks from up north; all that garbage. What was going on?
Jackson and her husband had lived in the black neighborhood called The Flats, less than a block from the landfill's southern tip, for more than a decade. But now, as the months went on, they noticed a lot of changes.
Like the continual neeep-neeep-neeep of rumbling bulldozers. And hordes of "scavenger-lookin'" birds that splattered her wash line with droppings. There were rats, "big as kittens," who'd gnawed a hole behind her kitchen stove and visited every night, always seeming to take a single bite from a bowl of bananas.
And swarms of roaches. She'd seen them crawling up out of the fill dirt at Skyline; now they infested The Flats, invading the homes of even the tidiest housewives. Worst of all was the smell--"like nothing you've ever smelled before"--carried with blown dust and trash.
It was as though The Flats of Ferris were being smitten by a modern-day bout of the Biblical plagues of Egypt.
The problems would climax in 1991, when storm-water runoff from the landfill's bare slopes ripped a gorge through Earline Jackson's backyard on Ash Street. As the spring rains continued, she began charting the narrowing distance between her garage and the raging stream.
"Have you ever seen a gorge? It doesn't have a shape to it," Jackson says today. "That's the way that ditch was. I had a magnolia tree out there. And one day I went to work, and when I came back that evening, the tree was in the gorge."
Today the city of Ferris gives new meaning to an old protest--"not in my R> backyard." Because for the poorest residents in this tiny, hard-luck town, the landfill's there, right there, with its naked slopes rising some 50 feet above the neighborhood's topography, which is about as flat as its name suggests.
Some 70 years ago, The Flats housed black workers for Ferris' thriving brickyards. The wages of workingmen built a proud, close-knit community, with its own schools, churches, and small businesses. But these days, only the elderly folks recall much about Acme and Reliance Clay, and the old clapboard homes are crumbling.
Something new has taken hold in The Flats; you can see it and hear it when people meet. Old neighbors passing each other in the street avert their eyes. There's talk of who's "sold out" and who hasn't, and ugly rumors circulate about who's paid off whom to do what. This isn't the friendly place it used to be. And it's all because of a dump.
The Skyline Landfill, as it's called--"because the sky's the limit," says Earline Jackson--has driven a wedge through this town deeper than the color bar that separates the community's east side from its west.
"The Flats is a truly unique circumstance--I've never seen a landfill as close to a neighborhood," says Jim Blackburn, a Houston attorney who represents more than 200 Flats residents in a lawsuit against Waste Management. "I don't think there's any group of people in the state of Texas that would have put up with this if they had any political power at all."
Waste Management, Inc., the trash industry's Illinois-based colossus, is now seeking state approval for an enormous expansion of the Ferris landfill. At stake are tens of millions of dollars in future revenues; Waste Management plans to turn Ferris' once-humble dump into a giant regional landfill, second in size locally only to Dallas' McCommas facility. Ferris offers the ideal location, Waste Management argues, with an existing dump firmly situated amid hundreds of acres of old clay pits.
With landfill space now a precious commodity, WR> aste Management has pulled out all the stops in its quest to expand Skyline--and to silence the opposition. Because it just so happens that the path to profits runs straight through the black neighborhood called The Flats.
The FBI is now investigating whether Waste Management's tactics include paying illegal bribes to public officials with the help of a company consultant, former Ferris mayor Billy Don Dunn (see accompanying story).
To the Rev. Paul Coumpy, a lifelong Ferris resident, Baptist minister for more than 35 years, and staunch Skyline foe, Ferris' last seven years have offered a sad exposition on human nature, a sobering sign of desperate times. What he's learned so far is this: just about everything and everybody has a price. Some go high, some go low, but sure as heaven and hell, they all do go.
Forget good neighbors--most of the time, money talks louder than pride.
In just a few weeks, the Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission will decide whether to grant Waste Management permission to expand the Ferris landfill from 73 to 667 acres. That would make it one-third of the land in the entire city of Ferris.
The landfill's current site is nearly tapped out, according to officials of Waste Management, which maintains a regional office in Irving. The expansion could extend Skyline's operational life by as much as 37 years.
After weighing emotional and technical testimony on the landfill, TNRCC hearings examiner Linda Sorrells will issue her recommendation on Skyline's expansion application any day now. The agency's staff has already endorsed the landfill's technical plan.
After Sorrells issues her report, the matter goes before the three-member commission, which could make its decision about the landfill--and Ferris' future--as early as December 12. The commission usually abides by the hearings examiner's recommendation. Clear-cut reasons are required to overturn it.
If the expansion permit goes through--even the landfill's harshest critics R> wager 50-50 odds of approval--some residents of The Flats will be surrounded on three sides by dumping grounds. Ferris will be changed forever.
Yet a lot of folks will tell you the landfill is the best thing that's ever happened to Ferris, a town of 2,200 that straddles the Dallas-Ellis county line.
And in many ways, they're right.
Ten seconds on city streets makes it clear that Ferris has seen better days. There's no need to enforce speed limits here, as Jim Lattimore, Waste Management's area business development manager, rightly observes. On these profusely pitted streets, 15 miles per hour is top speed. Then there's the housing. Many homes on Ferris' west side are in a state of gross disrepair, their weathered walls and porches warped and peeling paint.
If Waste Management gets its expansion permit, it'll channel a minimum of $400,000 a year into Ferris' city coffers, through a royalty fee the company pays on refuse hauled to the dump. That's nearly one-fourth of Ferris' annual municipal budget. That "host fee," as it's called, has opened many eyes in Ferris, where Waste Management is already the town's biggest taxpayer. "When you get something with the potential of being as beneficial to the community as this--the city is looking at a veritable windfall," proclaims Lattimore.
But the dividends don't end there. Waste Management already has bought out a handful of homeowners in The Flats who literally dwelled in the shadow of the dump. They've relocated to finer premises in other parts of town.
One of them is Pearlie Faye Richard. Waste Management purchased her small, prefab home--situated within a few feet of the landfill's southern border--for a six-figure price in 1993. The company also bought out and relocated an elderly woman who'd lived in a home with a dirt floor.
Calvin Booker, Waste Management's door-to-door man in The Flats, boasts about all the happy customers he's made through the buyout program. Says Booker: "I can't think of one person who didn't feel hR> e's received a better quality of life."
Waste Management, in fact, has offered a minimum of $45,000 to all Ferris homeowners within 800 feet of the dumping ground--provided the company gets its permit. The multimillion-dollar buyout plan, required as part of an agreement with the city of Ferris, affects a neighborhood where few homes are appraised at more than $25,000. So far, 56 of 77 homeowners have signed on. Others hope to sell, but are holding out for more money.
Only $1,000 of the money came up-front. But many struggling Flats residents leaped at the chance for "free money," as one homeowner described it. The rest of the price is due when Waste Management gets its permit--and the window for appeals expires.
All in all, it's a powerful inducement for residents to lie low and keep quiet, the Rev. Coumpy observes. Besides, if Waste Management's going to win anyway, people reason, it makes sense for everyone living near the dump to bail out.
Waste Management has spread its largesse around, bestowing all kinds of goodies on city agencies and civic groups. Among them are bullet-proof vests for the seven-member Ferris police department ($3,700); a van for the senior center; free garbage pickup and brown plastic trash bins for everyone in town (valued at $100,000 annually); and four artificial Christmas trees for Ferris schools. That's not to mention all those educational visits from "Captain Waste"--the costumed Waste Management superhero who preaches to school kids about recycling.
The future promises even greater things, including a modest total of 40 new jobs--positions needed to handle the landfill's increased capacity. Waste Management has also pledged to relocate one of its trash-hauling centers from Dallas to Ferris.
Many town residents praise Waste Management's operation of the dump, which had been cited by the state for numerous problems under its previous owner. Danny Satterwhite, whose car repair shop is an informal gathering place for pro-Waste Management supporterR> s, says Skyline landfill "is the cleanest place in town." And Fay Herron, the 72-year-old director of Ferris' senior center, agrees that Waste Management has made tremendous improvements at Skyline. She's also benefited directly from the company: it pays her salary at the senior center. "I don't see any sense fighting it now," she says. "They've been good to us."
As Jim Lattimore sees it, Waste Management has offered Ferris a new and brighter future--a chance to regain the prosperity and growth that died with the brickyards.
Jimmie Birdwell, Ferris' mayor for the past 10 years and a onetime landfill foe, agrees. "Only time will tell if the landfill is good for Ferris overall," he says. "But I think it's a good business proposition."
On the surface, it is hard to see why anyone in The Flats wouldn't take the $45,000, pack up, and seek greener, more fragrant hills. Birdwell says Waste Management has "helped those people get out of poverty, as far as their houses are concerned."
Yet bitterness and resentment still simmer in The Flats--and every other part of town.
Far from providing a new future for Ferris, notes the Rev. Coumpy, who lives about a half mile from the landfill, the expansion permit could just as easily signal its death. Why, he asks, would anyone want to settle in a little-bitty town whose most prominent feature is an enormous dump?
But not everyone is even looking that far down the road. No, there's a grievance that runs a lot deeper in Ferris, especially among its black residents. It's the way Waste Management has--piece by piece, with precision and skill--divided, then dismantled, The Flats.
You can sell a house and call it fair, Coumpy says. But you can't set a price on community.
Billy Don Dunn is livin' large these days in a sprawling brick home near the end of a curving, tree-shaded lane on the east side of town--the right side of the tracks. From here, in a neighborhood separated from the rest of the city by the four lanes of Interstate 45, one can neither see nor smell the giant heap of a landfill with which Billy Don's name will forever be associated in Ferris, Texas.
It's been nearly eight years now since Billy Don, Ferris' foremost entrepreneur--and for a total of six years, its mayor--swung the biggest deal of his life with Waste Management.
Dunn, a balding, middle-aged former railroad man who now serves as a "community liaison" consultant for Waste Management, hasn't a word to say publicly these days about the deal that brought him wealth and divided his town--or anything else, for that matter. "I have absolutely no comment," he told Dallas Observer, referring all queries back to Waste Management.
Getting others to talk about Dunn isn't tough, though. Just about everyone has an opinion on Billy Don.
"He's naturally going to be controversial to a lot of people, since he's connected to Waste Management," says Mayor Birdwell. "Now Billy Don has got his good points and his bad points. I think sometimes he's been involved too much in city politics. But he's never tried to influence me in any way as mayor."
"He's a very smart fella--real smart," says Bill Malloy, who served on the Ferris City Council when Dunn was mayor in the late 1970s. "He could sell an Eskimo a refrigerator. Yet personally I still like the guy. He's just Billy Don."
Bruce Springer, a southern Dallas County resident and longtime landfill foe, says Dunn is "pleasant and courteous, and very outgoing." But "he's a real crud," Springer adds. "He is the world's worst type of citizen.
"In Ferris, he had the opportunity to make himself a lot of money, and the fact that it was going to destroy his town didn't seem to matter."
Dunn's adventures in waste began around 1978, when Ferris was having a dismal time operating its little city dump, situated just north of The Flats. The state had cited the landfill on numerous occasions for poor operations, and it seems the city was in over its head, unable to correct the problems.
Along came Billy Don Dunn--who happened to be serving his second stint as the city's mayor. Sometime in early 1978, he took over operation of the city dump--"through necessity," he explained, in a letter to the state at the time.
Later that year, Dunn got the city to apply for a permit to expand its little landfill--from nine acres to 73, incorporating lands owned by Reliance Clay as well as the city of Ferris. The city also requested that Ferris' landfill permit be transferred to the mayor's firm--Trinity Valley Reclamation, Inc. About the same time, the Ferris City Council wrote up an agreement officially handing over operations of the dump to Dunn's firm.
Bill Malloy, who runs an insurance agency in Ferris, was on the council in 1978. He says Dunn offered the city a chance to continue operating its own dump, but Ferris--strapped for cash, as always--decided it wasn't able to do so.
Within a year, the state would approve both the expansion and the permit transfer. Later on, Ferris would agree to lease its landfill to Mayor Dunn in exchange for free dumping privileges. The city still owns its part of the property; Dunn purchased the rest from private owners.
Only a few people are on record as having opposed this original expansion--including Jimmie Birdwell, Ferris' current mayor. With little controversy, the city of Ferris, led by mayor Billy Don Dunn, decided to make the deal to turn over its expanded landfill to citizen Billy Don Dunn. (Dunn did not vote on the matter within the council; in Ferris, the mayor votes only to break a tie.)
Malloy, reflecting on Dunn's deft maneuvers in the late '70s, says, "One thing I've learned through the years is that even though things are confusing, invariably in the future you realize how and why those actions came into play. If something was done and didn't make sense, it all became clear in time."
Ferris residents recall many problems during the nine years Dunn ran the landfill--unbearable odors, fires in the garbage pits, trash blowing across old highway 75. The state noted persistent violations as well, such as inadequate dirt cover for fresh, rotting trash.
To an observer like Bill Malloy, it seemed like Dunn had foolishly gotten in over his head--just as the city once had, when it gratefully ceded operation of its landfill to its sitting mayor.
In any case, Dunn wouldn't have to struggle much longer. In 1987, Waste Management bought the Skyline landfill. Dunn's firm, Trinity Valley Reclamation, promptly requested a transfer of its state permit--the one originally held by the city of Ferris--to Waste Management.
At the time, increasingly strict environmental regulations and disappearing open space had multiplied the complexity of disposing of municipal waste, prompting cities across the country to turn to private companies to handle their trash. This has made the landfill business highly profitable. Waste Management, in particular, has been aggressive in seeking new landfill sites--and skillful in winning the necessary permits to open them, a highly political process. It is now the world's largest waste-disposal firm, part of a company with $16 billion in assets and $453 million in 1993 profits.
Waste Management controls more than a dozen landfill sites in Texas. Even so, Ferris' dump had the potential to become a jewel in the world of trash. The biggest landfill in the heavily populated Dallas-Fort Worth area--McCommas--was setting aside most of its remaining space for waste from the city of Dallas. Someone had to pick up the slack for the area's growing suburbs. Skyline was the obvious choice. Easy access to interstate highways 45 and 20 would enable it to serve much of Dallas County, as well as Arlington and neighboring towns--but only if it could expand.
No wonder, then, that the company, even as it took over the Skyline landfill, was plotting a massive expansion.
The citizens of Ferris first learned what was up in 1988, a year after the purchase, when Waste Management sought state permission to expand Skyline from 73 to 340 acres. By then, residents of The Flats were buying rat poison in 50-pound bags, and carrying around little tokens of their sufferings--such as plastic baggies of rat droppings and photographs of blown trash.
The Waste Management expansion would turn Skyline into a regional landfill; their once-humble little dump would become the repository for the refuse of many North Texas cities.
Citizens began to wonder when Waste Management, Inc., had first trained its rapacious gaze on Billy Don's dump.
Landfill foes now allege the existence of a long-term, trash-based conspiracy--that Dunn and Waste Management worked hand-in-glove from the beginning, plotting the steps needed to acquire and build a giant regional landfill at the foot of The Flats since 1978.
Dunn won't comment. But on two occasions during an interview with the Observer, Waste Management's Jim Lattimore insisted his company had no involvement with Skyline prior to its negotiations for purchase of the facility from Dunn in late 1986 and early 1987.
Records filed with the state, however, show that Waste Management did some expensive sniffing around the site eight years earlier--the very year that Billy Don persuaded his city council to let him take it over.
Waste Management, records show, commissioned borings--drillings to determine conditions beneath the ground's surface and collect soil samples--at Skyline in 1978.
Five years later, Waste Management ordered an extensive series of borings on the acreage adjoining Dunn's 73-acre site--a tract included in the proposed expansion. Southwestern Laboratories of Dallas conducted the tests, and incorporated the results into a "Geotechnical Investigation for Proposed Sanitary Landfill" prepared for Waste Management. It is dated September 12, 1983.
Confronted with evidence of his company's early involvement, Waste Management's Lattimore commented: "We may have done some early studies. We do so routinely, before we ever entertain options to purchase."
The company's first bid for more space, in 1988, stirred up formidable opposition in Ferris and throughout southern Dallas County, where residents were already engaged in a handful of landfill fights. A coalition of black and white Ferris residents, dubbing themselves "SOC"--for "Save Our Community"--sprung up and waged a fierce fight against Skyline that initially won most of the town's support.
Its leaders included Earline Jackson--who was appointed to Ferris' city council in 1990, and later elected; the Rev. Coumpy, a lifelong Ferris resident; Billy Hassell, a retired TU Electric employee and one of the town's most prominent white citizens; and Lorrie Coterill, an anti-dump veteran who lived outside of neighboring Wilmer. SOC whipped up a wave of support that washed through the city elections in 1990 and 1991, gaining the organization a majority on the Ferris city council.
The SOCers, in turn, faced an organization called TUFF--Taxpayers United for Ferris. The group's leadership wasn't identified in its newsletter, but everyone presumed TUFF to be a front for Billy Don Dunn and friends. In fact, the return address on TUFF's newsletter--Post Office Box 355--is the same as that noted on Dunn's Trinity Valley Reclamation letterhead back in 1982. Lattimore acknowledges that Waste Management channeled funds to TUFF, and that Dunn was indeed a member.
The group made its presence known through TUFF News, a slickly packaged newsletter distributed throughout town. TUFF's favorite cause was voicing concern about the money the city was spending on legal fees as it fought Waste Management's powerful expansion machine. A cartoon published in one of its early issues depicts Earline Jackson, Billy Hassell, and two other pro-SOC council members blindfolded, marching in line toward a frightened taxpayer with a target painted on his rear. The first man in line wields a legal bill stuck to a pin. "The SOC members of City Council enjoy another game of pin the bill on the taxpayer," the caption reads.
TUFF News, in fact, was one of the milder strategies that Skyline supporters employed in 1990, '91, and '92--the craziest years of Ferris' landfill fight.
For its public defense--and eventual counterattack--Waste Management deployed a crack two-man team: Billy Don Dunn, who the company hired as a consultant and "community liaison," and Calvin Booker, a black former city councilman in Pine Bluff, Arkansas, who would later apply his considerable political charms to residents of The Flats.
The state denied Waste Management's first expansion application in December 1990 on technical grounds, citing problems with its drainage plan.
But SOC got no reprieve. Waste Management turned right around and filed a revised expansion application, eventually calling for 667 acres of dumping grounds in and around Ferris. It is the same application that stands before the TNRCC, the department of health's successor agency, today.
The new application, filed in 1991, would fuel SOC's last major bid to block the expansion. The Ferris City Council had voted the year before to annex all of Waste Management's property into the city. If the annexation stood, city ordinances calling for residential zoning on the newly annexed property would automatically preclude expanded landfill operations.
Undeterred, Waste Management responded with a pair of lawsuits--suing council members who opposed the dump individually, as well as the city's board of adjustment, which helped craft the annexation move.
Meanwhile, the town began to descend into a phase of unprecedented small-town nastiness. Earline Jackson and Billy Hassell caught the brunt of the anonymous threats, harassment, and ridiculing cartoons circulating at the time. One such unsigned scribble, left in conspicuous places downtown, depicts three SOC members hung upside down in a men's bathroom, their wide-open mouths serving as urinals. The caption reads: "What to do with a dead SOC member."
Jim Lattimore of Waste Management reminds people today that nastiness was in abundance on both sides. Residents say the town split "straight down the middle," pitting friend against friend, neighbor against neighbor.
Earline Jackson struggled to hold together The Flats, while Waste Management's Calvin Booker flashed the prospect of big bucks in residents' faces.
Jackson says she received dozens of harassing, often obscene, phone calls during the entire time she was fighting the landfill. The calls came from white and black residents alike. "Dirty money," as she brands it, had taken hold in The Flats. Some residents were dazzled by all the talk of buyouts. And Waste Management supporters seemed to have singled out the black councilwoman as their most dangerous foe.
"Maybe it's because I was so outspoken," Jackson says in retrospect. "I would just say what I felt--that the black area was targeted for this expansion because Waste Management didn't care about the people that lived out there. I knew they would never try to put it over on the east side."
One night, Jackson says, she left the city council chambers and passed a group of landfill supporters. She heard a voice from within the gathering.
"Well, I wouldn't worry about that," the man said. "You give those niggers a few dollars and they'll go somewhere and sit down and shut their mouths."
Jackson stopped in her tracks.
"Here's one nigger you can't give a few dollars," she shot back.
Ferris city councilman Victor Burnett has vivid memories of the city elections in 1992--the year SOC lost control of the council.
"I started out helping them [Waste Management] with the elections," Burnett says. "That was in 1992--maybe late 1991. Then I wound up with a job."
Burnett says he made about $30,000 a year driving a dirt-hauling truck at Skyline. Like a lot of Ferris residents, though, he'd pinned his hopes on a much greater payoff once Waste Management got its expansion permit. Burnett claims he was promised a supervisory position at $150,000 a year--something the companyR> denies.
During the 1992 elections, before he entered Waste Management's employ, Burnett says he ferried cigarettes, cheap booze, and barbecue to a gathering of residents in The Flats--as part of a campaign to get out the vote.
While conducting a personal tour of Ferris a few weeks ago, Burnett pointed out a dilapidated home that's known as a hangout for winos. A lot of the barbecue reached its destination there, he says.
"Me and Danny from Danny's Automotive--Danny cooked the barbecue," Burnett said. He waved to some idlers parked on a rotting sofa--"I know we got their vote.
"Ribs, briskets, links, beer, potato salad, wine..."
(Danny Satterwhite acknowledges that he and Burnett whipped together some barbecue to deliver to prospective voters in the 1992 elections, but says it had nothing to do with the landfill or Ferris city council races.)
During 1993, Burnett says Waste Management gave him a two-week vacation he hadn't earned--once again, to get out the vote. He says he planted campaign signs for city council candidates all over town, signs that Billy Don Dunn personally delivered to Danny's Automotive, a hangout for Skyline supporters.
Later that year, Burnett was injured when his truck tipped over at Skyline. He still has difficulty walking.
Today, he's mad as hell at Waste Management--and he says it's not because of his bum hip. "They gon' mess up all these peoples," he says. "And we have some weak-minded people on the city council. We'll be stuck with a big fat dump ground. The dump will be bigger than the town."
Waste Management's lawsuits effectively paralyzed city-organized opposition. Ferris' attorney fees quickly multiplied to the point where the city could no longer pay them. In 1992, after SOC lost its majority on the council, the city conceded defeat.
Mayor Jimmie Birdwell says there was no use fighting anymore. "We were spending a tremendous amount of money on attorney's fees. The majority of tR> he people in town were tired of paying for it."
In fact, dozens of folks who once fought the landfill tooth and nail had thrown their support behind Waste Management. The result: a July 1992 settlement between Ferris and Waste Management.
Waste Management agreed to drop the lawsuits. The solid-waste giant also picked up the tab for Ferris' past-due legal fees--$80,000 accrued while the city was fighting the dump.
The city, in return, agreed to support Waste Management's expansion application before the TNRCC--then and forevermore.
Some city residents made their comment on Ferris' fadeout the best way they knew how. Lorrie Coterill says a few loaded up their big brown plastic garbage bins with the Waste Management logo--a 1992 gift from Skyline to every Ferris household--hauled them to city hall, and dumped them.
A few casualties were left along the way.
Billy Hassell says he'd been repeatedly threatened by anonymous callers and harassed by both Ferris police and Waste Management employees, who drove by his house at all hours of day and night. He got so disgusted with Ferris that he literally picked up his house and moved it outside the city limits. He lives there today, a couple of miles south of Ferris, where his reminiscences about the landfill fight sound like those of a broken man.
It was also in 1992 when Waste Management installed something called an "explosimeter" in Earline Jackson's front yard.
The device--a little box at the end of a stalk with a red light--was supposed to measure dangerous concentrations of methane gas, a potentially explosive by-product of normal landfill operations. Earline's neighbors got explosimeters, too. Pearlie Faye Richard, who had the distinction of living closer than anyone else in The Flats to Skyline's slopes, had one inside her house.
Jackson and her neighbors were supposed to keep their ears trained to the explosimeter. A letter to Richard, dated March 25, 1992, explained what to do if it began buzzing:
"1. Put out any open flames... 2. Open windows. 3. Leave the house. 4. Do Not flip electrical switches because that makes a small spark which might ignite any gases which might be present. 5. Call Skyline Landfill," and then--basically--head for the hills, to spend the night "with friends or relatives," or be "our guest" at the Quality Inn in Ennis.
Fortunately, the explosimeters lived quiet lives in The Flats, and Waste Management eventually fixed the "gas migration" problem, which the state had documented in a letter to the company following a 1992 inspection. Waste Management says it's solved the problem by installing a gas monitoring and collection system to channel and burn off methane gas.
By then, the many trials of The Flats had become the subject of a nuisance lawsuit filed on behalf of Jackson and some 200 other neighborhood residents. The suit is still pending. Jim Blackburn, a Houston attorney who's handling the case, says he recently rejected a settlement offer from Waste Management. The company's Skyline newsletter valued the offer at $1 million.
If there's anything that illustrates Ferris' ambivalence toward Waste Management today, it's the Andrew and Ella Holley Park at the end of Pecan Street--a piece of land that includes a baseball field, basketball courts, and a few picnic tables. Directly behind it is the landfill, separated from the outfield by a cyclone fence. Waste Management built the park this year.
But this was no field of dreams. The company built it, and they didn't come. And they won't come.
Hardly anyone showed up at the dedication ceremony, according to Rev. Coumpy and others. And virtually every day the park is empty. On a recent visit, a single set of footprints creased the dirt between home and third base.
The bitter feelings spilled out again this past July and August, when the TNRCC held a series of public hearings spanning three weeks. Hearings examiner Linda Sorrells seemed visibly moved by some of the testimony from Ferris residents. Landfill foes shed tears as people from the Flats detailed the lives they'd led since the late '80s.
One neighbor of the Jacksons offered especially poignant testimony:
"My name is Foris Nichols," she said, adjusting the microphone down to her height, directing her comments to the Waste Management table. "I live at 1008 Ash Street, and I'm about 200 feet from the dump. I oppose it. I've been opposing it, and I yet oppose it. I've suffered many things with the landfill. See, I'm not a person that live a long ways [away] in other cities. I live in Ferris, Texas. I live right up under the landfill.
"I've suffered many things," she continued. "Respiratory, headaches. My grandchildren couldn't even play out in the yard because of the smell and the dust and whatnot. Can't hang my clothes out because of the drippings of the bird. Not only that, I've had people come to me and offer me peanuts. My husband and I worked hard to get the place that we have--we have about seven lots. It may not mean much to the other side, but it means a whole lots to us. I don't think it's fair...
"We're living like Ezekiel said about the beast--we're living in that time now. Don't care about anybody. Just want to control the city. Want to control everything.
"But I want you to know--God sits high and he looks low. It is not right. It is not fair for us to go through all of this...I didn't dump any filth in your yard, you dumped it on me."
Waste Management supporters supplied their own testimony, some of it equally poignant. One man talked about how he was a bulldozer operator, and Skyline offered the only decent jobs around for men like him. Others predicted the company could lead Ferris out of its economic slump, providing a powerful source of jobs and revenue for the city.
The hearing also became the tableau for a flareup of the decades-old conflict between the cities of Dallas and Fort Worth. Dallas city officials testified against the expansion, saying the birds attracted by a larger landfill could jeopardR> ize air safety around a planned cargo airport the city wants to see built in nearby Lancaster.
Fort Worth officials backed the landfill, saying Dallas-Fort Worth Airport and their city's Alliance field meet all the region's air-cargo needs.
But the strangest event of the hearings, by far, occurred in July, during the first two days of testimony at a Waxahachie motel.
Witnesses recall the arrival of several vans filled with men and women in green hats bearing the slogan, "We Need Skyline." Along with SOC members, Waste Management employees, and numerous lawyers, the group helped pack the hearing room.
But there was something funny about these folks in the green hats. No one from Ferris recognized them--and in a town of 2,200, you get to know your neighbors' faces pretty fast.
Billy Hassell and others took it upon themselves to find out what was going on. They questioned the arrivals, many of whom were Hispanic. Several admitted they had been hired as day labor, promised an hourly wage and two solid meals to sit through the hearing, wearing the pro-landfill hats. No matter that some hadn't a clue about what was going on that day.
"We just shook our heads," recalls Jim Blackburn. "It was apparent that many of these people had no interest in the proceedings. Here's vanload after vanload coming in, with people wandering around, saying 'where's the food?'
"It was totally manufactured," he says. "Waste Management was trying to say these people had a legitimate interest in the landfill. So we asked people, 'what's your connection with this?' 'Oh, somebody told me I could get some food.'"
Linda Sorrells, the hearings examiner, had to silence the hungry gathering on at least one occasion--as well as some SOC supporters in the audience, who'd offer snide comments while Flats residents were being cross-examined.
"How did you know the rats came from the landfill?" a Waste attorney might ask.
A voice from the audience would murmur back: "'Cause when they crawled out they was wearin' little green hats."
Sorrells expressed her amazement at the manufactured show of support. "I've never seen anything like it in my years as a hearings examiner," she told the Observer recently. "I've heard about tactics like that being used in big cities, but this is the first time I'd actually seen it."
Questioned about the episode, Waste Management's Lattimore did not deny that someone in his company might have paid day laborers to attend. He stated, however, that neither he nor his employees had any specific knowledge that this had happened.
Besides, Lattimore added, the green-hatted day laborers had a direct interest in the hearing--as does everyone who's ever generated trash.
By the time of the summer hearings, Earline Jackson had made an extraordinarily painful choice.
She'd watched Calvin Booker buy out some of her neighbors on Ash Street for six-figure sums. And he was there at her door all the time, wanting to make a deal.
"My husband had ran him off our front steps two or three times," Jackson says. "But he kept coming back."
The tide had definitely turned in Ferris--even in The Flats. Jackson knew it. And she says she knows why.
"Dirty money--that's exactly what it is. And to tell you the truth, the ones that haven't gone after it haven't had a chance. Black and white, they've all taken whatever there was to take. And they [Waste Management] bought just about everyone they wanted to buy."
Except Earline Jackson.
Now Jackson's relatives were urging her to move--for the sake of her husband, who is disabled. For the sake of her elderly mother. For the sake of her family's future. As Jackson recalls it, there was a point where she looked around, and there was hardly anyone else standing. Earline felt alone.
Hardly anyone from The Flats turned up to represent the opposition at meetings anymore. She'd spent so many days away from her husband, chasing down hearings, making trips to Austin armed with pictures of her backyard gorge.
At 64, she was tired of fighting.
And Booker was there at her door--ready with relief.
In March 1993, Earline Jackson sold her house and an adjoining lot to Waste Management for $140,000 cash. The house had been appraised at $21,170.
But in this case, Waste Management was after more than just a house. Her contract included a clause stating she'd stop opposing the dump in public as soon as her city council term expired in May 1993--a clause Jackson would choose to ignore. As soon as Jackson sold her house, the anonymous phone calls stopped.
In this ongoing war of attrition, Waste Management had scored no small victory. The Jacksons used the money to build a modest new home a few blocks south of The Flats. She lives there today with her husband, and entertains a constant stream of grandchildren in its immaculately kept premises.
It's a pretty brick house--much sturdier than her former home on Ash Street. But Jackson has bitter regrets.
"It's because of the way I got it, and the way Waste Management has exploited me," she says. "Every time they show something about the landfill on TV, they show the contract--and then the house I used to live in."
This proud daughter of a Baptist deacon was fighting back tears. "If I had to do it over again, I wouldn't sell.
"This home," she says, "seems like a prison to me.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Observer's biggest stories.