For nearly two decades, the people of Pleasant Grove complained, pleaded, and protested -- demanding that the city of Dallas clean up an illegal dump fouling their neighborhood.
And for nearly two decades, dump trucks rolled through their mostly black community while the city virtually ignored their complaints ("Dumped on," August 7, 1997).
That was a mistake -- one that could cost the city millions to correct, thanks to a recent federal judge's ruling that Dallas' half-hearted efforts to stop the dumping makes the city at least partly responsible for cleaning up the mess it allowed to fester.
"We had gone down [to City Hall] so many times, and we shouldn't have had to go down there but one time to get that problem solved," says neighborhood resident Shirley Davidson, one of the plaintiffs in a lawsuit homeowners filed against the city and the dump owners. "They knew the problem, and nothing happened."
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On August 27, U.S. District Judge Barefoot Sanders ruled that the city, former dump owner Terry Van Sickle, and current owner Herman Nethery must fence, monitor, and clean up Deepwood dump, located between Loop 12 and Jim Miller Road, within six months. Nethery is in jail on charges stemming from the dump's operation, and Van Sickle is elderly and ill, his lawyer says, so the city may end up with the full tab. The city must also clean up an adjacent dump owned by T.E. Fossard, who was not a defendant in the neighborhood's suit.
The city plans to appeal the ruling.
City Attorney Madeleine Johnson says the city contends the properties' owners should be held responsible for the cleanup and will ask Sanders for a stay of the judgment while the appeal is being reviewed. In the meantime, the city will begin fencing the site and monitoring the neighborhood for methane gas pockets.
"I want to make it clear that we want to do what we can regardless of what the court of appeals would ultimately decide in this matter to see that the people who are really responsible for this are made accountable for it," Johnson says. "We hope that the measures that we offer at this point in time to the judge...will convince the judge and everyone that...we obviously have concern here, and we want to see the right thing ultimately happen here for residents and for the city."
Too little, too late, say residents, who also have a discrimination suit pending against the city, alleging that Dallas allowed the dump to grow in the largely minority neighborhood after chasing the dump's operator from a white neighborhood.
"[The dump] was really a massive area right on top of the neighborhood," Davidson says. "I want it cleaned up in my lifetime...I wanted to hear a date like now, not 10 years from now."
Sanders' court order came two weeks after the judge found that Nethery violated laws against open dumping and that the city and Van Sickle contributed to the establishment of the dump.
The Deepwood dump is nestled next to a community of middle- and working-class families whose children used to play in the quarry where the dump now sits.
The city ignored its own rules and failed to inspect Deepwood while Van Sickle and later Nethery filled the quarry with virtually any kind of trash imaginable, Sanders ruled. The city also failed to enforce zoning regulations, gave the men permits for which they did not qualify, and bungled an enforcement campaign. While the city fumbled, and Van Sickle and Nethery flouted numerous citations and fines, the dump grew to 30 feet deep.
Davidson recalls the beautiful trees that bordered her neighborhood when she moved there in the mid-'70s. Children once played in the quarry, which is surrounded by gentle hills that roll to Elam Creek.
But as the children grew up, the community would disappear, driven away by a mountain of trash. Litter infiltrated the neighborhood and spilled from the trucks rolling down its streets, bringing vermin, dangerous methane gas fumes, and sickness, Davidson says. The trees vanished, the creek was polluted, and the sandy hills transformed into gray mountains of filth.
"I don't even know how those people stayed there that long, because they dumped trash all the way up to their back fence," Davidson says of the many vacant houses that now border the dump, which was closed in September 1996.
It wasn't as though the city was unaware of what was happening. Residents have written letters to their city council representatives, city officials, and the Environmental Protection Agency.
Yet even while they complained and Nethery was hit with fines and even jail time, the trash-filled trucks still came. By the time the dump was finally closed as a result of a federal, state, and local investigation, the dump towered over the neighborhood, Davidson says.
"It was six stories or 12 stories up, and I think they would have gone as high as they could go and as wide as they could have gone had the fire not happened, because [the city] wasn't doing nothing about it," Davidson says.
Less than six months after the dump closed, a massive fire broke out, burning for 52 days and sending a cloud of noxious smoke throughout the neighborhood. City firefighters eventually extinguished the fire -- at a cost of $1.5 million. The fire burned not long after Nethery and Deepwood dump operator Herman Gibbons were indicted on organized-crime charges stemming from the operation.
But for community residents, the criminal cases brought by the state left unanswered questions about who would clean up the dump and how the city allowed it to grow in the first place.
The city was unwilling to pay the estimated $20 million it could cost to wipe away this eyesore, so the community sued. "We don't want the illegal dump to be forgotten. We want it still to be known that there is still an illegal dump in the city of Dallas that has not been cleaned up," resident Betty Curley says. "They said, 'It's shut down, so what are you talking about? What are you complaining about?' It's shut down, but we wanted it cleaned up."
In the suit, residents claimed that the city, Van Sickle, and Nethery violated the Solid Waste Disposal Act and the community's civil rights by allowing Sampson Horrice, who originally leased Deepwood from Van Sickle, to set up a dump in a black neighborhood after shutting him down in a white neighborhood. "We know why they let it happen: because it was a black neighborhood," the community's attorney Michael Daniel says. "Because [the city] chased the same guy [Horrice] from the white neighborhood...And then he goes right to the city and says, here, I'm at a new location, give me a permit, and they give him a permit [to] dump solid waste. The neighborhood they ran him out of was white; the neighborhood they gave the permit to dump in [was black]. I'm real happy about that as a starting place in a race case."
Daniel doesn't expect the civil rights trial to take place until sometime next year.
Judge Sanders split the suit into two parts, the solid-waste disposal violation and the discrimination suit, to push relief through as quickly as possible, Daniel says.
"We are alleging that there's real hazardous conditions out there, and he said given that there are alleged hazardous conditions, I am going to get the injunctive relief first."
The city, Van Sickle, and Nethery must individually or together fence the dump, monitor it to prohibit further dumping, examine the neighboring homes for methane gas emissions, and clean up the dump over the next six months. They must submit a final plan by December 1 and monthly reports until the dump is cleaned up.
"There is no just reason for delay," Sanders' final judgment stated.
The truth is that delay is likely. Van Sickle's attorney Robert Fuller says they are discussing an appeal under the argument that Van Sickle had cleaned up the property and that Nethery made the dump what it is today.
Nethery, who is serving a 30-year prison sentence, would be unable to participate while he is behind bars, his attorney Rikki Rutchik says. Nethery will not appeal the civil verdict and is focused on his criminal case, Rutchik says. He still claims that he was removing trash while the city continued to dump at both sites.
The community understands that the actual cleanup could be a long time coming.
"I am here for the long haul," Curley says. "You have a right for the city to take care of you, and the city ignored us because we are 95 percent minority out here...Listen to what we have to say and take care of us, and don't let something like this happen in another neighborhood and go on as long as it did, because that's not right."
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