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.