Blood in the Trinity, Crow on My Plate and Respect for the Caraways

Two years ago I toured the area around Columbia Packing Company on East 11th Street in Oak Cliff with city council member Dwaine Caraway and his wife, state Representative Barbara Mallory Caraway. The Caraways told me shocking stories of guts from nearby meat-packing operations piled in steaming heaps in the streets and animal blood turning a nearby creek red.

I also interviewed the owner of one of the operations the Caraways were campaigning against, and I was persuaded by his version of things: The lurid stories told by the Caraways were urban legends based half in gossip and half in who knows what, Bible stories?

So this is me eating crow.

Last week the operator of a remote-control airplane carrying a camera caught evidence of a foul red plume in a creek flowing between one of the slaughterhouses -- Columbia Packing Co. -- and the Trinity. Law enforcement officers staged a raid and told reporters later that the plant had installed bypass pipes taking a river of pig blood around the proper disposal equipment and pouring it straight into the creek, whence it flowed into the Trinity River.

Columbia Packing was formed in 1913 by the Ondrusek family. Joe Ondrusek, the third generation, runs the operation now, with a company motto, "We are family."

I tried several times this morning to reach Ondrusek. The people who answer the phone at the plant said they would get him for me. I stayed on hold for long stretches. Then they hung up.

I'm still willing to assume that the Ondruseks have their own version of this story, but I wonder what it could be? How do you put a good face on pumping a river of pig blood out into your own neighborhood?

For a long time I have worried about what I thought was wrong-headed demonization of legitimate tax-paying job-providing businesses by councilman Caraway, who has had strong support in his campaign from Tod Robberson of the The Dallas Morning News editorial page staff. I still think some of the hectoring of metal scrap yards in Caraway's sights has been unfair and illegitimate at its core.

If people are obeying the laws and carrying out legitimate business operations on property they have owned for years, it's bad medicine to go after them with a political cat-o'-nine-tails and try to force a sale at less than market rates. I believe I have seen a good deal of that going on in the area we're talking about right now. It's an open door to corruption.

But here is the crow I need to eat. I see now that councilman Caraway and Rep. Caraway may not have been repeating baseless urban legends when they told me about brazen outlaw behavior by the packing plants in this part of Oak Cliff near the Trinity. I need to acknowledge they were telling me things they knew about -- and I did not -- because they have lived in that area all their lives, and I have not.

The thing I always try to do with something like the pig blood story is put the other shoe on the foot and see how it walks. Let's imagine that the Columbia Packing Plant is located close to a more prosperous and whiter part of the city. Does it still install bypass pipes and dump a red plume of pig blood into the river nearby?

Maybe they do. Maybe. The Ondruseks are not talking, so we don't know their story. Maybe the bypass pipes are some kind of emergency system that must be used on rare occasions to avert an even greater catastrophe.

But then I also have to entertain and consider the view of the Caraways -- that various operators in this neighborhood, not just Columbia, have behaved in this way over the years because of a basic disrespect for the their own locale, an assumption that they are located in a dumping ground anyway so who cares if they dump a little more?

If the Caraways are right, then I don't even have to connect the rest of those dots for you, do I? If they are right, then their campaign against scrap yards and slaughter houses ceases to be about jobs created or taxes paid. It's about the people who operate these plants, their moral character, their view of the human beings who live around them and their sense of responsibility toward the natural resources nearby.

Right now, the evidence is leaning toward the Caraways. So far the response of the Ondruseks is 10 minutes of country music on their phone-hold system, a scratchy click and a dial tone. I believe they're going to have to do better than that.

Notice how when I was magnanimously offering to eat crow, I did not mention Robberson. Hey, there are limits.

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