Putting the "Muck" in Muckraker As Caraway Leads Expedition to Columbia Packing Plant

Dallas City Councilman Dwaine Caraway bushwacked his way through the forest along the Trinity River this morning to see for himself the place where pig blood from a packing plant turned the river red.

"I am in no way trying to interfere with the city's official investigation of this matter," he told me. But he said residents have been calling him with their own reports of pollution and he needed to check it out with his own eyes.

It was quite an expedition, including a dozen top city officials from the City Attorney's Office, police, Trinity River Office and Water Department. For the most part Caraway led the way, through swamp and dense bush to the banks of Cedar Creek.

I half-imagined we might find Kurtz out there, the protagonist of Joseph Conrad's novella Heart of Darkness. But then with a jolt I thought, "Damn, I spend so much time out here myself! What if I'm Kurtz?"

Anyway, back in real life, the city raided Columbia Packing Plant in Oak Cliff on January 19 after an amateur aerial photographer caught images of pig blood from Columbia turning a Trinity River tributary red. Since then the Ondrusek family, owners of the plant, have blamed the river-of-pig-blood situation on the city for failing to keep sanitary sewer pipes clear.

Caraway asked to be shown the area in question the easy way, from the packing plant property, but the owners refused permission. So he decided to do it the hard way.

For my own two bits worth, I was thrilled to see him do it. The danger is that the issue of effluent from unregulated industrial facilities along the Trinity may be be more widespread than this one instance, which was discovered by fluke.

All indications so far are that city staff is taking this particular instance very seriously, but you and I both know what kind of mischief can befall City Hall when people with the right strings in their hands start pulling on them.

Caraway is capable of keeping the kind of focus on this matter that would make it difficult for anybody to sweep it under the rug.

"I'm not talking about anything else up and down the river," he told me. "Right now we need to keep the focus on this particular problem."

I get that. And anyway, making it a far bigger and worse problem is my job. I'm on the case.

For example, this morning I hiked upstream a distance on Cedar Creek, beyond where the Caraway expedition stopped, and I found a second dark-stained outfall into the creek below the Columbia Property.

I traced the bed of this second outfall up from the bank of Cedar Creek all the way to the back property line of the Columbia Plant. I took pictures to show that the upstream beginning of the outfall is beneath a mountain of industrial trash, broken concrete and timber dumped off the back of the Columbia property.

A debris field of plastic oil cans, broken 10-inch blue PVC pipe and other trash runs from the plant all the way back downhill to the point where it pours into Cedar Creek. Some of the plastic containers are heavily weathered. This didn't start last week.

Soon after city officials raided Columbia, lawyers for the company said in a written statement that the company had always followed the rules and that the pig blood spill was an anomaly, which the company blamed on the city.

I can't really figure how what I found could be blamed on the city, and, actually, I'm kind of an expert on blaming stuff on the city.

But, listen: I only found what I found because Caraway led me out there. I don't know how he fared -- we got separated -- but I came back to my own office reeking, covered with mud and scratches, feeling pretty good about myself, like Captain Willard (Martin Sheen) in Apocalypse Now.

You know, I'm a reporter. I'm used to dirt. But I don't know how many city council members would have done today's trek. I have to take my hat off to Caraway.

And I'm up for it again any time. All we need next time is peanut butter sandwiches and some real scary theme music.

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Jim Schutze has been the city columnist for the Dallas Observer since 1998. He has been a recipient of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies’ national award for best commentary and Lincoln University’s national Unity Award for writing on civil rights and racial issues. In 2011 he was admitted to the Texas Institute of Letters.
Contact: Jim Schutze