The Trashing of Ferris, Texas

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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.

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Julie Lyons
Contact: Julie Lyons

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