THE SCENE IS DECEPTIVELY bucolic: At the end of a dirt road a few miles west of downtown Alvin, a pair of snowy egrets wade in a muddy pond at the city’s dormant landfill. But the peaceful setting belies a furious battle. This summer the City of Houston will award a thirty-year garbage-disposal contract worth perhaps $300 million. One of the bidders is Sanifill of Houston, whose partner is the City of Alvin. If they get the contract, 400,000 tons of Houston’s garbage will be buried in Alvin’s landfill each year. For its trouble, cash-strapped Alvin will get up to $1 million annually.
But Alvin—the hometown of pitcher Nolan Ryan—is catching flak from landfill opponents. They accuse the city of being too secretive about the deal, and in March the Texas attorney general’s office agreed that under the Open Records Act, Alvin must release data about the bid. Alvin’s city council responded by suing the attorney general’s office, citing the need to protect confidential business information. Meanwhile, on April 4 more than one thousand citizens called for a referendum on the plan. Three weeks later, Alvin’s city attorney ruled that it was an improper subject for a referendum. Landfill opponents have retained a lawyer.
Battles over garbage are not new. In the past five years, flaps over the Texas Disposal Systems landfill near Creedmoor and the Tessman Road landfill in San Antonio have been big news. Like these areas, Houston (which generates enough trash every eighteen months to fill the Astrodome) has seen its disposal costs double in less than a decade. That’s why Alvin’s 144-acre landfill—which has been sitting idle since 1993, when federal regulations made it too costly for the city to dump there—is such a coveted asset.
Unfortunately for Alvin, there are other bidders with plenty of space. Houston’s Browning-Ferris Industries and Illinois’ WMX Technologies, the garbage industry’s biggest players, operate landfills around Harris County—and unlike Alvin, they don’t have to share their negotiations with the public.
“If we put all our financial information on the table, we’d lose our competitive edge,” insists Alvin city manager Marvin Norwood, who notes that taxpayers have already paid for the landfill, so using it makes economic sense. “It was a landfill, it is a landfill, and it will be a landfill,” he says. But opponents aren’t conceding. “The city council did not feel like they had to involve citizens in this decision at all,” says Mitchell Macha, an anti-dump activist who lost the Alvin mayor’s race to pro-dump candidate Joe Rossano last month. Macha points out that two nearby towns, Manvel and Iowa Colony, have passed resolutions opposing Alvin’s plans.
Of course, Manvel’s waste goes to a landfill just east of Alvin, Iowa Colony’s trash gets buried near Arcola, and the bulk of Alvin’s garbage is dumped near La Marque—all of which proves the old adage that everybody wants their trash picked up but no one wants it put down.