This is real estate broker Mavis Kelsey, Jr. Ten years ago he persuaded some local luminaries to go in on the purchase of a choice piece of property south of Houston. Then the group discovered that Browning-Ferris wanted to put a six-hundred-acre dump next door.
This is real estate broker Mavis Kelsey, Jr. Ten years ago he persuaded some local luminaries to go in on the purchase of a choice piece of property south of Houston. Then the group discovered that Browning-Ferris wanted to put a six-hundred-acre dump next door.

Photography by Michael von Helms

Mavis Kelsey, Jr., in his golden BMW churned up a pale tunnel of dust along the emptiness of Smith-Miller Road. From here you could contemplate the Houston skyline floating hazily eight miles to the north; nearby was the point where the counties of Fort Bend, Harris and Brazoria collide. Kelsey had made the trip out here from his Galleria-area office countless times over the past three years, and on this particular gray morning last February he was giving a reporter the grand tour. Kelsey could drive this scrubby stretch of coastal prairie blindfolded. Ahead lay the 600 acres he owned in partnership with various other investors. On his right, due north, was the big 1500-acre tract that the family of his friend Carrington Weems had inherited from Carrington’s father, one of the earliest partners of the powerful downtown Houston law firm of Vinson and Elkins. And directly west was the place where Browning-Ferris Industries (BFI), the waste collection and disposal Goliath headquartered in Houston, wanted to put a massive sanitary landfill—which translates impolitely to “high-tech garbage dump.” BFI’s application to construct the landfill was pending, a state health department hearing on the matter was only a few weeks off, and just thinking about it made Kelsey’s choirboy face even pinker than usual under its forelock of baby-fine blond hair. This land was supposed to be his nest egg, dammit, and it looked like it might end up next door to mountains of dirt-covered garbage—three man-made mesas that eventually could loom fifty feet over the pancake-flat plain.

Kelsey is a real estate broker by trade. Back in 1974, at the peak of Houston’s giddy land syndication boom, he gathered a group of investors to purchase the Fort Bend County tract. Everybody was forming investment partnerships in those days; they schooled like mullet around the perimeter of the city, gobbling up property and reselling it quickly at a profit, Kelsey’s solid River Oaks connections enabled him to put together a blue-chip bunch. There was his father, Dr. Mavis Kelsey, Sr., founder of one of Houston’s major health-care facilities, the Kelsey-Seybold Clinic. There was oilman Ted Law, a Wiess in-law; Reed Morian, married to one of Hugh Roy Cullen’s granddaughters; Denny Kempner, a member of one of Galveston’s first families and an heir to the Imperial Sugar fortune. Lee Hudson of the Blaffer clan signed on for a piece of the action, as did Mavis’ father-in-law, railroad commissioner Mack Wallace. Even Princess Titi Blaffer von Furstenberg was in on the deal. All told, it was a list to inspire envy in the heart of any aspiring Houston hostess, not to mention a fledgling dealmaker.

But the timing was off. By 1975 the market was overpriced, and Kelsey’s group couldn’t sell its land for enough to make the deal worthwhile. So the investors hung on to the acreage and hoped. And now, just as the land market in this far southwestern quadrant was finally starting to go crazy—just as subdivisions were beginning to sprout thicker than Johnson grass out here—Browning-Ferris goes and picks this area for a sanitary landfill. What developer shopping for new subdivision sites would consider a six-hundred-acre dump a suitable neighbor? Kelsey figured he had the answer to that one: no developer in his right mind.

All of that made Kelsey an unhappy man as he piloted his sedan past BFI’s proposed site on a dispirited, light-industrial stretch of Almeda Road. Just beyond the site’s northern edge, along FM 2234, the city of Houston officially peters out in a modest, racially mixed subdivision called Ridgemont, and truth to tell, the residents of that fair burg weren’t exactly jumping for joy over BFI’s plans either. Nor were the citizens in nearby Missouri City, a rapidly growing bedroom community for Houston. In their view, they were being stuck with Houston’s garbage. To present their case at the health department hearing, local civic groups and the governments of Missouri City and Fort Bend County had scraped together money to hire lawyers and expert witnesses. Mavis Kelsey and his fellow landowner Carrington Weems had hired their own lawyers to oppose BFI, shelled out thousands of dollars of their own money, in fact. Not that they or the suburban groups could hope to match BFI’s resources. For BFI is the nation’s largest solid waste disposal firm, and for more than a decade the company has been the dominant force in Houston’s garbage market.

How dominant? Well, up until a year ago, BFI owned and operated the sole landfill used by Houston, and the company collects more than twice as much Houston garbage as the city’s department of solid waste management does. BFI has worked hard to develop political stroke by contributing to political campaigns and by maintaining a strong lobbying presence at city hall and in Austin. Its lawyers are from the influential, politically wired Houston firm of Fulbright and Jaworski. It is a highly profitable, highly aggressive firm, and it can afford the best expert witnesses—geologists, hydrologists, engineers—that money can buy. To be blunt, BFI is one formidable adversary.

And as if that weren’t enough, Kelsey, Weems, Missouri City, et al. had another adversary to worry about: the unspeakably oil-rich Cullens. They owned the site on which the landfill would be built. The family’s holdings in eastern Fort Bend County dated from the late twenties, when wildcatter Hugh Roy Cullen struck oil near the Blue Ridge Salt Dome, a field that experts had written off as dry. In 1981 Hugh Roy’s grandson Corbin Robertson, Jr., the former UT football star, persuaded his normally disputatious relatives to sell BFI an option on 842 acres for the landfill. As deals go, it was hardly spectacular (at $7250 an acre, the price was surprisingly low). But at least it was a deal. In the folklore of Houston financial circles, getting the Cullen heirs to agree on anything was a triumph in itself—never mind the precise margin of profit.

By the time the option came up for renewal in 1983, though, the Cullen camp had snapped to the potential of the relationship with BFI. The family members sharpened the deal by reducing the acreage, jacking up the price, and, most important, cutting themselves in on the future landfill’s gate receipts. For the life of the Fort Bend landfill, estimated at eighteen years, the Cullens now stand to clear 5 per cent of whatever fee the incoming garbage trucks must pay to deposit their loads of rubbish. Thus, we find some of the richest people in America (four of the Cullen heirs are said to have fortunes in excess of $100 million) lining up to become, well, dump lords.

THE $6 MILLION PERMIT

What is it about garbage that throws so many into such a dither? Big bucks, serious environmental questions, urban-suburban power struggles, the growing NIMBY (as in “not in my back yard”) movement, rumblings of political chicanery—little things like that. Take the money angle. The waste collection and disposal business is a proven gold mine. Browning-Ferris grew from a one-truck venture in 1967 to a huge publicly held international corporation well on its way to billion-dollar-a-year revenues ($843 million last year), with the kind of healthy investment returns that endear it to Wall Street analysts. The company makes most of its money from hauling wastes, but its landfills are also vital to its corporate strategy. By dumping garbage in its own landfills, BFI avoids paying disposal fees to other companies, thus keeping costs down. BFI has made it clear that it has no intention of changing strategies, regardless of what the landfill opponents say.

Indeed, the growing anti-landfill sentiment has had the odd effect of enhancing BFI’s strategy. As the process of locating landfills has become increasingly controversial, lengthy, and expensive, the value of an approved permit application has risen too. Permit hearings were once wham-bam half-day affairs. Today they are full-blown, trial-like proceedings that can drone on for a month, not counting the inevitable continuances and months of subsequent health department review. It can cost a company $500,000 to $750,000 to obtain a permit, but it’s worth it. A landfill expert at the Texas attorney general’s office calculated that a landfill permit—that’s the permit alone—is worth about $6 million on today’s market. That’s some mighty attractive economics, even before the gate receipts start rolling in. Then figure in millions of dollars more annually in gate fees for up to twenty years. Profit potential like that guarantees that landfill permits will be pursued with particular vigor.

The possibility that landfills could damage the environment and the public health adds more zeal to the debate. The reassurances of industry notwithstanding, land- fills are not entirely safe. They are certainly safer than the unregulated open dumps of yore, some of which burned for years until federal legislation put a stop to that sort of thing. Nowadays those bad old dumps have been replaced with sanitary landfills—the industry’s preferred terminology—which are engineered to protect the groundwater and the air with clay liners, holding ponds to collect runoff (known as leachate), and regularly applied layers of dirt. But the risk of contaminating the water supply remains, “With time, landfills will leak,” admits an official of the state health department’s solid waste management bureau, who refuses to go on record with his bad news. “The best-designed and best-operated landfill has problems when it rains,” says that bureau’s chief, Jack Carmichael. That spells trouble for Houston, which has lots of rain, a high water table, and legendarily poor drainage.

And there’s another hazard: faulting. Strangers to coastal geography might scoff at the notion, but the Houston area is riddled with at least three hundred known faults, and salt domes (such as the Blue Ridge, just west of BFI’s proposed site) are especially fault-prone. Houston’s faults aren’t the kind that cause earthquakes, but they do slip and slide; if a fault under a landfill started moving, it could offer leachate a straight shot down to the water supply.

None of that would be critical if your garden-variety landfill, what the health department calls type 1, contained only innocuous residential refuse: coffee grounds, old newspapers, worn-out panty hose. In fact, though, some very nasty, toxic stuff makes its way into a type 1. Everything under your kitchen sink, for starters. Also dead animals. Paint. Car batteries. Disposable diapers. Some medical wastes. Municipal sewage sludge. By law, a type 1 landfill must be designed to receive up to 2 per cent of its total volume in the form of so-called nonacute hazardous wastes. But the controls over what actually enters a type 1 landfill are far from foolproof. As an experiment, biochemist (and Ridgemont resident) Pat Weige, an opponent of BFI’s Fort Bend application, loaded her Toyota pickup with plastic trash bags and drove it into BFI’s McCarty Drive landfill. Weige has testified under oath that nobody bothered to check her load or ask her any questions. “All the gate attendant said was, ‘Six dollars and twenty cents, please,’” says Weige. “I could have picked up anything from anyplace and brought it in there. All they were interested in was backing you in and getting you out.”

Also adding heat to the atmosphere surrounding landfill politics is NIMBY-ism, a national phenomenon that is flourishing quite nicely here in Texas. The rise of NIMBYism has had some salutary effects (notably, increased public awareness of environmental risks); temperate public dialogue, however, is not among them. Browning-Ferris likes to depict its landfills as odorless, pest-free, berm-encircled, landscaped miracles of modern engineering and itself as a model of corporate responsibility—perfectly acceptable neighbors, in short. NIMBYs, on the other hand, portray landfills as noxious, foul-smelling heaps plagued by bugs and rodents, beset by swarms of dump trucks, surrounded with litter illegally dumped by people who can’t or won’t pay the gate fees. And on the subject of corporate citizenship, NIMBYs are full of ringing denunciations. When in 1981 superlawyer Joe “King of Torts” Jamail slapped $150 million worth of federal lawsuits on BFI, accusing it of a complicated bribery scheme to stop a competing landfill permit, the NIMBYs were quick to add their own j’accuse. In the wake of the subsequent juicy revelations (more about them later) which involved such notables as State Senator Jack Ogg and health department honcho Jack Carmichael and caught the interest of a federal grand jury, the NIMBYs could only pat themselves on the back smugly, saying to each other: See—we knew it all along.

The final ingredient in the simmering stew of landfill politics is the emerging power struggle between Texas cities and their suburbs. Forget about the state’s widening urban-rural split; the urban-suburban clash is the one to watch. Ambulance service, school funding formulas, annexation, water rights, and miscellaneous jurisdictional disputes have already sparked hostilities, and it’s a safe bet that outlying governments won’t throw down the welcome mat for big-city garbage.

The battle of Fort Bend is neither the first big landfill fight in Texas nor the last, for the inescapable truth is this: Texas is producing more garbage than it has convenient places to dump it. As the first generation of landfills regulated by the state fills up, Texas cities are pretty much guaranteed a garbage crunch by the end of the decade. Political considerations, however, are making new landfills ever more difficult to come by. The importance of the Fort Bend fight lies not so much in its particulars as in what it means for the future of solid waste disposal in the state. The issues facing Houston and the Fort Bend suburbs are the same issues that other Texas cities and their suburbs may soon face. Lo, these many months later, the controversy at hand is still not settled; the health department, which is the final judge and jury, took five months to transcribe all the proceedings. But beware. The way the Fort Bend landfill fight plays out may be the way the landfill fight plays out in your own back yard.

These are the leaders of the Tri-County Civ¬ic Association. When they first organized to fight the dump, they had no idea they would end up in league with such Houston blue bloods as the Kelseys, the Kempners, and the Blaffers.
These are the leaders of the Tri-County Civic Association. When they first organized to fight the dump, they had no idea they would end up in league with such Houston blue bloods as the Kelseys, the Kempners, and the Blaffers.

THE RANCHER SMELLS A RAT

John Cheney’s cows, as much as anything, were responsible for mobilizing the suburban populace against BFI’s Fort Bend landfill plans. Cheney runs cattle on leased land north of the hamlet of Fresno, right off Almeda Road. One summer morning in 1981, he was out driving around looking for additional land to lease for his herd when he came upon a crew sinking a drill on some likely pasture. “Drilling for oil?” Cheney inquired idly. “No, we’re drilling for a landfill,” a crew member responded. BFI was taking its first core samples for soil and fault studies.

The discovery nagged at Cheney. He felt he ought to tell somebody, but whom? Finally he went by Nora Oliver’s real estate office on South Post Oak, a few miles north of the site. She was a good choice; Oliver had been involved in a landfill fight before, and she was a key figure in the growing anti-landfill movement. Oliver started calling people like biochemist Pat Weige. Over the next few months they relied on pyramid-style phone and mailing lists to organize the surrounding subdivisions. They settled on a name—“Tri-County Civic Association,” in honor of the nearby conjunction of Harris, Fort Bend, and Brazoria counties—and did much of the work out of their kitchens and car trunks.

What Cheney had given the Tri-Countians was a year’s head start on organizing. They didn’t have to wait for word to arrive through official channels after preliminary tests were completed. They had ample time to raise money and seek out their own attorneys and expert witnesses; they also had time to rally local officials and state politicians to the cause. The prospect of a dump three miles east distressed Missouri City’s officials enough that they coughed up about $60,000—out of an annual operating budget of only $5 million—toward their own legal representation and witness costs.

BFI’s plans seemed to threaten the area’s very sense of itself. In the bedroom communities in the Tri-County sphere, residential growth was the central thing, the only thing. Missouri City, once a whistle- stop, now could claim 33,000 residents, with 65,000 more on the way over the next fifteen years. Last spring, when a Dun and Bradstreet report named Fort Bend County the second-fastest-growing area in the entire country, the report was received almost as a benediction.

The area’s identity is tied so closely to growth because there is precious little else to tie it to. Missouri City is a curiously unfocused place, with no visible core, not even so much as a signature intersection. The organizing principles of the traditional Texas town do not even begin to apply. “When you see the Shell station, you’ve found Missouri City,” counsels planning director Wayne Neumann, only half in jest. Other than a couple of unprepossessing buildings that pass for city hall and some strip shopping centers a few miles away, the chief feature of this diffuse landscape is acres of densepack subdivision roofs. If you had to pick a center, a soul, it would be the Quail Valley Country Club golf course. Three quarters of the street names seem to be variations on the word “quail.” Once a despairing Wayne Neumann pleaded with his planning commission to do something—anything!—to stop the proliferation of quail names.

Until the landfill flap came along, the quail quarrel had been the area’s worst identity crisis. Missouri City’s efforts at regulation and control, such a contrast to the zoneless gumbo of Houston, were of no use in the new situation. Technically the landfill would be located in Houston’s extraterritorial jurisdiction, a five-mile-wide buffer zone that the city could eventually choose to annex. But everyone knew with depressing certainty that the landfill would be forever associated in the public mind with Missouri City. Stuck with a meager residential tax base, the town fathers had fervently hoped to lure new industry to their community. They were afraid, not without reason, that a landfill would be bad for business.

THE ACCIDENTAL ENVIRONMENTALIST

Mavis Kelsey, meanwhile, learned of BFI’s plans not from the Tri-Countians or the antidump network but from his own network within the Houston establishment. One day he got a phone call from Reed Morian, one of his co-investors. Morian was between a rock and a sticky place. If BFI got the Cullen land approved for a landfill, his investment in the adjacent Kelsey group property could be affected; then again, he was the husband of Cullen heiress Beth Robertson and thus had his in-laws’ wishes to consider.

Kelsey, unencumbered by such competing loyalties, immediately sounded the alarm. He called his co-investor Ted Law, who knew Louis Waters, the chairman of BFI’s executive committee. Waters and Law arranged a meeting at BFI’s far west Houston headquarters, a sleek, greenery-filled atrium building with the air of an upscale shopping mall.

The proceedings were cordial. Waters and sundry BFI executives made a presentation to the investors Kelsey, Law, and Mack Wallace. There was talk of landscaping and buffer zones and turning landfills into parks. Everyone piled into a helicopter for a tour of BFI’s northeast Houston landfills—sprawling McCarty and the smaller Whispering Pines. “The guys from BFI were all very nice and charming and preppy,” remembers Kelsey. “And from up in the air like that, the landfills didn’t look bad.” The BFI brass assured the investors that landfills actually improved surrounding land values.

Kelsey was skeptical. He made a series of solo scouting trips to the McCarty Road dump, cutting an improbable figure in his burnished BMW. He discovered that BFI’s version of landscaping was a pitiful clump of bushes planted to form the initials “BFI” outside McCarty’s main gate. He explored the backside of the site along Ley Road, a post-apocalyptic landscape where bulldozers from Houston’s public works department labored to clear the buffer zone of an epic array of illegally dumped trash, including a preposterous number of derelict sofas. He checked out the commercial eyesores that clustered on roads near the landfill: small mom-and-pop dumps, junkyards, sand pits. He talked to residents whose homes bordered McCarty; they reported that far from being odorless, the dump frequently smelled to high heaven after a rain. None of those observations tallied with the pretty picture painted by BFI execs. Could this be the well-run landfill they were so proud of?

By now Kelsey was worried enough about the dump that he decided he had to do something. What he didn’t understand—yet—was that he was in a new context, one in which the rules he had always played by, the rules of the old Houston, didn’t apply. Take the time-honored tactic of personal appeals from one gentleman to another, for instance. Kelsey at first focused his energies on heading off BFI’s option renewal with the Cullens. He fired off maps and memos to Reed Morian; he pleaded with Corbin Robertson, Jr., not to sell to BFI, “Corby said to me, ‘Bring me a better offer and I won’t do the deal,’” says Kelsey. He took Peter Lacques, president of the Houston division of Homecraft Land Development, out to look at the Cullen property, but nothing came of it. While looking over the tract and Kelsey’s adjacent land, Lacques did offer one chilling comment that confirmed Kelsey’s worst fears: “I’d buy your land tomorrow at twelve thousand dollars an acre if you didn’t have this dump going in. But if it does go in, I wouldn’t take your land if you gave it to me.”

Meanwhile, Kelsey’s fellow landowner Carrington Weems worked the Cullens from another angle. Weems and Cullen heir Isaac Arnold, Jr., had been friendly socially for years. But to Weems’ surprise and disappointment, his direct entreaty—a dump would harm the Weems family’s assets, he explained to Arnold over the phone—met with an unfavorable response.

Kelsey took a shot at lobbying the Hermann Hospital Estate board, since the estate was the biggest landowner in the area and might be expected to take an interest in anything that could affect its holdings. Trouble was, the Cullens were major benefactors of the hospital. Corbin Robertson, Sr., sat as chairman of the Hermann Hospital Estate’s board. “A favorite expression is that we all want our garbage picked up, but no one wants it put down,” one board member wrote Kelsey. “Handled area-wise by a pro, [the landfill] should be an asset to our Fort Bend property.”

The old network had let Kelsey down. So he tapped into a new network that of the Tri-Countians and the suburban governments that were fighting the landfill. Kelsey and Weems started writing letters, making phone calls, attending meetings, and reading everything they could get their hands on—behaving, if you will, like de facto environmentalists. It was strange territory for a couple of Houston blue bloods more at home with the traditional conservationist attitude of monied Texas outdoorsmen. In the world of old Houston money, one’s stewardship of the land was expressed with a membership in Ducks Unlimited or perhaps the Gulf Coast Conservation Association. Now here was Kelsey, far from the duck paintings of his office, swapping facts and rumors with folks he might once have discounted as crazies in tennis shoes, consorting with the Toxic Substances Task Force, plotting with community activists whose houses in some cases cost less than his car. Kelsey and Weems retained their own lawyer rather than joining legal forces with the Tri-County people, but the two landowners took it upon themselves to interview potential expert witnesses, including geologists and land-use specialists, for the civic association as well.

BFI decided it wanted Kelsey off its case. No less a personage than BFI vice chairman Norman Myers called, offering Kelsey two hundred excess acres of the landfill site if he’d quit opposing the dump. Kelsey declined. He felt that the potential losses in his property’s value would outweigh any gains, and besides, by now there was plenty of bad blood between him and BFI.

It went back to when Kelsey had first phoned BFI marketing executive Jim Meszaros to ask if the company was trying to buy the Cullen land. According to Kelsey, Meszaros inquired, “Would you sell your land for a landfill?” Kelsey retorted, “Are you making me an offer?” Meszaros answered no.

Meszaros remembers that conversation differently. Later he said that Kelsey had tried to sell to BFI. Kelsey was furious over what he saw as an attempt to taint him as an opponent. Still, he says now, “I have to admit I would have been interested if Meszaros had offered me a good price.” Kelsey the broker could be tempted by the right deal; the pragmatist in him said his first obligation was to his investors. But Kelsey the environmentalist‑by-accident began to realize that he had gone beyond the point where he could have it both ways. Given the chance, would he sell his acreage for a landfill tomorrow? “I guess not,” Kelsey sighs. “I’d have to move to Australia. I couldn’t hold my head up in the state of Texas.”

THE ONLY DUMP IN TOWN

BFI, the Tri-County suburbanites, and landowners like Kelsey and Weems were all very clear about where they stood on The Fort Bend landfill application. But the City of Houston—aside from BFI, the entity with the most to gain if the permit is approved—was feeling rather more ambivalent about the whole business. On the one hand, the city had an undeniable need for a new landfill. On the other hand, the nature of political animals is that they don’t like to get anybody mad at them, especially voters. In the past, Houston’s officialdom had been quick to bury its collective head in the sand and wish the problems away. The tone was set in 1970 when, faced with vociferous protests from residents near two city-owned landfills, the council simply voted to close the dumps down. It didn’t bother to make any provisions for the city’s garbage, preferring to trust instead to the private sector and the gods. Then in 1978 BFI applied to expand one of the landfills, on Holmes Road, near the Astrodome. The council swiftly passed a resolution in opposition, an action that held some sway with the state health department, which subsequently denied BFI’s request. Again, in the early eighties the residents near the new Whispering Pines landfill decided that they did not appreciate living next to a dump, and they began to protest. Once more the council solved the problem—in a manner of speaking—by resolving that no city garbage could be dumped there.

If the past was prologue for Fort Bend, the antidump forces had a chance to persuade the council to side with them, which again might have an effect on the health department. But the suburbanites had a greater cause for hope. There was no love lost between the city and BFI. The City of Houston is BFI’s largest single client (this year the solid waste department will spend $2 million to dump residential garbage at the McCarty landfill). When the city’s contract with BFI was renewed in 1981, negotiations went badly, and the episode still rankles the administration of Mayor Kathy Whitmire. “BFI had the city over a barrel and refused to budge,” says one city official. “They knew they were the only dump in town.” The sliding scale the company proposed would penalize the city if Houston turned to alternate means of disposal—competing landfills that might open in the future, for instance, or one of the newfangled resource-recovery technologies. The city balked. BFI basically said, “Fine, take your garbage elsewhere.” Eventually the city had to knuckle under.

BFI helped the city clean up after Hurricane Alicia, but even that couldn’t salve the city’s sense of having been screwed at the bargaining table. As a result, the city would love to take its garbage business elsewhere. The administration was overjoyed when Waste Management. Inc., opened up the competing Atascocita landfill last year. And the feisty new head of Whitmire’s solid waste department, Charles H. Ware, wants the city to get into the landfill business itself. In a September bond election, voters approved funds to acquire a monster thousand-acre site and to pay for the landfill design and the permit process.

But for the time being, the city and BFI are locked in an unhappy marriage, the kind in which the parties stay together for the kids’ sake. The city still needs a landfill with the big capacity of McCarty’s. That need will not disappear when McCarty fills up in two or three or five years (the varying estimates of McCarty’s remaining useful life). And besides, a Fort Bend landfill won’t cause the mayor and the council undue political grief cither. A goodly number of its opponents—people living, for example, in Missouri City—aren’t Houston voters. So when the landfill opponents protested at Houston’s city hall in June 1983, the council could afford to waffle, which was exactly what it did.

It was a scene from a comic opera. The suburbanites piled out of their school buses—clutching their little paper garbage sacks and wearing their “Stop the Dump” buttons—and walked right into a near riot. Houston cops had chosen that same day to protest benefit cuts. The council chambers were jammed; the cops were loud and angry. The mayor was so shaken she nearly called the session to a halt. It was not what you’d call a great day in court. In the end, the council boldly decided to take no position on the landfill. The mayor’s public pronouncements on the matter have since been carefully ambiguous. Yes, the site looks awfully close to the Houston subdivision of Ridgemont, Whitmire agrees. But then, the garbage has to go somewhere, doesn’t it?

This is Mike Lawlor, vice president of Browning-Ferris Industries, standing at the entrance to BFI’s model landfill on McCarty Drive. BFI argues that landfills increase the surrounding property values and make good neighbors.
This is Mike Lawlor, vice president of Browning-Ferris Industries, standing at the entrance to BFI’s model landfill on McCarty Drive. BFI argues that landfills increase the surrounding property values and make good neighbors.

SECRET AGENTS, SLUSH FUNDS, AND A $4.50 BOTTLE OF WINE

Poised uneasily among all the warring interests is the Texas Health Department. Simply put, the department’s solid waste management bureau is charged with acting solely in the interests of the public health. That’s dicier than it sounds. In the process of issuing permits and seeing that landfills remain in compliance with state regulations, the bureau’s staff must balance the wildly divergent claims from implacably hostile parties. During public hearings on a permit, three solid waste staffers sit up front alongside the hearing examiner (a health department lawyer), where they listen to testimony and ask questions; back in Austin they review the transcripts and prepare a brief for bureau chief Jack Carmichael to present to the hearing examiner. The examiner then considers their proposal along with briefs submitted by the other parties and issues his proposal. Everyone then has a chance to comment before the final judgment. Nominally, health commissioner Robert Bernstein makes the decision to grant or deny a landfill permit, but historically, Carmichael has had an influential voice; only rarely has Bernstein chosen not to follow Carmichael’s recommendation.

Carmichael, a brisk fellow with close-cropped steel-gray hair and metal-frame glasses, occasionally slides into the rueful irony of a man caught in a crossfire. “When someone calls us and says, ‘I’m interested in that dump,’ I know he’s against it,” he explains. “When they say, ‘I’m interested in that sanitary landfill,’ I know they’re the applicant.”

Carmichael is careful to emphasize his support for new technologies, such as resource recovery, as better solutions to waste disposal problems than more landfills. Last legislative session, his department worked to pass the Comprehensive Municipal Solid Waste Management, Resource Recovery and Conservation Act, a measure opposed by the waste-hauling industry, including BFI. “We try to discourage landfilling,” protests Carmichael, “but it’s still the cheapest way in Texas. We can’t fight the economy.”

Such sentiments have not been enough to convince landfill opponents that the health department is as neutral as it claims to be. Warranted or not, there is a clear perception among landfill opponents that the department is more closely allied with the waste disposal industry than with the public, specifically those members of the public who want to keep a dump out of their neighborhood.

That, I suppose, is just political life in these United States, where government agencies are presumed to be so many foxes guarding the chicken coop. But in this instance, the landfill opponents could point to something a good deal more tangible than knee-jerk antigovernment sentiment. They could point to Joe Jamail’s lawsuit, a very messy, very complicated $50 million federal antitrust lawsuit that was running its course at the same time the Fort Bend fight was gearing up and that was filled with unseemly allegations about BFI and the health department.

Chief among those allegations was that Carmichael and BFI had conspired, along with veteran State Senator Jack Ogg, to block an application for a landfill in Katy, west of Houston, filed by a company named Conservation Management, Inc. (CM1). Specifically, Ogg was accused of taking money from BFI to improperly influence Carmichael’s recommendation on the permit. Soon Jamail filed a second suit, this one for $150 million, accusing Ogg, Carmichael, BFI, and BFI executive vice president Norman Myers of a bribery scheme. Since Jamail was a man with an acknowledged flair for dramatics, the pleadings were full of dire talk about secret agents, slush funds, and improper gifts. Ogg, who by that time was seeking the Democratic nomination for Texas attorney general, hastened down to the district courthouse and slapped Jamail with a $20 million slander suit. Connoisseurs recognized a classic Houston pissing match in the making: in one corner was Jack Ogg, a supremely political animal who had devoted a sixteen-year legislative career to learning where all the levers were; in the other, the loudly contentious Joe Jamail, a courtroom master who specialized in winning big judgments and making life miserable for his legal targets. But in the minds of the antilandfillers, it was something else too: it was confirmation of their darkest suspicions about BFI.

The stage for this ugliest of landfill squabbles was set back in the summer of 1979, when CMI was anxiously awaiting word on its Katy landfill application—which, if it had been approved by the health department, would have broken BFI’s monopoly in the Houston market. The thirteen-day hearing that ended August 14 was the longest in landfill history to date and was marked by the usual technical controversies about the safety of the site. Yet a close observer might have discerned glimmers of trouble to come. The proceedings were clouded by private speculation about BFI’s behind- the-scenes machinations. CMI officials complained that Browning-Ferris was silently funneling money to the Katy land-owners fighting the dump. They made much of the Pennington connection: Fulbright and Jaworski partner Oliver Pennington, who often represented BFI, was representing the Katy landowners. BFI dismissed the talk as unfounded rumor. BFI was lying.

After the hearing lack Carmichael returned to Austin, where he ordered another fault study to be made on the site. On October 2 he recommended that the health department deny CMI’s permit. In December the new fault study suggested possible problems at the site. The hearing was reopened briefly in early February 1980 to consider the new evidence. In April Carmichael again recommended denial, and on July 5 Commissioner Bernstein told CMI it was no go.

Almost one year later to the day, Jamail dropped his bombshell. Sworn testimony taken in connection with Jamail’s two suits revealed a troubling subtext to the whole CMI affair. For one thing, BFI had indeed bankrolled opposition to the competing landfill. It was all Fulbright and Jaworski’s idea, BFI executive vice president Norman Myers insisted in a deposition. But let’s let Myers’ lawyer tell it the way he told it to a federal jury last spring. “My client was sitting in his office minding his own business when the telephone rang. It was Bill Parse, a partner in the firm of Fulbright and Jaworski.” Parse and Pennington were preparing for the CMI hearing, but the expense of opposing the permit was mounting. Would BFI have any interest in helping the landowners out? Myers wanted to know if BFI could do it without creating problems for itself under the antitrust law. Fulbright researched the question and sent BFI a memo saying that funding the CMI opponents was legal.

Court documents show that a trust account named after one of the Katy landowners, the Nelson family, was established at Fulbright to handle opposition expenses—the “slush fund” Jamail was later to inveigh against. BFI contributed to the account, and Oliver Pennington used the money to hire expert witnesses.

Then, as the CMI hearing drew to a close, Myers got another phone call. And again Myers’ lawyer was at pains to depict the executive as a victim of circumstance. “My client was sitting in his office minding his own business and the telephone rings,” the lawyer told the jury. “It’s Jack Ogg. He expresses knowledge of what was going on at the CMI hearing and in essence tells Myers, ‘I think I can be of help to you.’” It had never occurred to him to hire another lawyer, Myers testified in a deposition. Myers said he called Pennington, who advised that yes, Ogg could be of help; perhaps Ogg could talk to Mr. Carmichael. Ogg was hired by BFI for $25,000. At about the same time, some of the landowners fighting the CMI permit hired Ogg for another $25,000, all or part of which was paid by BFI.

Ogg, as it turned out, was no stranger to either the landfill business or BFI. He and two law partners had once owned 20 per cent of the Whispering Pines landfill, which they sold in 1978 to BFI. The company guaranteed Ogg a minimum of $539,460. To reach that sum, Ogg gets 6.6 per cent of the Whispering Pines gate receipts for twenty years or 4 per cent of the total gate receipts from all BFI landfills within ten miles of Harris County for twenty years, whichever is greater. Those terms give Ogg compelling reason to want to squelch any competitive threat to BFI.

When the suits came to trial last spring, Ogg contended that his $50,000 in fees was perfectly legitimate. He had been hired, he testified in a deposition, to work on any appeal CMI might file if the company didn’t get its permit. Since there was no appeal, his legal services were not used, Ogg said.

However, that was not to say that Ogg did nothing regarding the CMI application. What he did was start talking to Jack Carmichael. In late spring 1979, before the hearing started, Carmichael received a phone call from Ogg. A Carmichael affidavit shows that Ogg spoke against CMI’s application, told Carmichael that he had constituents who opposed it, and claimed not to be representing anyone in the matter. Then on August 17, three days after the hearing ended, Ogg took Carmichael to lunch at the Common Market, a casual spot near the Capitol. The two discussed the status of CMI’s application. Carmichael remembers that numerous people approached their table to pay respects to the senator. The Monday after his lunch with Ogg, Carmichael ordered the new fault study of CMI’s site—a simple coincidence, he said later. In mid-September Ogg asked Carmichael to come to his Senate office. Again he asked about the status of CMI’s application. Carmichael said he couldn’t discuss it. At no time did Ogg disclose that he was an attorney for BFI or that he received royalties from Whispering Pines, Carmichael testified. At Christmas that year, Ogg sent a $4.50 bottle of Moselle wine to Carmichael at his office.

Just days after the second round of CMI hearings in February 1980, Ogg called Carmichael to ask when his decision was due. He then asked Carmichael whether he would be in Houston any time soon, according to Carmichael’s affidavit. As a matter of fact, Carmichael told Ogg, he and his wife would be in town next week for a Gulf Coast Waste Authority do, and they were hoping to see The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas if they could get tickets. Why, Ogg just happened to know the owner of the theater, he told Carmichael. Ogg would see if he could get four. “But I only need two,” Carmichael remembers protesting. Ogg said he would ask his wife, Connie, if she wanted to see the musical again. A day or so later Ogg called back to say he had the four tickets. “We’re the unofficial chamber of commerce,” he told Carmichael.

When the allegations in Jamail’s suit broke, Carmichael at first denied to the press that Ogg had contacted him about the CMI permit. Later, both men steadfastly maintained that their contacts had been no big deal. Carmichael said he had recommended denial of CMI’s permit on technical grounds alone—that faulting at the site would pose too great a risk to the water supply.

After six days, the trial ended in a surprise settlement, with the terms under seal. The settlement came just as BFI’s Fort Bend application was scheduled to be heard by the health department. A week later BFI announced that the settlement would mean an earnings loss of 6 cents per share for the first quarter. The Wall Street Journal, after consulting with financial analysts familiar with the waste disposal industry, estimated that BFI had had to fork over about $6 million. Jamail, never the shrinking violet, can’t resist hinting at the size of his win. “It’s many millions,” he says. Pregnant pause. “Many millions.”

LORD OF THE LANDFILLS

What that episode says about Jack Ogg is that he engaged in some unwholesome, highly questionable behavior. What it says about Jack Carmichael is that at the very least he acted incredibly dumb. If there’s one thing a savvy Austin bureaucrat ought to know, it’s that you must be cautious when approached by lawyer-legislators, because you never know whose hat they’re wearing. It is puzzling that a guy like Carmichael—a twenty-year man who had been around the block a time or two—didn’t flee Ogg’s come-on. (For his part, Carmichael refuses to talk about it, referring all questions to the court record.)

What the affair says about BFI is more difficult to address. At the very least the company committed a major tactical and public relations blunder. In all its pro-landfill propaganda, BFI takes pains to present itself as a model corporate citizen. Yet here was that same company engaging in sneaky behavior on a matter of broad public concern. Whether CMI’s site was a proper one for a landfill isn’t really the point. The point is that the public has a right to know who all the parties to the dispute are, the better to judge who’s grinding what ax. A reading of the documents in the case indicates that Myers knew the company would look bad if people found out BFI was secretly bankrolling the Katy landowners. And his repeated references to the possible antitrust implications show he felt there might be some shaky ethical ground ahead.

That BFI went ahead with the bankrolling anyway—advice of counsel or no—is especially peculiar in light of the company’s almost Nixonian sense of being grievously misjudged by the public. One company theme is that the public doesn’t understand what a thankless service BFI performs. Does the company get bad press? Well, reporters just like to beat up on the trash company. Have smaller competitors like CMI instigated a rash of antitrust suits against BFI? They’re just envious of the company’s phenomenal success. Is the government investigating BFI’s business dealings in several cities? Chalk it up to the price of doing business in a highly competitive field. A company that portrays itself as so unjustly maligned on so many fronts might be expected to be protective of its reputation. But that was hardly the case with the CMI episode.

BFI’s corporate history offers some insights into the company’s perennially defensive posture. It’s one of those seamless rags-to-riches stories: accountant named Tom Fatjo starts out with single garbage truck in 1967 and turns company into industry behemoth. Back then, Fatjo was living in a subdivision in (irony of ironies) Fort Bend. The neighborhood civic association tapped him to solve the local trash collection problem, jokingly suggesting that he buy a truck and haul the garbage away himself. He did. By 1976 Fatjo had made enough to step down from the chairmanship of BFI and change his image radically. He was born again as an apostle of clean living and free enterprise at the swank physical fitness spa cum think tank that he founded, the Houstonian.

Fatjo had seen the future of solid waste disposal in this country early on. Heretofore the hauling and disposing of garbage had been handled by thousands of small mom-and-pop operations. But by the late sixties tightened government strictures had convinced Fatjo and others that far greater capital investment would be necessary to succeed in the business. So at roughly the same time that nationwide outfits such as Waste Disposal and Rollins Environmental were formed, Fatjo took his infant company public. He raised $500,000, bought into a Dallas farm-equipment manufacturer named Browning-Ferris Machinery, merged his waste company with it, and changed the name to Browning-Ferris Industries. Presto: Fatjo had access to the capital he needed in the stock and bond markets. BFI expanded at a breathless pace, acquiring nearly sixty small garbage companies by 1971 and a hundred by the end of the next year.

The company’s explosive growth created the kind of problems often associated with rapid expansion. Some of the disposal sites it acquired—particularly some chemical-waste sites—had operational problems. The company got its first taste of bad press when the safety of those sites was questioned. In one incident, a Port Arthur subsidiary delivered oil contaminated with toxic nitrobenzene. It was used to control dust on roads in nine East Texas subdivisions. When residents complained of health problems, a U.S. House subcommittee investigated. Although BFI says it reported the problem to the authorities, the upshot was that BFI was sued by the Texas attorney general for violating pollution regulations, and the Texas Department of Water Resources required BFI to remove the contaminated dirt and resurface the roads in five subdivisions.

Over the years a pattern developed in the company’s reaction to criticism. The argument went like this: BFI is a huge corporation with well over a hundred subsidiaries and thousands of employees. The company can’t possibly guarantee that all those employees and subsidiaries will conform to all the relevant government safety and ethical regulations.

That argument is still regularly trotted out when the media bring up such unpleasantries as antitrust lawsuits, federal price-fixing investigations, and suits alleging payoffs to local officials. (In addition to the Houston suit involving Senator Ogg, there is a Pittsburgh suit in which a Browning-Ferris general manager, since fired, is alleged to have bragged about payoffs to local health department officials.) A BFI spokesman described a recent critical Wall Street Journal story as “a string of allegations strung together with two-sentence denials.” Some of the charges, added the spokesman, were “not even current events,” while in other cases, no charges were ever officially brought. What the spokesman failed to mention was that charges don’t necessarily have to be brought for an incident to raise serious questions about an individual’s or a company’s ethical compass. Such questions are especially germane when a company performs a quasi-governmental function, as BFI does, and is so directly involved with the public health. And for that same reason, interest in incidents like the CMI lawsuit is not likely to wane. But seventeen years after its lowly beginnings, BFI still finds the notion difficult to swallow.

TURNING GARBAGE INTO ENERGY AND OTHER GOOD IDEAS

Hector H. Mendieta of the health department looked out over the Missouri City meeting hall upon a small sea of lawyers—four different sets in all. It was February 28. The long-awaited hearing date had arrived. In one corner, representing BFI, sat Fulbright and Jaworski’s Oliver Pennington and a young Austin associate. In the other corner sat a small platoon of lawyers representing the Tri-County group, the governments of Missouri City and Fort Bend County, and Mavis Kelsey and Carrington Weems.

Mendieta was not pleased to be faced with so many attorneys. As his boss, Jack Carmichael, put it, the hearing had turned into the Super Bowl of landfill disputes. Much time could have been saved had the three opposition parties combined their legal representation. But the landowners, residents, and local governments wanted to milk every drop from the hearing; saving time was the last thing on their minds.

The grand totals: about thirty days of testimony, 69 witnesses, 314 exhibits, and thirty volumes of transcripts. Not that you would want to wade through all that verbiage, but if you did, you would find in those transcripts all of the classic landfill arguments—the arguments, pro and con, that are trotted out every year, at every hearing, in every city that has more garbage than it has places to dump it.

The technical part of the hearing, for instance, went according to what has become tribal custom: arguments over the geology and hydrology boiled down to “Whose expert witness do you believe?” Two University of Houston geologists, past collaborators, squared off against each other. One said he would stake his professional reputation that there were no faults crossing the site. The other said the evidence led him to believe that there was a fault crossing the center of the site’s northern boundary and perhaps two more faults. BFI vice president Mike Lawlor said the company had bent over backward on the fault question, conducting more tests than were required. “There is no question there are faults” near salt domes, he said, but he added that BFI was 99.5 per cent sure the site itself was fault-free.

The nontechnical portion of the hearing was more of a free-for-all, if only because land use—the question of whether a landfill is compatible with its surroundings—is not a cut and dried subject and as such is a source for much of the raw emotion that these hearings produce. The basic land use issues were all on display at the Fort Bend hearing: quality of existing development, potential for future growth, and effects of landfills on the areas in which they are located. Take the issue of existing development. The BFI position was that the development in the immediate area of the site was low-quality mixed use and therefore compatible with a landfill. The company pointed to the light industrial facilities scattered along Almeda Road and the mere 50 to 60 houses within a one-mile radius. Low quality, indeed, fumed the Tri-Countians. Barely outside BFI’s arbitrary one-mile zone lay the Ridgemont subdivision with its 1500 homes; within three miles, the prairie was full of subdivisions, each more pastorally named than the last: Ridgegate, Briargate, Quail Run, Quail Glen, Vicksburg, Southdown, Country Place.

And so it went. Each time BFI tried to paint its landfill as good for all concerned, the opponents loudly protested. On the issue of trucks driving through Missouri City, BFI asserted that they wouldn’t have much impact on the city. Planning director Wayne Neumann replied heatedly, “We will be looking at a stream of large, smelly trucks with garbage hanging off of them.” On the subject of how the landfill would affect Missouri City in general, its mayor, John Knox, was even more emphatic: “Who would want to buy a home next to a landfill site?” he asked. “I would not, and I don’t think anyone would. . . . [They are] usually messy, congested, and unsightly. … A landfill just totally destroys the environment of the area.” There were also predictable skirmishes over such issues as whether the landfill would smell and how far the odor would reach, and whether the landfill would attract litter, and if so, who would be responsible for cleaning it up, and on and on. I guess I don’t need to tell you at this point who took what position.

After two months of that, the health department crew packed up the mounds of evidence and the voluminous testimony and headed back to Austin. The transcript wasn’t ready until September 18. Its thirty volumes took up almost two feet of shelf space. In the meantime the rest of us were left pondering the meaning of it all. To me, that meaning is pretty plain: landfill fights have become so polarized, so full of emotion, that both sides see them in only the starkest of terms. Either you build a landfill or you don’t build a landfill. Period. But there must be some middle ground, some other direction we can take, before things get any worse than they already are. During the whole Fort Bend-BFI brouhaha, the one man who seemed most willing to talk about other directions was the Fort Bend county judge, Jodie Stavinoha. He made a lot of sense to me.

For six years Stavinoha has presided over an area in the throes of explosive growth, which has made new ideas an absolute necessity. “Studies go out of date here as fast as you can print them,” shrugs the judge, whose rosy cheeks and crinkly blue eyes give him a twinkle that seems incongruous in a career FBI man. He’s also a profound skeptic with an instinctive distrust of what the experts tell him, and he’s as skeptical about the safety and salutary qualities of landfills as he is about anything else. Stavinoha would like to reduce our dependence on landfills and slow their proliferation. Toward that end, Fort Bend County is exploring one new idea at its own landfill, a baling system that could halve the volume of garbage, thus doubling the landfill’s life. A short-term answer? Yes. A simple and sensible short-term answer? Yes again.

Over the long haul, Stavinoha wants to pursue two courses. The first is to promote regional planning for solid waste problems. Now here the judge has a little NIMBY problem of his own, namely that sometimes his version of regional planning comes out reading, “Don’t put Houston garbage in Fort Bend County.”

Regional planning may be the right idea, but Stavinoha doesn’t take it far enough. Regions are a farce if the suburbs try to exclude their big-city neighbors from their plans. Just as ridiculous is the big-city assumption that regional planning just means dumping garbage on the suburbs. Whitmire admits that Houston will try to put its new thousand-acre landfill in suburban counties, but what is the city prepared to offer those suburbs in return?

Spurred by BFI’s Fort Bend plans, Stavinoha developed the first regional plan submitted to the health department under Texas’ new Comprehensive Solid Waste Management, Resource Recovery and Conservation Act. That plan would have given the county authority to approve or reject landfill applications within its boundaries. But the act has no teeth—the Legislature refused to appropriate any funds to implement it—so the health department told Stavinoha that the county would have no control over the BFI application. Is a regional planning bill with teeth in it too much to ask? Perhaps it is, given the Texas Legislature, but it shouldn’t be, for it seems obvious that the cities and their suburbs won’t stop squabbling about landfills until they are forced to. That’s what laws are for, after all.

Stavinoha’s second course is to emphasize resource recovery as the wave of the future. “Resource recovery” is an umbrella term for various technologies aimed at deriving energy or usable materials (compost, metals, paper, and so on) from solid waste. Some of the waste-to-energy technologies can reduce waste volume by as much as 90 per cent. The advantages are less risk to the environment, better aesthetics (some European plants look as harmless as a modern dairy), and—most important to American cities facing a landfill crunch—less need to rely solely on landfills for disposal. Resource recovery has been a reality in Europe for years, but here industry has portrayed it as economically infeasible, pie-in-the-sky stuff. Stavinoha, however, has his own notion of appropriate economics.

“Here we are burying stuff that could be turned into energy,” he grouses. “You say ‘economically,’ but what are we willing to pay to dispose of waste properly? We’ve got to realize that to get it done in the manner least threatening to the public health we’re going to have to pay more. I’m concerned about safety. Economics is beside the point.” He compares the industry’s foot-dragging on resource recovery to “what would have happened if Ma Bell had just sat on the crank telephone.”

After the judge began making noises about resource recovery (and before he was scheduled to testify at the Fort Bend landfill hearing), some BFI representatives requested an audience. The company was getting involved in resource recovery, they told him soothingly. “But they didn’t give me any real assurance they were looking at anything in this area,” Stavinoha says. “What they do elsewhere is beside the point.”

Currently Stavinoha is negotiating with several private investment groups in an attempt to get a Fort Bend resource recovery plant going. It’s not easy to pick a method. “You can be led down the primrose path by some of these new ideas,” he says. One Florida company proposed to grind up all Fort Bend’s garbage for compost. “You can’t just grind up old refrigerators and everything without some separation,” groans Stavinoha. The judge is not limiting his options to mass burning, in which everything is incinerated willy-nilly to produce steam for electricity; he’s also dickering with some outfits that produce fuel after separating out the noncombustible components of the garbage.

And why can’t the solid waste companies like BFI be expected to go for Stavinoha’s ideas? Well, that’s easy enough to answer. It takes money out of their pockets. At this point in its technological development, resource recovery is considerably more expensive than simply driving garbage out to a site and dumping it. BFI talks a good resource recovery line—chairman Harry Phillips told stockholders at this year’s annual meeting that “the time for resource recovery is now”—but it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that the company’s embrace of resource recovery is tepid at best. A discussion of the topic with executives like Mike Lawlor and PR man Peter Block tends to focus chiefly on the reasons it just isn’t practical now. “The public doesn’t understand the market forces at work,” says Block. “Social desirability doesn’t make the market accept it.” You have to compare the cost of energy you’re already using with the cost of garbage-generated energy, adds Lawlor. It all adds up, though, to this: the status quo suits BFI best.

Such things as regional planning and resource recovery strike me as the right direction to be heading. Texas could get serious about recycling: in Seattle, private firms recycle a full 19 per cent of the city’s garbage, and there’s nothing pie-in-the- sky about that. If there are no mutually agreeable landfill sites left close to Texas cities, then transfer stations like the one that Houston solid waste chief Charles Ware favors—in which garbage from city trucks is loaded onto huge tractor trailers for longer hauls—can help make more-distant landfills feasible. And if the economics of resource recovery don’t work right now, that’s why we have governments that are supposed to be looking out for our best interests. It wasn’t economically feasible to put antipollution devices in sewage treatment plants and scrubbers in smokestacks, until one day there was a law that said such devices would be installed, damn the economics. Yes, the costs of such devices were passed on to the consumer, but surely it was worth it. Maybe these ideas are pie in the sky right now. But there’s no good reason they should be. For if the state wants to break free of the landfill crunch and the loathsome prospect of one garbage fight after another unfolding in Texas city after Texas city, then we had better start giving a lot more serious thought to the alternatives. Otherwise, five years from now the Fort Bend fight will look, in retrospect, like grade-school stuff.

 

On the April night that the Fort Bend landfill hearing ended, members of the Tri-County Civic Association gathered at Nora Oliver’s house for what was billed as a victory party. Suburbanites, their lawyers, and a couple of stray pols grazed upon guacamole and crawfish étouffée; they speculated over gin and tonic about the health department’s eventual decision; they uttered dire polemics against BFI. Every time he heard the word “victory”” Mavis Kelsey winced. “I told them not to call it a victory party,” he muttered, as if afraid of jinxing the outcome.

The Tri-Countians still don’t know if what they celebrated that night was a victory—if indeed there can be said to be any true victories in landfill politics nowadays. In the meantime, Mavis Kelsey, acting on that primal Houston impulse, the old think-and-do urge to invest, has bought into a West Coast resource recovery company called Waste Recovery. Lately Kelsey is full of gung ho talk about refuse-derived fuel and gasification. As footnotes go, it’s perfect.