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Home on the Range at the Nation's Largest Sewage Dump

Texas has the dubious distinction of leading the nation in a number of areas of environmental degradation including the toxic air emissions of cancer causing chemicals. What is less well known is that Texas is home to the nation's largest sewage sludge dump. This week, Texas PEER examines how Sierra Blanca a small town on the U.S./Mexico border, became the resting place for New York City's sewage. Additionally, this segment will focus on how Gov. George W. Bush's environmental regulatory appointees and former staffers ignored local health concerns and illegal dumping to support tripling New York's waste being dumped in the Lonestar State.

The Recipe for Sierra Blanca Sludge

Sewage sludge is the wet solid cake produced after human, residential and industrial wastes are combined in wastewater treatment plants. The Environmental Protection Agency's Toxic Release Inventory reveals that millions of pounds of chemicals are discharged to sewer treatment plants across the nation. A special report from Cornell University estimated that over 60,000 toxic substances and chemical compounds can be found in sewage sludge.(1)  Because industrial wastes are combined at central treatment plants, sewage sludge can contain heavy metals such as arsenic, chromium, mercury, lead and even radioactive waste products. Also, carcinogens such as PCBs and pesticides along with pathogens including viruses and bacteria carrying E Coli, Salmonella, and TB are found in sewage sludge. "What is Sludge?"

How New York Sewage Came to Texas

Until Congress banned ocean dumping of sewage sludge in 1988, New York City dumped millions of tons of its sewage into the ocean. New York sludge was too contaminated with toxic pollutants to be used and too expensive to be buried safely in a landfill. In 1992, New York City awarded Merco Joint Venture, an Oklahoma-based company tied to New York organized crime (2), a six-year contract to dispose of nearly a fifth of the Big Apples' sewage sludge.

Merco began the search for a state that would take the sewage. In Oklahoma, citizen protests prompted the State Legislature to pass a 5-year ban on the importation of out of state sewage. Arizona blocked rail shipments after samples of the sludge showed high levels of petroleum and infectious disease. Merco then turned to Texas, and targeted a site in Hudspeth County 2,065 miles away from New York, but only 3 miles northwest of the small town of Sierra Blanca.

Prior to receiving approval of their permit, Merco donated $1.5 million dollars to Texas Tech University in West Texas to study the beneficial uses of sludge. Then, without an environmental impact statement, public process, or opportunity for questions; Merco received approval of its 5-year sludge registration from the Texas Water Commission in an unprecedented 23 days.

Soon after, Merco began dumping sludge on its Sierra Blanca "ranch". Transported by train from New Jersey; 250 tons a week of wet sludge was brought to Sierra Blanca to be sprayed on 78,500 of the 102,555 acres at the Merco "ranch". As EPA employee and sludge critic Hugh Kaufman said "The fish in New York are being protected. The people in New York are being protected. The people in Texas are being poisoned."

Life Next to the Sludge Dump

In 1992, after dumping began, the people of Sierra Blanca began to complain of the odor. "The chemical odors coming off the application area are not just a nuisance and a trespass, they're a health hazard - hydrogen sulfide and ammonia vapors mixed with a fecal smell are indescribable - except to say that it smells like death," says Addington, after one of just a number of complaints, "The Texas Air Control Board came down two days later and told us it was just cow patties." (5)

But odor wasn't the only problem. "We noticed strange rashes and blisters in the mouth, more flu, more colds, more allergies, and asthma since they came. We've seen a lot more sickness - especially with the kids," says Bill Addington, a local resident. The New York flu virus even made the rounds in Van Horn in 1996, a larger town 34 miles to the east. Sam Dodge, a Merco neighbor and rancher tried to sell his ranch to escape the smell, but none would buy it.   Watch a Quicktime video clip from TV nation. (1.4MB)

The community repeatedly tried to get the government to act in their defense. "In 1993, twenty Sierra Blanca residents went to protest at the Texas Water Commission in El Paso," he continues. "They were told by a TWC official that they were smelling the Sierra Blanca waste water treatment plant. Sierra Blanca has no waste water treatment plant."

After years of complaints, illness, and governmental inaction, in 1997 citizens of Sierra Blanca filed Civil Rights Complaint with the EPA, against the very agency whose mission it is to protect them, the Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission. The complaint was dismissed with no action taken.

The Bush Philosophy: Let Industry Run Texas

In 1997, Merco applied to the Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission (TNRCC) for a renewal of their sludge permit for an additional five years. The company also requested an amendment to triple the amount of sewage sprayed per acre. To support their efforts, Merco hired Gov. Bush's former legislative director, Cliff Johnson, to lobby the Bush appointed commissioners (1997 Commissioners -Barry McBee, Ralph Marquez, John Baker) at the state regulatory agency. The permit renewal would allow up to 400 tons of wet sludge to be dumped each day, which amounts to 1.5 billion pounds of sewage sludge over five years - enough to fill half of the Houston Astrodome. (3)

Texas regulatory rules do not allow for hearings on sludge registrations (permitting); the only recourse citizens have for challenging sludge registrations is to file a motion for reconsideration after the registration has been issued. Bill Addington and Millie Dodge of Sierra Blanca used this opportunity to file a motion for reconsideration with the TNRCC.

In response, the TNRCC Executive Director Dan Pearson filed a brief arguing for the motion for reconsideration to be denied. Pearson, hired by the Bush-appointed TNRCC Commissioners, claimed that the Merco operation wasn't a threat to health or the environment, and that "there have been no odor complaints relating to the Merco site since July 29, 1996. That complaint investigation found no nuisance conditions. Properly digested and stabilized, sludge may have an earthly odor when its is first applied, but the odor will soon disappear." The Bush-appointed Commissioners denied the motion, saying properly treated sewage sludge posed no threat, and Merco began dumping up to 400 tons a day.

The Result: Illegal Dumping At Sierra Blanca

In 1999, Merco admitted that it had spread sludge from New York that had not been properly treated to reduce pathogens - a state and federal requirement. (4)   Merco had previously been caught spreading untreated sludge and fined $12,800 in 1994, a sum unlikely to deter illegal dumping on a contract valued at $168 million dollars over five years. Instead of requiring that the sludge be treated before it is shipped, as is required by law, the TNRCC simply suggested that Merco mix the untreated sludge with lime on site to bring the pathogen levels up to Class B standards. "Friends of mine that work at Merco tell me that Merco still occasionally spreads sludge without mixing it with lime first,"says Addington. (5)

Next Week: Another chapter in the Gov. Bush environmental legacy.

Sources:

  1. "Organic Toxicants and pathogens in Sewage Sludge and Their Environmental Effects," JG Babish, DJ Lisk, GS Stoewsand, and C Wilkinson, A Special Report of the Subcommittee on Organics in Sludge, Cornell university, College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, December 1981.
  2. "Flood of Money Wins an Uneasy Home in Texas for New York City Waste", Allen R. Myerson, The New York Times, 7/17/95 and "Stink Over Sludge", Kevin Flynn and Michael Moss, New York Newsday, 8/2/94.
  3. U.S. Department of Agriculture Soil Conservation Service, Temple Texas, "Upper North Bosque River Watershed Plan and Environmental Assessment," May 15, 1992 p. 2 "An estimated 1.12 billion pounds of wet animal waste is accumulating each year. This amount of untreated manure is enough to fill the Astrodome in a 3-year period."
  4. TAC 30
    (C) Prior to any off-site transportation or on-site use or disposal of any sewage sludge generated at a wastewater treatment facility, the chief certified operator of the wastewater treatment facility or other responsible official who manages the processes to significantly reduce pathogens at the wastewater treatment facility for the permittee, shall certify that the sewage sludge underwent at least the minimum operational requirements necessary in order to meet one of the Processes to Significantly Reduce Pathogens. The acceptable processes and the minimum operational and recordkeeping requirements shall be in accordance with established U.S. Environmental Protection Agency final guidance.
  5. Telephone interview 11/22/99 with Bill Addington, a third generation Sierra Blanca resident and business owner.


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