Environmental justice pioneer speaks out against Houston landfill project

Bob Bullard stood at the microphone in the banquet hall on the west side of town and reminded Texas environmental regulators that they must protect everyone equally under the law.

Bullard is known as the father of environmental justice. The proposal regulators were considering Tuesday night to expand a landfill in a black community, he told them, was a “classic example” of environmental racism.

Bob Bullard speaks during the TCEQ meeting on the Hawthorne Park landfill expansion project that residents of Houston’s Carverdale neighborhood oppose at Sterling Banquet Hall on Tuesday, June 28, 2022 in Houston.

Karen Warren, Houston Chronicle/Staff Photographer

The professor’s early work showed decades ago that Houston landfills were more likely to be in predominantly black areas. And across the region, it has become clear that communities of color face more than their fair share of inequality. Bullard urged state officials not to perpetuate the problem: “It’s time for this pattern to be broken,” said the prominent environmental policy professor at Texas Southern University, which has a climate justice center that bears his name.

Texas Senator John Whitmire, Dean of the Texas Senate, speaks during a press conference and community meeting at the Greater Macedonia Baptist Church Monday, June 27, 2022 in Houston.

Texas Senator John Whitmire, Dean of the Texas Senate, speaks during a press conference and community meeting at the Greater Macedonia Baptist Church Monday, June 27, 2022 in Houston.

Brett Coomer, Houston Chronicle/Team Photographer

All will have to wait and see if the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality will act on its plea. An attorney for the agency said it has no legislative authority to consider a neighborhood’s demographics when evaluating permit approval. And there is clearly a major learning curve about the social impact of these decisions for officials at the state level. The TCEQ president during a hearing last week, when asked about environmental racism, said: “I don’t know what to do with that term.”

Behind Bullard in the chandeliered hall on Tuesday night, black and Latino residents of a neighborhood known as Carverdale filled rows of gilded chairs. TCEQ organized the meeting to give them the opportunity to voice their concerns. State Rep. Penny Morales Shaw said she hopes officials really listen. The people’s message quickly became clear.

Residents and premises politicians don’t want the Hawthorne Park landfill to get any bigger. They want Waste Management, a national garbage collection behemoth, to shut it down, get out of the neighborhood and take their community’s freebies with them.

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As resident Trivia Douglas said, “We don’t want you here.

“Don’t Spit on Me”

The landfill in question is near the intersection of Beltway 8 and Tanner Road, next to historic Carverdale, which was developed in the 1950s and had its own school during segregation. The site is operated by USA Waste of Texas Landfills, Inc., a subsidiary of Waste Management. A 10-acre landfill was first permitted 45 years ago. Company officials want to connect and build the existing new parts there so they can operate for another 46 years.

Community members feared the idea that this scourge would affect another generation.

The nearly full landfill’s current footprint covers 130 acres and would increase to 180 acres as part of the expansion, according to the permit application. It accepts construction and demolition waste and brush. (One person noted that illegal waste may still come through.) The company expects to receive up to about 200,000 tons of waste per year during the first years of expansion.

The new part of the landfill closest to the neighborhood will emerge as a 60-foot hill at a distance from Carverdale, and it shouldn’t be noticeable to the community, said Charles Rivette, director of landfill development for Waste Management, speaking quickly into a microphone at the meeting. Other areas of the landfill will reach a much higher elevation. Rivette, who is white, tried to argue that the company had been a good community partner.

He repeatedly told the angry mob that they wouldn’t see the additional trash from different vantage points in the community. But it did not escape him that the neighbors did not swallow the simulated images of the project that he showed.

“I know you obviously don’t believe the pictures,” he said.

Solid waste permit notice signs are placed near the Hawthorne Park landfill Monday, June 27, 2022 in Houston.

Solid waste permit notice signs are placed near the Hawthorne Park landfill Monday, June 27, 2022 in Houston.

Brett Coomer, Houston Chronicle/Team Photographer

The audience groans.

Texas Rep. Jarvis Johnson, who is black, told waste officials, “Don’t spit on me and call it rain.”

“Put yourself in our shoes”

An attitude of strength and protest persisted throughout the three-hour meeting as neighbors talked. They told Waste Management that they no longer wanted freebies such as free backpacks. They expressed disbelief at the state agency’s assurances that groundwater, air quality and odors would be monitored.

A courier who works in the neighborhood said she had a lung infection that might be related to the discharge. A mother said her children were taking too long to get home from school because of traffic on the road they shared with landfill trucks. A woman who previously lived in Mississippi said the evening reminded her of the prejudices she had experienced back home.

Everyone was tired of carrying the burden of the dangers that come with landfills. The immediate area surrounding it is industrial. But within a mile are also 3,000 homes, 15 churches and three parks. Residents of Carverdale were worried about groundwater contamination, truck traffic and air pollution. They wanted civic life in their community to improve, not deteriorate.

We haven’t been enslaved recently like previous generations, said Lone Star College administrator Iesheia Ayers-Wilson. We can be forward thinking.

“We’re tired of being trampled on and trampled on,” Ayers-Wilson said.

Iesheia Ayers-Wilson, administrator of Lone Star College, speaks during a press conference and community meeting at the Greater Macedonia Baptist Church Monday, June 27, 2022 in Houston.

Iesheia Ayers-Wilson, administrator of Lone Star College, speaks during a press conference and community meeting at the Greater Macedonia Baptist Church Monday, June 27, 2022 in Houston.

Brett Coomer, Houston Chronicle/Team Photographer

Carverdale was a place residents were proud to be a part of, Senator John Whitmire told officials, but he had seen the landfill damage the area. And he had noticed the pattern in the kinds of communities he was continually trying to protect from companies like theirs that were focused on profit.

“They know what they’re doing, that’s what frustrates me and angers me the most,” Whitmire shouted. “They’re going to pump money into it, hire their expensive lawyers and try to crush the community.”

Their battle had the same elements as others raging in the region: Black residents of Fifth Ward continue to fight for Union Pacific to remove creosote that seeped into the floor of a rail yard. Latino residents of Aldine gathered to protest the opening of another concrete batching plant next to their local park.

“We’re not looking to be appeased or appeased,” Beverly McHenry said Tuesday night. “We want results. We want you to put yourself in our shoes.

Monique Singletary speaks during the TCEQ meeting on the proposed Hawthorne Park landfill expansion project opposed by residents of the Carverdale neighborhood, at Sterling Banquet Hall on Tuesday, June 28, 2022 in Houston.

Monique Singletary speaks during the TCEQ meeting on the proposed Hawthorne Park landfill expansion project opposed by residents of the Carverdale neighborhood, at Sterling Banquet Hall on Tuesday, June 28, 2022 in Houston.

Karen Warren, Houston Chronicle/Staff Photographer

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