Something stinks in Pearland, but the answer to the cause is different depending on whom you ask.
For the homeowners in the Shadow Creek Ranch subdivision, a bricked enclave of six and seven-figure homes in the master-planned community bordering Fort Bend and Brazoria counties, the heavy sulfuric-smelling fumes come from the nearby 30-year-old Blue Ridge Landfill in Fort Bend County.
Land developers created the sprawling Shadow Creek Ranch community in 2001 and as it grew the homes got closer to the landfill. Residents, however, didn’t notice obnoxious odors until about three years ago in 2015.
As more residents complained to public officials and challenged authorities to do something, Republic Services, owners of the Blue Ridge Landfill which has been around since the early 1990s, said that since 2016, they put $7 million in infrastructure upgrades into the property to handle the odors.
The smells persisted, so residents and governments lawyered up with the city of Pearland and the state of Texas, acting through the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ), and filed suit against the landfill company telling them to clean up their act.
“It’s like a cheesecloth over a diaper genie,” said Ed Mears, one irate homeowner who lives two miles from the landfill.
While feeling bad for the homeowners, the lawsuits caused other parties surrounding Fort Bend County to cry foul.
“I don’t have a dog in this fight but I know that smaller cities are sometimes affected by what others do. I felt like there are towns that are gonna be pushed around and that’s not fair to Blue Ridge and not fair to the folks who contracted with them,” said Charles Jessup. Jessup is the mayor of Meadows Place, a one-square-mile community located about 23 miles away from Pearland. Jessup is one of three mayors who signed a letter to the editor supporting Blue Ridge’s right to operate the landfill.
“This is an important business. They are doing a tremendous service and they have been unfairly burdened,” said Jessup. “They came in and built that (Shadow Creek Ranch community) and people started saying, why does it smell and why is there a buzzard on my roof? But the landfill was there before Shadow Creek was built,” said Jessup.
Two other officials who added their names on the letter, Mayor Evalyn Moore of Richmond and Mayor Laurie Boudreaux of Simonton, leaders of the two small communities declined to comment. Richmond’s attorney said Moore was not speaking on behalf of the city when she signed the letter.
The mayors noted in their February letter to the editor that, “as a result of community complaints, the landfill has agreed to a number of expensive modifications to reduce any odor emitted from the site over the past couple of years. However, Pearland has decided to take additional steps and pursue litigation to strip the landfill of their solid waste permit, which would effectively shut the operation down after three decades of business,” according to the letter.
That letter of support for the landfill outraged Pearland homeowner Ed Mears who said he can smell the offensive and oppressive odors and he lives two miles from the site.
“You have SOME nerve, Mayor Boudreaux, Mayor Moore, and Mayor Jessup. If it were your residents in crisis, would you betray them also because you fear increased tipping fees? You could have used your voices to pressure Blue Ridge Landfill/Republic Services to clean up its act, but instead, you write a letter defending it. … Or did Republic Services write this letter for you, too? It smacks of callousness and corruption,” Mears wrote.
Of the three mayors, only Mayor Jessup responded to reporter queries.
“I feel bad for those folks. But Blue Ridge started operating in the middle of nowhere. They should be held accountable and they should do anything they can to minimize the smell. But how come they build a house across from a landfill? I would be miffed if the realtor didn’t mention it. So I don’t understand the Pearland lawsuit,” Jessup said.
The Arcola community leaders, only eight miles away from Pearland, also blasted the city for its lawsuit.
“As members of Arcola’s City Council, it is puzzling to us as to why Pearland, in Brazoria County, is interfering with our community. We do not have all of the luxuries that Pearland may have, but we are hardworking, proud, and mind our own business. It is disconcerting that Pearland is attempting to shut down the Blue Ridge Landfill. Perhaps some are unaware, but the Blue Ridge Landfill provides a significant economic benefit to our community – one that we need. Now Pearland wants to try and shut it down over a minor nuisance. Every day our community deals with far worse,” stated the letter to the editor that was signed by the Arcola City Council and then-Mayor Mary Etta Anderson. Anderson lost her seat in May and the new mayor declined to address the concern. None of the council members who signed the letter returned phone calls.
Anderson said their voices don’t matter.
“No one wants to listen to what we have to say. It’s the big money communities who get their way and that’s all I have to say,” Anderson said.
She declined to say more though given the opportunity to voice her opinion.
“I can only speak for me,” said the mayor of Rosenberg, William Benton, “but the landfill has been there longer than the complainants and I think it’s gonna dramatically increase the price of disposal of trash for not just Rosenberg but the entire county. I don’t think there is adequate justification for closing it. But whatever their issues, I don’t believe there is anything that can’t be overcome.”
One hauler, who declined to give his name, worried that he would have increased fees if forced to use another landfill further away.
After being investigated by TCEQ, Blue Ridge entered an agreement with TCEQ in April to institute an odor control plan. That includes installing landfill gas wells to collect and control gas.
In a prepared statement, Blue Ridge stated: “Blue Ridge Landfill is operated in a manner designed to protect public health and the environment. We regularly monitor and report our activities to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ), and we strive to meet or exceed all state and federal regulations. All waste is disposed of within the boundary of a constructed landfill area that has been engineered to protect the environment and meets all federal, state and local regulations. There are many environmental protection systems at Blue Ridge Landfill.”
Jeff Wiley, President and CEO of the Greater Fort Bend Economic Council said they are “good corporate citizens.”
“I would say I have only limited information about the issue but for what it is worth, I do know that Republic Services, the owner of the landfill is a good corporate citizen. They contribute to the community through tipping fees and many cities, communities and non-profits benefit as a result. No one wants a landfill in their back yard but unfortunately they are necessary. Without landfills proximate to population centers, the number of trucks, road maintenance and cost of disposal would surely increase as would the rates charged to consumers. Hopefully the parties will be able to reach solutions that make coexistence manageable,” said Wiley.
The question isn’t whether they have a right to be there, say homeowners affected by the odor. Some say this is an example of what happens when the state of Texas wants to be business friendly at the expense of its citizens.
“This is a great state to do business in. You are given a lot of leeway. But the state of Texas is not exercising strong enough controls,” Mears said.
According to Mears, the state essentially told the garbage company, “we don’t need the high cost of permits and inspectors. We trust you to moderate yourself.”
There is a reason Republic Service has the cheapest rates, said Mears.
After thousands of complaints from residents about the smells, an enforcement team from the state capital of Austin investigated. He said TCEQ “only looked back a year and a half, and every single quarter of self-monitoring, the landfill failed every single event. They violated federal rules,” said Mears. They were fined thousands of dollars.
For Mears, the question isn’t should homes be near the landfill.
“If you are a business, you don’t have the right to pollute land next to it. You don’t have the right to pollute your neighbor’s house.”
In filing suit against the landfill owners, the city of Pearland said it wants the organization to fix the mess next door. They said they are not trying to close down the business.
“The City of Pearland requests this court to issue a temporary restraining order, a temporary injunction and a permanent injunction, ordering BRL to immediately cease and desist all of its illegal activity described herein, and mandating BRL to immediately correct the defects in design and operation of the site that have allowed the nuisance odor to persist unabated.”