Feature: Wednesday, September 12, 2002
Powerless = Polluted

Would East First Street smell this bad if it were on the West Side?

By Dan Malone

The view of the building from East First Street causes no alarm — just another business nestled between the railroad tracks and a modest residential neighborhood. The lawn is neatly mowed. A fountain in a pond near the entrance shoots streams of water into the air. A blue and white sign identifies the current owners of the meat processing plant inside as Five Star Custom Foods.

But people who have lived near this nondescript plant say it isn’t what you see that causes the problem. It’s what you smell. It’s what the plant has flushed through the sewers and released into the air over the years.

Under a variety of owners for the last quarter century, this facility has periodically generated obnoxious fumes that can stop work, induce nausea, and send people running inside their homes.

City and state action occasionally has forced owners to make changes that improved conditions. But the problems always returned. In the long run, records reviewed by Fort Worth Weekly show that government regulation has not only failed to permanently fix the problem but has failed the people along East First Street who are forced to live with it.

The problem may no longer be a question of just putting up with horrendous smells and backed-up toilets. In July, city inspectors tracking down the reason for yet another round of complaints found that sewers beneath the plant contained more-than-lethal levels of a foul-smelling gas.

Officials said the hydrogen sulfide levels posed little threat to the public because the heavier-than-air gas was inside the sewer pipe and not on the surface.

The plant is located in a Riverside neighborhood that some of the city’s poor and minorities call home. Some believe those demographics are part of the reason the problems have been allowed to span generations.

“It’s a cinch that if it was in Tanglewood or Westover Hills, they wouldn’t have lasted 15 minutes,’’ said Opal Lee, a retired schoolteacher and community leader who lives just west of the plant. “It’s be like putting ice in hot tea. It simply wouldn’t be around.’’

City officials said race and income have nothing to do with their attempts to enforce environmental regulations, but that changes in ownership at the plant have hampered their efforts.

“That’s one of the basic problems the city has. Once a facility changes ownership, you get a clean slate,’’ said Brian Boerner, director of the city’s environmental management department. “Can’t say I agree with it, but that’s the rules we operate under.’’

The plant falls within the district of City Councilman Ralph McCloud. He expressed “deep concern’’ that ownership changes could hinder enforcement. “There has to be something we can do to draft legislation to keep that from happening,” he said.

In correspondence with city officials, plant owners have repeatedly described themselves as conscientious businessmen eager to comply with environmental laws and make amends with area residents. The current owners have not publicly discussed the plant since June, when a representative said the company complied with all regulations and dismissed complaints about foul odors as a matter of personal preference. “Some people don’t like the smell of Italian sausage cooking,’’ a Five Star official said. “Some people don’t like the smell of certain food products.’’

For this article, the company referred questions to a consultant hired to bring the plant into compliance. Dr. Leonard E. Ripley, senior environmental engineer for Freese and Nichols, the Fort Worth engineering, architectural, and environmental sciences firm, said the present owners are determined to exceed environmental standards and fix the problem once and for all.

“It’ll be nice,’’ he said, “to put an end to it.’’

In researching this article, the Weekly reviewed more than 600 documents from municipal court, city water and environmental departments, and the state environmental agency now known as the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.

The state agency, which is wrapping up its second investigation of the plant, also has had difficulty keeping up with ownership changes. An agency spokesperson was unaware, until informed by a reporter, that the plant now under investigation is the same facility the agency had previously investigated, under a different name, and fined $6,000.

The records show that various owners have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars over the years to control the foul smell from the plant. They’ve installed scrubbers to clear the air. They’ve erected buildings around wastewater treatment equipment. They’ve sprayed equipment with commercial deodorants.

Their efforts work — for a while. But eventually, the fumes return, and the cycle starts anew.

In the 1970s, for example, the plant was cited for “fumigating’’ nearby homes with smoke. In the 1980s, the city said the plant “regularly violates local industrial waste standards.’’ In the 1990s, when the state leveled the $6,000 fine, a citizen complained that the company “blankets the neighborhood with a suffocating foul odor from which there is no escape other than leaving the neighborhood.’’

Since Five Star took over two years ago, the city has cited the plant for new violations and reported the company to the state environmental commission. A spokesperson said the agency expects to complete its investigation of Five Star by month’s end. Perhaps this latest attempt at enforcement will end the problems for good. But residents aren’t holding their breath.

Five Star’s roots go back more than three decades to a company that operated on the city’s North Side. Standard Meat, a Fort Worth firm founded during the Depression, would eventually put meat on the tables of well-known chain restaurants such as Steak & Ale and Pizza Hut, according to one business history.

Standard’s operations fell under the purview of the city health department’s divisions of sanitation and air pollution control. Even then, records show, Standard Meat was causing problems — first with burning trash and later with emissions from a smokehouse.

The earliest records date to May 1969, when sanitation officials instructed the company to immediately cease burning materials in an incinerator that was causing billows of objectionable smoke. A second notice issued a few months later required the company to “correct all conditions’’ causing the dark plumes and to make repairs on an incinerator.

In a pattern that would be repeated again and again, city officials met with plant officials who promised to make improvements and pledged to be good corporate citizens.

“We want to assure you that we are interested parties to pollution control,’’ a plant manager wrote in one letter.

But the problems recurred. The same field inspector who had cited the plant in 1969 filed a complaint with municipal court officials in 1970 accusing the company of again polluting the air. A few months later, the company was notified the case would not be prosecuted.

“It is the judgment of this office that corrective measures are progressing on schedule,’’ the city official wrote. “We see no justification for the prosecution of this violation.’’

The plant manager, as he had before, expressed his devotion to “clean air and other natural resources’’ in a March 1970 letter to the city. “We can only hope that everyone will become as concerned in preserving these precious commodities, which many of us in the past have helped to spoil, mostly through ignorance of the consequences,’’ he wrote.

When the company installed a new incinerator, a city official responded with a handwritten note suggesting: “Write them one of our ‘right on’ letters.’’

By 1974, however, the new incinerator was failing to do its job. Inspectors noted that the plant “is not directing emissions into the available afterburners. Open venting of smoke, grease, and odor occurring.’’ The next year, inspectors noted for the first time that the plant was causing problems for people who lived nearby. Notices issued that year report that Standard Meat “emissions [are] fumigating two residences’’ and that “grease, smoke, and odor [are] being vented into the ambient atmosphere.’’

Despite the problems the company was having with the city, business was apparently good. Records show that officials were considering expanding the North Side plant in 1976 but decided instead to consolidate its operation at another facility located on East First Street. The new plant, records show, would include a “scrubber’’ to control grease and odor from a commercial deep-frying operation Standard Meat planned to operate.

The new facility — located on the property where Five Star foods operates today — was built in 1977. Even before it was completed, it was cited for two more problems — one involving an ammonia leak and another for beginning construction without a state permit.

A city inspector, the same man who had repeatedly cited Standard Meat for problems at its North Side facility, nevertheless recommended that the state approve a permit. “It would appear that so long as officials of Standard Meat Co. keep the scrubber in operating condition there will be no emission or odor problems originating from in-plant processes,’’ the inspector wrote. The new plant’s permit was approved late in 1977 — and with that the city’s record goes silent for five years.

In 1982, Standard Meat was sold to Consolidated Foods Corp., the predecessor to Sara Lee Corp., the international food, cosmetics, and apparel conglomerate. The business continued to make its presence known in unwelcome ways. A lumberyard operator complained that year that ammonia fumes kept some of his employees from working. The company said the accident was “highly unusual and not likely to happen again.’’

Between June and September 1982, Alma Castoreno, who also lived nearby, complained three times about foul odors, which seemed to be coming from a series of wastewater treatment tanks, before the city issued Standard Meat a violation notice.

(Letting the fox guard the henhouse, city officials initially responded to her complaints by giving her the name of a plant official to contact the next time she noticed the odor. But when the smell came back and Castoreno tried to complain, that company official wasn’t available.)

When a violation notice was finally issued in September, Standard Meat, as it had in the past, promised quick action. “I can assure you that Standard Meat is responsive in eliminating this reported problem,’’ the plant’s engineering director wrote. The offending tanks were covered or enclosed and maintenance procedures altered. By the year’s end, a state air-quality inspector gave the building a clean bill of health.

The familiar, unwanted stench returned. During the mid 1980s, city officials issued more than 20 violation notices to Five Star for dumping excessive oil and grease from animal carcasses into the sewer system. During a 1987 hearing, city officials said they had found concentrations of oil and grease as high as 1,700 milligrams per liter in the plant’s wastewater discharge — more than eight times the limit then permissible.

By that time, city records were describing the company as one that “regularly violates local industrial waste standards.’’

A 1988 complaint stated that a “very bad, sickening odor was being sensed in the neighborhood south of the company.’’ A city investigator noted: “The odor is so terrible at times that people cannot even get out of their homes.’’

Standard Meat’s response was to blame the problem on the gas company. A problem with the gas line had forced the company to shut down some equipment, letting grease sit for several days in storage tanks, and vents on the tank doors were allowing noxious odors to escape.

Sometime during the 1980s, Sara Lee changed the name of the company from Standard Meat to Design Foods. According to one company history, Design Foods employed about 450 people in Fort Worth producing pizza toppings, pre-cooked taco meat, sauces, soups, fajitas, and meat for frozen dinners.

The owners promised to make substantial improvements, installing new equipment valued at more than $300,000. The city gave them until January 1988 to fix the grease problem. However, it is not clear how well it worked.

Complaints continued to waft in. In 1989, investigators responded to seven complaints about foul odors and issued three violation notices. Responding to one of those, the company again blamed the problems on an equipment failure. A sprayer used to hose the facility down with deodorant, a company official told the city, “is very unreliable’’ and a new one had been ordered.

The company erected a building around some of its wastewater treatment equipment in an attempt to keep the smells from crossing the street, but a neighbor still complained to the city that the “smell is so bad it’s hard to breathe.’’ A 1991 complaint said a city worker found “blood and meat particles’’ swirling beneath a manhole cover on site. Between 1990 and 1991, officials received six more odor complaints and issued three more violation notices. By 1992, the city had notified the Texas Water Commission and the Environmental Protective Agency that the company had “significantly violated sewer discharge requirements’’ and failed to submit four required self-monitoring reports.

Sara Lee sold Design Foods in 1993 to a Dutch company that continued to operate it under that name, according to Sara Lee spokesperson Julie Ketay. Ketay researched the transaction at the Weekly’s request, but found little information about why the company was sold.

“It didn’t fit in our business portfolio,’’ she said. “That’s the only notation we could find.’’ The company subsequently changed its name again and operated as H & M Food Systems until 2000. In a March 1993 letter to the city, Luke Rainbolt of H & M followed in the steps of his predecessors and pledged “to be a cooperative corporate citizen and a good neighbor.’’ (Mr. Rainbolt, according to records, is now affiliated with Five Star.)

Company officials told the city that year they were considering installing a state-of-the-art treatment facility to end the problem once and for all, but the cost, estimated as high as $700,000, “is a problem.” In 1993, nine notices of violations were issued. By 1994, the plant’s problems were sufficiently troublesome that the state environmental agency now known as the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality began an investigation.

James Michael Taylor and Peggy Mitchell haven’t seen the file the city maintains on Five Star and the facility’s previous owners — but little in it would come as a surprise to them. They lived near the plant for years and are well acquainted with its impact on their former neighborhood. (The family moved, for unrelated reasons, to another East Side neighborhood in the late 1990s.)

In one letter to the state environmental agency in 1995, Taylor complained that the foulest stenches seemed to be emitted at nights or weekends when officials could not be reached. He wrote that he had “driven by the gates and almost lost my cookies.

“How the people who live across the street from this plant tolerate this I haven’t a clue,” he wrote. “My point in noting that they vent their cesspool after business hours on Friday evenings is to indicate that I think they are deliberately breaching whatever agreement they have made with the powers that be to be allowed to stay in business.’’

Mitchell also complained that the stench blossomed on weekends or evenings when city officials were not available. “The smell is of dead things and blankets the neighborhood with a suffocating foul odor from which there is no escape other than leaving the neighborhood.’’

Finally, in March 1995, the state agency approved an agreed order that it hoped would turn the problem-plagued plant into a good neighbor. Saying that H & M’s wastewater treatment had expelled contaminants in the air that “were or tended to be injurious to or to adversely affect human health or welfare,’’ the commission fined the company $6,000.

The company agreed to make improvements totaling $500,000 to keep the air and sewer systems free of pollutants. Perhaps more significantly, given the numerous name and ownership changes over the years, the company agreed to keep its plant in good working order and to require the same of any successor.

The new equipment seemed to work. Once again, the complaints abated — for a while.

In January 2000, state officials were preparing a “comprehensive compliance inspection’’ of H & M. When an investigator tried to make an appointment at the plant, however, he discovered that its phones were no longer working. Driving by the plant, he observed that the H & M sign had been taken down and the gates padlocked. The business had closed. A longtime neighborhood nuisance, it seemed, was finally gone. It wasn’t.

Seven months after it closed, the plant, apparently having changed hands again, reopened as Five Star Custom Foods. By the end of 2000, two violations were noted.

A little over a year later, Bill Cole, who operates an auto repair business next to Five Star, complained that “drains in kitchens and bathrooms are still backing up and there is a terrible smell’’ since the city inspectors issued their last violation. A nearby furniture company complained that it had been flooded when a toilet backed up. City inspectors found that Five Star was again dumping excessive amounts of grease in the sewer. Two municipal court citations were issued.

During its 25-year history on East First Street, the plant has received dozens of violation notices. Of those, 13 resulted in municipal court citations. But court officials have been able thus far to document only what happened with two recent citations. In April, a company official paid fines of $2,690 to settle both.

In July, when city inspectors returned to the plant, they discovered the more serious problem involving hydrogen sulfide “being generated in the grease pit at Five Star.’’ The gas, which smells like rotten eggs, is given off by bacteria in the sewers feasting on grease and oils. At levels of 700 to 800 parts per million, it’s deadly. City inspectors found one reading “as high as 1300,’’ records show.

Ripley, the Freese and Nichols engineer Five Star has hired, said it is possible that such gases could seep into homes downstream if their plumbing was faulty, but the threat was minimal. (Strangely, with H2S, as it is known, it’s not what you smell that kills you — it’s what you don’t. A human can smell the gas at levels up to 200 ppm — above that the nose is numb and the gas undetectable, Ripley said.)

“I won’t say it’s normal, but it’s not unexpected.” The danger to inspectors, he said, was real, but they are trained to deal with such situations. “As far as danger to the public, as long as you’re not popping manhole covers, there’s no danger.’’

In the last few months, Five Star appears to have brought its problem under control. Ripley said the owners are dedicated to making the plant exceed environmental standards — and he’s in the process of drawing up a plan he hopes will end the problems for good.

City officials said Five Star, like its predecessors, is pledging to be a good corporate citizen. “The company is working toward a long-term solution to address the grease buildup that caused the violation earlier this year,’’ said water department spokeswoman Mary Gugliuzza. “This will result in the company making a substantial financial investment. ... Management at Five Star has been very cooperative and demonstrated its desire to prevent the problem from reoccurring.’’

If the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality’s investigation determined the company has violated state regulations, the agency could fine it up to $10,000, said Frank Espino, the agency’s regional director. But Espino said he didn’t expect the investigation to result in the maximum fine. “It won’t be anywhere near that.’’

Thus far, the only person to pay a price for anything that’s happened at Five Star this summer is Bill Cole, the mechanic who has repeatedly complained about the stench. He was arrested Aug. 6 after being accused of tampering with refrigeration equipment on the roof of the building. That equipment contained anhydrous ammonia, which is used as a commercial coolant but also can be used to make illegal drugs. In an odd development, police this summer also raided a house across the street from the plant which they said was being used to manufacture methamphetamines.

The Weekly first heard about Five Star Custom Foods from an architect who complained about the stench after jogging past the plant this spring. When a reporter went to the neighborhood to talk to residents in June, he found a handful willing to talk about their uneasy relations with their industrial neighbor. Only Cole was willing to have his picture and name in the paper for a June 27 article about the plant.

Cole said that a Five Star worker had previously threatened to have him arrested after he complained in person at the plant. His arrest came after a Five Star worker monitoring a security camera told police he saw men tampering with the company equipment and identified Cole from the Weekly’s photograph.

Cole had not been charged as of Tuesday, but his family had to scrape together $3,000 to bail him out of jail. Cole’s wife and son vouched for his alibi — that he was home sleeping when the Five Star worker told police he saw him skulking along their rooftops.

Cole’s attorney, Abe Factor, has instructed him to quit talking to the news media. For the time being, one of Five Star’s loudest critics has been silenced.

Others, however, are beginning to speak up. State Rep. Lon Burnam, who reviewed some of records obtained by the Weekly, said the agencies responsible for enforcing environmental laws aren’t doing their jobs.

“Nobody on the West Side of Fort Worth would put up with this,’’ said Burnam, who pledged that his staff would also investigate the problem. “The city and the state are failing in their responsibility to enforce the law.’’

For now, the people who live near the plant will have to wait — as they have been doing for much of the last three decades.

“We’ve told the city about it. We expect the city to do something,’’ said Opal Lee, the former schoolteacher who lives nearby. “It’s still happening.’’

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