Metropolis: Wednesday, January 18, 2006
A Tarrant County dump truck delivers dirt to County Commissioner J. D. Johnson’s property. (Johnson’s house is in the background.)
Clean Dirt?

A county official says there’s nothing wrong in hauling free fill to \r\nJ. D. Johnson’s property.


A reader who lives near Saginaw called on the Friday before Christmas to report some perplexing news: Tarrant County dump trucks were hauling loads of dirt to County Commissioner J.D. Johnson’s property. How much dirt? “A whole shitload!” the excited caller said. “They’ve been hauling dirt there all morning.”

Sure enough, what looked like a hundred mounds of dirt were piled on a portion of Johnson’s five-acre property in the Hills of Gilmore Creek, an upper-middle class community near Eagle Mountain Lake. After each delivery, the county trucks returned to a nearby street project, got another load of dirt, and went back to Johnson’s place for delivery. The caller was outraged — county commissioners shouldn’t use county vehicles for work done on personal property, the caller said.

A Fort Worth Weekly reporter asked a dump truck driver what was going on and was referred to Precinct 4 Director of Field Operations William Russell, a big fellow in a black cowboy hat, pearl-snap shirt, and black vest who agreed to answer questions. Sort of. At first, Russell insisted on being given the identity of the person who had called to complain. When told that information was confidential, Russell clammed up and handed over his card, saying if anyone had questions about the dirt, they could call him directly and he would explain. Russell didn’t cotton to someone calling the news media. He suggested it was all about politics. “Whoever called didn’t care about this dirt,” he said.

After some prodding, Russell loosened up and became more cooperative. Sort of. County road projects and ditch work often create loads of dirt that need to be hauled away. Dumping dirt in a landfill can be costly, he said. He handed over a release form that residents can sign to request free dirt. “Anybody who comes by and sees us hauling [dirt], we’ll haul it for them too,” he said.

There are stipulations. Residents must live nearby so county trucks won’t have to travel far. Also, the county doesn’t remove trash or rock found in the dirt, or spread it, and won’t be held responsible for “damages to the property, structures, vehicles or any person” resulting from dumping.

Benefits to the resident are obvious. A load of fill dirt costs about $125.

Russell said he didn’t know how much dirt had been hauled to Johnson’s property. He hesitated to provide a list of other property owners who had received free dirt. “They may not want the newspaper to know who they are,” he said.

Russell pointed out that Johnson did not ask for the dirt. Natural gas drilling company Western Production has been working on Johnson’s property since last year, and a company official made the request. Russell said he didn’t know how the company had learned about the free dirt. A company spokeswoman wasn’t much help. “Anything related to that issue, we have no comment,” Western Production human resources manager Debra Maynard said.

Johnson cleared up that matter. A gas company official had asked about free dirt some time last year. “He said when they got through drilling the wells they would need a bunch of dirt to level it out and make it right, and did the county have any?” Johnson recalled. He referred the company official to Russell and had no other involvement in the exchange, he said.

“I said whoever requests it has to fill out a request form, and I don’t get involved in that,” Johnson said. “That keeps us from having to haul it to the landfill somewhere. We have hauled I don’t know how many loads of that stuff to the nearest locations we can find. We can’t sell it; it’s too trashy to sell.”

Johnson wasn’t at home while the dirt was being delivered. Although most of the dirt looked clean to a Weekly reporter, Johnson was disappointed. “I came in there after it was all over and saw how trashy it was and was wishing they hadn’t even done it,” he said.

The commissioner, unlike some of his neighbors, was on good terms with Western Production last year when he suggested they call Russell for free dirt. Many of Johnson’s neighbors were infuriated by the numerous gas wells that had popped up in their neighborhood. They complained of bright lights, loud noises, heavy trucks stirring up dust, and unsanitary and unsafe conditions at well sites. Some homeowners said their well water began smelling like rotten eggs and taking on a brown, sudsy appearance.

Neighbors campaigning against the drilling companies were upset when Johnson snubbed them. A resident recalled Johnson saying simply, “The gas companies got a job to do, and we should let them do it.” They wondered why a guy with no mineral rights would appear to be so buddy-buddy with drillers who had invaded his property. Their suspicions that he had brokered some sort of insider politician deal dissipated after Johnson publicly clashed with Western Production late last year.

After drilling began, Johnson, too, noticed a foul odor in his water. Like many residents outside the city limits, Johnson and his neighbors draw water from underground aquifers. Drillers often use vast amounts of the same water to blast through rock formations and force natural gas to the surface. Johnson spent thousands of dollars on a water filtration system and was upset when the gas company wouldn’t accept responsibility. He has since consulted an attorney and is considering a lawsuit.

“They made a bunch of promises to me that they didn’t keep,” he said. “It’s unfortunate. I hate to see them do the public like that.”

Johnson recently agreed to be interviewed in a videotaped documentary by FWCanDo, a Fort Worth-based group fighting to toughen city ordinances against gas drillers.

As for the complaint about county trucks delivering dirt to his land, Johnson characterized it as politics as usual, somebody stirring up trouble before the March primary election. Perhaps, he said, the politically prudent thing would have been to prevent the dirt from being delivered. “If they had asked me before they did it, I would have told them it’s probably not a good idea,” he said.

Greg Cox of the Travis County district attorney’s public integrity unit said an elected county official getting free dirt from the county and having it delivered by county vehicles raised ethical red flags. “The fact that they are delivering it to his place seems funky to me, but if they would do that for anybody, it might not be a big deal,” he said.

Cox wondered how the county publicizes the free dirt. “If only certain people are told, that could be pretty significant,” he said. “It does smell funny. There are factors that could swing it either way.”

When asked how the county publicizes the free dirt, Russell’s response didn’t shed much light. He said people drive by, notice the work being done, stop, and ask about the dirt.

The Texas Ethics Commission, despite its name, wouldn’t weigh in on the situation. “It’s not something we would have jurisdiction over,” spokesman Tim Sorrells said. “It’s not something we have the authority to address.”

Under the state penal code, it is a crime to misuse government property, services, personnel, or any other thing of value belonging to the government that “has come into the public servant’s custody or possession by virtue of the public servant’s office or employment.”

If the dirt is available to residents in general, Johnson doesn’t appear to have received a special favor. Russell later agreed to provide the Weekly with names of other nearby residents, including some in Johnson’s own subdivision, who have received free dirt recently. He said the free dirt program is unofficial and publicized only through word of mouth but is longstanding and fairly well known. “I’ve been here 22 or 23 years, and we’ve done it for that long, and I’m sure they did it before that,” he said.

Johnson insists he received no special treatment.

“I’m really trying to figure out what the big issue is,” he said. “This is not a county commissioner-type of favor or anything.”

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