Garbage Time

Something besides the dump stinks in Mobile

Abandoned since the 1970s, the church looks like a war-ravaged movie set from The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. One by one, the bell, the windows and the furnishings were stolen. "It made no sense for it to be tore up like that -- they saw something they want, so they took it," Hudson says, the "they" serving as a polite term for unknown thieves and vandals. "Then they tried to burn it. A lot of history."

Hudson says little as he takes a seat on a windowsill, the Butterfield landfill visible over his shoulder. Though he lives just a few minutes away in a 6,000-square-foot home he's building with his own hands, it's been years since he's been here. "I haven't seen it full since I was a little fella," he says quietly.

Just down the road, the blink-and-you-miss-it Mobile cemetery brings back more memories. Hudson can tell you where his relatives are buried, though not all of them have markers. Most of the gravestones that exist are weathered smooth; other markers, simple wooden beams the size of railroad ties, never had inscriptions. Geckos scamper across the dirt. A hawk circles above. Sounds carry far in the desert, and so the beep-beep-beep of garbage trucks backing up to unload at Butterfield punctuates the silence. Hudson wants to mark the anonymous graves and bring water so grass can grow. He figures he'll ask Waste Management for the money.

Naomi Skinner has been tracking down absentee property owners in an effort to prove that Mobile is still a black community.
Jackie Mercandetti
Naomi Skinner has been tracking down absentee property owners in an effort to prove that Mobile is still a black community.
Vestiges of Mobile's past: Naomi Skinner has a collection of photographs and legal documents that show Mobile as it once was.
Jackie Mercandetti
Vestiges of Mobile's past: Naomi Skinner has a collection of photographs and legal documents that show Mobile as it once was.

Hudson is one of the plaintiffs in the environmental-racism lawsuit funded by Waste Management. But even he admits Mobile isn't very black, at least, not anymore. With their backs to the wall, Hudson reasons, dump opponents had no choice but to claim discrimination. No one has put much stock in the rare Sonoran Desert tortoise, a possible denizen of the landfill site that Southpoint Environmental Services, the dump's proponent, promises to move if one is discovered during construction.

"It's a ploy that was played to stop it," Hudson says. "If it's a tortoise, all you've got is Greenpeace. The reason for the race card is public interest -- point-blank.

"You've got to do what you've got to do."

With revenues of $11.5 billion and profits of $630 million in 2003, Waste Management has plenty of money. The corporation that employs nearly 52,000 people handles more than 115 million tons of trash each year, owning or operating 289 dumps and providing garbage service to more than 21 million addresses in 48 states.

And Waste Management doesn't like competition.

Waste Management has a reputation for cutthroat tactics and monopolistic business practices. The company's drive to be the only game in town is evident in Mobile, where Waste Management shut down the Sierra Estrella landfill in nearby Pinal County shortly after buying it in 1998, less than four years after it opened. With Butterfield not scheduled to reach capacity for more than a century, Waste Management didn't see a need for another landfill.

So it's not surprising that Waste Management said "yes" when the Mobile Community Council for Progress asked the company to help stop the dump proposed by Southpoint Environmental Services, a brand-new garbage company started by Talmage Dennis Barney, an East Valley developer.

Mobile residents wanted to sue Maricopa County for approving the dump, but they didn't have money for a lawyer. Waste Management did.

Members of the Mobile community council say the company has paid Howard Shanker, their lawyer, about $55,000 to file two lawsuits against Maricopa County, which issued a permit for the dump in late 2002.

Waste Management may be paying the piper, but the company isn't calling the tune, insists Shanker, who confirms that the NAACP is also riding on the back of the garbage company's money. Shanker, who says he hasn't discussed legal strategy with Waste Management, explains the company has played no role beyond writing checks, and he sees nothing wrong with that.

"I don't represent Waste Management -- there's nothing nefarious here," he says. "I often represent minority communities and environmental groups and they don't have money to pay a lawyer. And the only way they can get representation is if someone will help. Sure, Waste Management may have interests that are different from the community's. But, on occasion, these things synch up."

It's certainly an odd role for a company that has been accused of unfairly burdening minority communities with garbage. In Mobile, residents and environmentalists claimed environmental racism seven years ago to stop shipments of pollution-laden sludge to Butterfield from California, which classified the stuff as hazardous waste. More recently, Waste Management has outraged civil rights activists in Alabama, where the company wants to put a landfill near a national historic trail commemorating a 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery that helped gain black voting rights.

The Reverend Oscar Tillman, president of the Maricopa Chapter of the NAACP, claims with a straight face that he didn't know Waste Management is paying for the lawsuit that has his organization as a plaintiff.

"I don't know who's paying the bills," Tillman says. "Nowhere have I ever gotten involved -- nor do I care to get involved -- in who's paying who and who's doing what. My interest in it is this: Those black people who settled that land when nobody else wanted it. We have a responsibility to them."

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