By Amy Silverman
By Olivia LaVecchia
By Monica Alonzo and Stephen Lemons
By Chris Parker
By Michael Lacey
By Weston Phippen
The nation's biggest garbage company is everywhere in Mobile, one of Maricopa County's smallest communities.
"Thank You Waste Management," reads a sign in front of the school, just above a message noting that the sign itself was paid for by Waste Management.
Headquartered 1,200 miles away in Houston, Waste Management is Mobile's main benefactor. The company built the Mobile Community Center, which contains little more than a billiards table, lavatory and meeting room. Waste Management also pays for community picnics and holiday parties. The company, locals recall, once sent Mobile kids to Disneyland.
All this is Waste Management's way of thanking Mobile for putting up with the largest garbage dump in Arizona. Located about a mile off Highway 238, the main road through Mobile, the Butterfield Station Landfill isn't obvious to the casual observer, save for a steady procession of garbage trucks that are the source of plastic bags and other debris stuck to barbed-wire fences and brush along the highway for miles.
Less visible is the potential danger from waste deposited at Butterfield, which takes more than a million tons of trash each year, including tens of thousands of tons from outside Arizona that other states consider dangerous -- including DDT-laced sludge from California and more than 10,000 tons of unidentified waste from Mexico.
Mobile, which is unincorporated and has fewer than 100 residents within its loosely defined boundaries, is a magnet for projects, mostly unrealized, that no one would want in his backyard. Since Butterfield opened in 1990, two other landfills have come to the area. Plans for an oil refinery and a hazardous waste incinerator have come and gone. There's been talk of a women's prison and high-voltage transmission lines.
But highest on the list of immediate worries is yet another landfill that would be built at the entrance to Mobile alongside Highway 238.
Neither of the other two dumps in the Mobile area poses a threat to Butterfield's business. One, which is immediately adjacent to Butterfield, takes only construction debris. The other, about 10 minutes away in Pinal County, is owned by Waste Management, which mothballed the dump shortly after buying it six years ago.
The proposed landfill is different.
Competing directly with Waste Management, owners of the proposed dump want to heap garbage for 60 years, until the pile is more than 18 stories high, as tall as Bank One Ballpark. The prospect has forged a strange alliance between Waste Management, Mobile residents and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. With Waste Management quietly paying the legal bills, Mobile landowners and the NAACP are suing Maricopa County for approving the project. While census records show Mobile is predominantly white, dump opponents, noting that the area was homesteaded by blacks more than 70 years ago, claim this is a case of environmental racism.
Waste Management, the company that's made the lawsuit possible, has itself been accused of dumping on minorities in Mobile and elsewhere.
It's pretty clear that there isn't as much environmental racism going on here as there is straight-up capitalism, with Mobile residents serving as willing pawns in Waste Management's game. And there's no bigger pawn than the NAACP.
Where landfill operators and industrialists see empty desert with easy access to a highway and a rail line, Mobile residents see God's country, where land is cheap, the mountain views are magnificent and folks with modest means can settle down, raise a few chickens, ride horses and ignore any inconveniences that come from living more than a dozen miles from the nearest cash register.
A handful who still live without running water recognize they're on the edge of sprawl, with Phoenix 35 miles to the north and the Sonoran Desert National Monument one mile east. During the past few years, hundreds of houses have sprouted in nearby Maricopa, where a Bashas' is expected to open soon.
In short, civilization is arriving, with "Land for Sale" signs dotting the landscape and more buyers than ever. It's been a long time coming.
Terry Hudson, who's lived in Mobile all his life, remembers when no one wanted to come here, and the people who were here wanted to leave, for lack of jobs, lack of paved roads and lack of water.
Hudson, who cares for his aging aunt and mother while occasionally raising cattle, is one of the few remaining links to Mobile's past. His family arrived in the 1940s when there were dreams of creating a blacks-only town.
When Hudson was born in 1959, Mobile was still largely black, a place where African Americans could live in peace, provided they could handle the desert's harshness. That's certainly changed. Today, Hudson is often the only black person in the room during Mobile community council meetings. But he remembers the way things used to be.
Hudson's mood turns somber as he pushes aside a roadside barbed-wire gate and enters the crumbling remains of the Galilee Baptist Church on Highway 238. The roof, bell tower and stained-glass windows are gone, leaving an adobe shell littered with beer bottles, tires and empty five-gallon buckets. No one knows when it was built, but this church has been here longer than Hudson, who swears he'll never leave 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.
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."
Top Waste Management officials say they were shocked to learn the company is paying for lawsuits to stop a would-be competitor. Indeed, company spokeswoman Sarah Simpson thanked New Times for bringing the payments to the company's attention.
"You did a really good thing -- you really did," Simpson says. "This has gotten people's attention. We have to take action on this."
Not yet. As of press time -- and nearly a month after New Times' first inquiry -- Howard Shanker was still at the Waste Management trough.
The company's tactic of paying bills for groups that fight the company's competitors isn't without precedent.
Ten years ago, the company paid for a $60,000 seismic study used by a community group near Los Angeles to argue that reopening a landfill owned by a competitor could prove an environmental disaster if an earthquake struck. The community group presented the study to regulators as its own. The story caused a sensation when it hit the front page of the Wall Street Journal in 1996, prompting the Los Angeles Board of Supervisors to pass a law requiring that funding sources be identified when studies are presented to regulators.
Waste Management has sought to limit competition in other ways. Since its inception in 1968, the company has been sued at least 23 times for antitrust violations in as many states, paying settlements and fines totaling more than $23 million.
The company was also a bad boy in stock scandals of the 1990s, admitting in 1998 that it had inflated earnings and overstated assets by $3.5 billion starting in 1992.
All this is just so much history, according to the company, which replaced its board of directors and CEO four years ago. In a 2000 letter to stockholders, newly installed CEO, president and chairman of the board A. Maurice Myers boasted that the company had implemented an ethics code, complete with a toll-free hot line so that employees could report concerns or seek advice on unethical conduct, violations of law or breaches of company policy.
According to its most recent annual report, Waste Management's emphasis on clean business practices hasn't wavered -- Myers in an introductory letter to the report brags about a company "steeped in integrity and impeccable ethics."
The message didn't get through to a manager in Arizona -- whom Simpson won't name -- who the company says agreed to fund the lawsuits.
"You're always going to have some people who still resort to the old ways of doing business," Simpson explains. "But we're slowly getting to those folks and showing them that that's not acceptable anymore and that's not the way this company's going to do business."
Simpson says the payments shouldn't have happened.
"I can tell you for certain that this is not company policy or procedure," she says.
"We do not advocate engaging law firms for groups and then having the company fund that. If we have an issue with a county or a competitor and we want to file a suit, Waste Management is going to do that and be front and center in that suit. There is a real zero-tolerance for anything that is in violation of our company's code of conduct or ethics."
But that doesn't mean Waste Management will pull the plug. Simpson says the company will stop direct payments to Shanker, the plaintiffs' lawyer, but she and Duane Woods, general counsel for Waste Management's western division, say the company will likely continue giving money to the Mobile community council, which can then pass it on to Shanker.
Simpson says the community council approached the company about filing suit, not the other way around. "I think this is a request where the community said, 'Hey, we need your help,' and the company said, 'Yeah, we're there for you,'" Simpson explains. "It also happened to, you know . . ." She interrupts herself with a slight laugh, not finishing the thought. Jason Barney, project manager for Southpoint, can finish it for her.
Barney says Waste Management's funding of lawsuits shows the company hasn't changed its ways.
"They've got a history around the country of taking a monopolistic situation in the market and using it to their advantage to raise prices," he observes. "I think that [paying legal bills] substantiates why we're doing this project. Waste Management recognizes there's a need for it, and a need to drive out competition."
With Waste Management paying the freight, dump opponents sued the county in state court last year, claiming that the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors didn't muster the necessary two-thirds vote needed for a rezone that made the new dump possible. Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Cathy M. Holt rejected that argument in a decision filed May 17.
Opponents, including the Maricopa County chapter of the NAACP, the Maricopa Community Council for Progress (the majority of whom are white) and a dozen black property owners, have also sued the county in federal court, claiming the board of supervisors engaged in environmental racism by allowing a new dump in an African-American community that's already saddled with three landfills.
But proving that Mobile is black isn't easy.
In a letter sent last summer to Governor Janet Napolitano, NAACP officials, citing a census block where nine of 16 residents are African American, claim Mobile's population is 60 percent black. However, U.S. census data show that slightly less than 22 percent of the 64 people who live within three miles of the proposed landfill are black. The percentage plummets to less than 2 percent for the zip code that includes Mobile and the burgeoning housing developments in Maricopa. Dump opponents know these numbers all too well.
What race are you?
"I don't know how to gauge overall percentages, but the amount of African Americans who still own property is a good percentage," she says. "I've found a lot of people who still own property from the original settlers who came out in the '20s and '30s. They don't want it trashed. The reason why they're holding on to it is African Americans have never really had anything. When we do have something and recognize that it's worth something, we try to hold on to it."
Howard Shanker says he's still researching demographics. The lack of definitive answers may be one reason he hasn't yet served the county with the lawsuit filed nearly six months ago. Noting that the county hasn't been served, Bill FitzGerald, public information officer for the Maricopa County Attorney's Office, declined comment on the federal case.
Decades ago, Mobile was mostly black. But the community's history is rooted as much in myth as in fact. According to local lore, a county land-use plan and at least two Arizona history books, the community was pioneered by black families from Alabama who came to escape racial oppression in the deep South, hence the name Mobile.
However, a 1992 study commissioned by the state Historic Preservation Office determined that Edison Lung, the first permanent settler in Mobile, was white, and that the area was already called Mobile when he came along in 1921. The name, according to the state study, was given by the Southern Pacific Railroad as early as 1916 to designate a siding that provided water and other supplies to trains.
Black homesteaders followed Lung and came to dominate the community during the 1930s -- with the exception of Lung, every homesteader within six square miles was black. But they didn't come from the South, at least, not directly. Listing Phoenix-area addresses in homestead applications, they arrived in Arizona from Oklahoma and Texas, according to the state study. There were enough African Americans that the community needed two one-room schools -- railroad cars were pressed into service -- to keep the races separate.
By the end of the 1930s, more than 100 people lived in Mobile, according to the state study. But what passed for a boom in the desert didn't last. By the end of the 1940s, most of the original homesteaders had abandoned their land. But that didn't discourage Richard Cobb, who staked his 320-acre claim in 1930 and platted a town 10 years later. This place in the middle of nowhere was supposed to be exclusively black, with more than 400 residential lots complete with a park, water tower, orphanage and 14 streets. Lots sold for $10.
Naomi Skinner, the youngest of 13 children, says Cobb and James Manor, another of the first black homesteaders, convinced her parents to move from Chandler and buy two and a half acres for $18 in 1949. "They were trying to establish something of their own -- everywhere else, they were renting or leasing space," says Skinner, who was born and raised in Mobile but now lives in Phoenix.
According to the state study, Mobile's population peaked at between 200 and 300 people in the early 1950s, four decades before a paved road arrived. "It was rough -- it was very rough," recalls Skinner, who was born in 1955. Her mother, who divorced when Skinner was 7, raised pigs and a few chickens. She also negotiated contracts with cotton farmers, providing labor to work the fields in Maricopa and Coolidge. There was no agriculture in Mobile, where most people got water from a community well.
"We'd haul water in 55-gallon barrels," Skinner recalls. "If they were gas barrels, we'd burn them out first to purify them, then scrub them with Clorox and Fab with a broom -- scrub and rinse, scrub and rinse."
By the time Skinner graduated from eighth grade, the last grade taught in Mobile, there were just four other students in her class. "Every year, it got less and less," Skinner says. "They moved away because there were no jobs -- no high school and no jobs."
Skinner left Mobile in 1976 for the same reason. She studied computer-aided drafting and landed a job at Honeywell. Today, she works as an office manager, but her heart remains in Mobile.
"I'm just dying to get back out there," Skinner says. "Even though the living was hard, you can't go to a more peaceful, more pleasant, more beautiful place."
Marred, Skinner says, by just one thing: the Butterfield landfill.
"The dump that exists there now, the last time we tried to have a dinner for my mother, my family showed up out there and brought all this food," Skinner says.
"We couldn't even eat, there were so many flies. My nieces and nephews and my daughter loved going for long walks out there. They come running back to the house, the flies were hording around their faces like bees. And this dump is a mile away from my mother's house. What the hell's it going to be like with a dump a quarter-mile away?"
At the same time Waste Management is spending money to save Mobile from a competitor's dump, Butterfield is importing thousands of tons of garbage from across the nation -- and even Mexico -- that other states deem too dangerous to go into their own landfills.
Since 1996, Butterfield has accepted more than 255,000 tons of out-of-state waste, mostly from California, but also from as far away as Michigan and North Carolina. Nearly 10,200 tons have been imported from Mexico. Much of it, such as 60,000 tons of San Francisco Bay sludge laced with DDT and other toxins that was excavated to build Pac Bell Park, couldn't legally be sent to dumps closer to where the waste came from.
Waste Management officials avoid the words "hazardous waste." "We do take some waste into Butterfield from outside Arizona, especially special waste that can't find a home in the [originating] market," explains Woods, the company's general counsel. "We wouldn't take anything that didn't meet our permit requirements."
While Maricopa County requires Waste Management to report how much trash is imported to Butterfield, the state doesn't track how much out-of-state garbage, or precisely what kind, is deposited in Arizona landfills. That means that in many cases, no one in this state is keeping track of what kind of garbage comes into Arizona.
When the Department of Environmental Quality two years ago sent a survey to landfill operators asking how much and what type of waste they accepted from outside Arizona, only half of the entities surveyed returned questionnaires, says Cortland Coleman, DEQ spokesman.
"Any time you have a situation where you don't mandate an activity, you're only going to get a certain amount of response," Coleman observes. Coleman dodged questions as to whether DEQ is concerned about the amount and type of waste imported into Arizona landfills. Although he initially said DEQ director Steve Owens would respond to questions, Coleman subsequently said the director was too busy.
According to a report in the March issue of Waste Age, a solid-waste industry magazine, chances to profit from long-hauling garbage by rail will likely mushroom nationwide over the next dozen years as dumps near large metropolitan areas reach capacity. Waste Management officials downplay the possibility that out-of-state shipments to Mobile will increase. While there's nothing to prevent Southpoint from importing garbage from outside Arizona, Jason Barney insists such a scheme wouldn't pencil out.
"The farther away you get from a landfill, the more expensive it gets," he explains. "The ability for us to be able to take out-of-state waste, or even waste from other than Maricopa and Pinal County, just economically isn't going to work out."
Nonetheless, there would be plenty of space available.
The Butterfield landfill won't reach capacity for 110 years. The Sierra Estrella landfill in Pinal County, also owned by Waste Management, is 10 minutes away and has an estimated 40 years of life, but it isn't being used because there's sufficient space at Butterfield. According to a study released last year by the Maricopa Association of Governments, there's plenty of room for local garbage in existing dumps through the year 2050.
"It's real obvious that Southpoint is going to bring in waste from California," says Steve Brittle, president of Don't Waste Arizona. "There's no need for this dump. When we looked at this project to begin with, we were really kind of stunned."
Brittle is also concerned about what kind of waste would go into the proposed dump. He points out that no one can guarantee that dangerous waste won't be sent to Southpoint.
That's already happened at Butterfield, where TRW, a Mesa company that manufactures automotive air bags, dumped millions of gallons of wastewater contaminated with sodium azide, a toxic chemical that is supposed to go to licensed hazardous-waste sites. Waste Management wasn't punished, but TRW in 2001 agreed to pay the state and federal government more than $22 million in civil and criminal penalties. But the dumping didn't stop. Federal records show that TRW dumped more than four tons of sodium azide at Butterfield since a whistle-blower alerted authorities to the illegal dumping in 1997.
Coleman, the DEQ spokesman, says the federal records are misleading. He explains that sodium azide dumped at Butterfield since 1997 came in the form of residue attached to more than four tons of clothing, containers and various trash, but he can't pinpoint exactly how much of the chemical was on the garbage.
"When it comes to trash that's contaminated with sodium azide, there are some conditions that allow for that to be dumped there," he says.
Sandy Bahr, conservation director for the Grand Canyon chapter of the Sierra Club, says Arizona has become a dumping ground for other states, and lawmakers haven't done enough to keep track of what's going into landfills and prevent illegal dumping. She suggests that the state raise disposal fees and use the money to hire more landfill inspectors. "Solid-waste disposal is really cheap in Arizona," she says. "As long as the over-arching policies, whether at the state or county level, are weak, we're going to continue being a dumping ground. What we really need are some leaders in this state who understand it doesn't make sense, economically or environmentally, to continue with these kinds of policies."
Bill Leinheiser, a real estate speculator who sold land to Southpoint, downplays the illegal dumping at Butterfield. "I don't think it's a big deal," he says. "You're always going to get little infractions like that. When you talk about how much was probably sent there, it's probably just gone up into the atmosphere and dispersed before you knew it."
Leinheiser still has property for sale in Mobile and says prices are higher than ever. He foresees Mobile as a mix of residential and industrial uses, and he says he'd be willing to live next to the new dump made possible by the land he sold to Southpoint.
"It's a beautiful area," he notes. "Landfills don't really bother me that much."
A landfill right next door does bother Terry Poteet, who lives less than a football field away from the proposed dump and learned about Southpoint's plans two days after she signed the final papers to purchase her one-and-a-quarter-acre lot last summer.
She says she never would have bought her land if she'd known about the proposed landfill, but someone -- she can't prove who -- had torn down signs marking neighboring property as a future dump site.
"Would you want to live right across from a landfill?" she asks.
Among other things, Poteet worries about drainage. Although the proposed dump isn't within a government-designated flood zone, Southpoint's site fills with water in rainy weather. Poteet's daughter Misty Talbott has pictures that prove it. "They all call us 'The Lake People' at community council meetings," Misty Talbott says.
About a half-mile away, Ruby Parmar and her daughter Nena Allen are resigned to the landfill coming in. They've lived in Mobile for 36 years, most recently in a single-wide with no running water. Even though they've seen successful fights against proposals for an oil refinery and a hazardous-waste incinerator, Parmar and Allen are all too familiar with the equation, and they figure their winning streak is about to end.
"They have power," Allen explains. "They have money. We have nothing. That's why all these businesses settle in these little places. We'll fight the dump all the way, but I believe it will come in."
Talmage Dennis Barney, Jason Barney's father and the man behind Southpoint's proposed dump, certainly has plenty of juice. He lives on the opposite end of the Valley, in a Gilbert home valued at $1 million, and sits on the boards of at least 17 Arizona-based corporations. Indeed, Barney is a corporation unto himself -- he's the president and only listed stockholder of T. Dennis Barney, Inc., an entity which concerns itself with real estate, according to records at the Arizona Corporation Commission.
Five generations ago, Barney's family helped pioneer the East Valley, where most of his businesses are headquartered. While Barney's business interests are diverse, ranging from a flooring company to an interior design superstore, he's made his biggest mark as a land developer, marketing land for industry, luxury housing and vacation homes as far away as Flagstaff.
Jason Barney, one of nine of Talmage Dennis Barney's children, says his family has wanted to open a dump for at least eight years, but Pinal County officials twice scuttled their proposals. The Arizona Department of Environmental Quality is now considering a permit application from Southpoint, which hopes to open its dump in January 2006.
Jason Barney says another landfill in Mobile just makes good business sense. "You look at the history of projects we've done, we're very diverse and across the board," he says. "My point is, we look at the community and say, 'What does the community need here and how can we create a business opportunity out of that?' That's exactly why we got in the landfill business."
The "how" part of this foray into the landfill business is a familiar tale in Maricopa County, where developers with connections often get what they want.
C. Dennis Barney, one of Talmage Dennis Barney's sons, sat on the county's planning and zoning commission at the time Southpoint's landfill proposal passed. C. Dennis recused himself from discussions and voting. He's since been replaced by his brother Jason.
When the matter reached the supervisors, Don Stapley, who voted in favor of the dump, saw no need to recuse himself, even though he was once business partners with Talmage Dennis Barney. It was hardly a profitable venture -- but it was a big one. The two men were sued 12 years ago by the Resolution Trust Corporation after defaulting on more than $23.4 million in real estate loans.
Stapley did not return a phone call. Jason Barney makes no apologies.
"That's just the way it goes," Barney offers. "Our family's been developing the community here in this Valley for generations. It's unavoidable that we're going to have relationships with people on the board of supervisors, the [planning] staff, whatever."
While their neighbors blast Southpoint and the county, Van Kellems and Bob Black bask in the prospect of a dump in their backyards.
Kellems and Black are a couple of snowbirds from Washington state who've wintered in Mobile for a half-dozen years. Noting the railroad line, easy access to natural gas and electricity, proximity to Highway 238 and the area's sparse population, they say Mobile is a perfect spot for a dump. "Wouldn't you look at this as the greatest place in the world for industrial development?" asks Kellems.
Living in side-by-side modular homes, the two friends are the most visible eccentrics in a place where folks mind their own business and don't object when retirees who've never quite grown up buzz around in dune buggies, motorcycles, ATVs, ultralights and small airplanes. They particularly enjoy flying ultralights around the desert just 10 feet above the ground, "dirt-biking in the air," Kellems calls it. They've also mounted a replica .50-caliber machine gun on the back of a dune buggy, Rat Patrol-style. With exploding bursts of propane simulating gunfire, it looks -- and sounds -- exactly like the real thing.
This is Mad Max meets Beavis and Butt-head, with no shortage of disposable income. They've installed two airstrips, one decorated with a wrecked airplane they hauled here from the desert and placed at the end of one runway, positioned as if it just augered into the ground. At the entrance to their compound are two wing tanks from an Air Force jet, painted to resemble surface-to-air missiles and pointed menacingly at the sky. They've got two hangars to store all their stuff, "big toy bins," as they put it. Big bangs are another hobby. One cannon fashioned by Black fires bowling balls a half-mile or more. Another, powered by acetylene, shoots nothing but fire, but makes a mighty noise.
Kellems, who hasn't worked since 1972, made his fortune in his father's company, which manufactured cable anchors that are ubiquitous around the world -- still in use today, the anchors were used to build scores of suspension bridges, the Chrysler Building in New York and Hoover Dam in Nevada. Black is circumspect about his source of money. "I'm a gigolo," he offers, completely deadpan. "I used to be a male prostitute, but that didn't work out."
Kellems owns 200 acres here. When he bought his land, Kellems figured he'd be able to use it as a playground for perhaps 10 years before sprawl crowded him out. So far as he and Black are concerned, a landfill is better than hundreds of homeowners who wouldn't take kindly to bowling balls falling from the sky. "Four hundred houses and a nine-hole golf course, I can't fly over that -- you'd have people bitching and moaning," Kellems says.
Kellems scoffs at the lawsuits filed by his neighbors. "They're dumping on the blacks and all that -- what a bunch of BS," he says. "Death of a community. Give me a break. The community's not going to die." And if Mobile gets too crowded, Kellems says he'll simply find another place to spend his winters.
"I'm business oriented, and I like to see competition," he says. "Waste Management is getting rid of the competition. You don't do that, especially going through a third party. My dad taught me: You learn to live with your neighbor, or you move or you buy them out.
"You don't sue."
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