Going Against the Flow: McCommas Bluff Plan Really About a Different Kind of Green

Categories: Get Off My Lawn

I wince. I wish. I need to give up reading.

Nature writer Diane Ackerman (The Zookeeper's Wife, 2008 Orion Award for nonfiction) has an op-ed piece in The New York Times today telling a wonderful story about cities that have turned wastewater treatment operations into nature preserves. I read it this morning and thought, "Why not here?"

Her piece ("Emerald Cities") tells the story of the Wakodahatchee Wetlands in Delray Beach, Florida, between West Palm Beach and Fort Lauderdale, where a boardwalk carries visitors out into a "natural" wonderland of roaring alligators and preening roseate spoonbills. It's all fed and kept alive by effluent from treatment plants.

She gives examples of other similar successes in converting public liabilities into treasures. The entire subject matter typically lumped as pollution or waste or garbage can provide smart communities with opportunities to create valuable assets instead.

Why do I wince? Because I'm thinking of this whole thing with the McCommas Bluff Landfill and the city manager's attempt to turn it into a trash-dumping monopoly in Dallas. The city wants to collect $13 million to $15 million a year in new "tipping" or trash-dumping fees by making it illegal for any trash-hauler to carry garbage to landfills outside the city limits.

In a briefing to the council last May, the city manager's staff made a big deal out of the money the city may be able to earn in the future from capturing and selling methane. It's probably a good case to make, but future incomes are sort of a dodge and a cover story for what the city wants to do now. They just want to get more money from the dump trucks -- the tipping fees. The methane thing is all pie in the sky for now.

So what's wrong with pie in the sky? What's wrong with looking ahead to the future? Nothing, but people live near McCommas Bluff right now. Their neighborhoods have a destiny and future, too.

Michael Sorrell, president of Paul Quinn College, had a very persuasive op-ed piece in The Dallas Morning News on August 10 arguing that the nearby Highland Hills area is on a path to rebirth and stability, and the last thing it needs is the region's biggest trash factory in the middle of it.

I know City Hall is starved for money. I do get that. But the fact is that strong neighborhoods have been worth way more to City Hall over time than business or industry. I am not putting down business or industry. But as I wrote here last April, residential property has generated twice the asset value to City Hall in the last 10 years as commercial property. I also offered an example from my own block to show that areas where the toughest restrictions on development have been imposed have generated the highest increases in value and the highest tax revenues for the city.

It's not that turning McCommas Bluff into the region's biggest trash factory is a bad business idea, in a vacuum. But City Hall can't operate responsibly in a vacuum. It has bigger obligations than merely keeping itself alive, and it has a bigger array of factors to weigh in meeting those obligations.

Even from a straight revenue approach, collecting more dumping fees at the expense of improving values in the Highland Hills neighborhood is penny wise and pound foolish. Tons foolish.

So what does this have to do with the nature writer? It's really a matter of total concept and what has or has not been thoroughly thought through here. In an age when progressive cities are accomplishing truly wonderful things with waste, does this McCommas Bluff idea come to us with one ounce of that kind of forethought or planning? Why couldn't McCommas Bluff include a bird sanctuary or other man-made natural attraction of some sort?

Did anybody even try to shape this idea in a way that would make it palatable to the neighbors? Did they even think about it?

I don't believe they did. I think this is a slapdash desperate attempt on the part of City Hall to gin up new revenues quickly from dumping fees. It's straight industrial. It does not include a single element of community consciousness.

That should make this decision easy. Just put all the shoes on all the other foots. Pretend this is a private company, not City Hall. Pretend it's a chemical plant, not trash-hauling. Pretend it wants to vastly increase operations near the wealthy Preston Hollow neighborhood in North Dallas, not a struggling but promising mainly minority neighborhood in the south. How would Preston Hollow react? What would our new Citizens Council mayor have to say about this then?

I think we got our answer.

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Bill Holston
Bill Holston

I like the concept you are using about making a jewel out of trash. Isn't that what has happened at the TRAC? (trinity audubon, reclaimed from an illegal dump site). I don't know about McCommas Bluff though. Maybe I lack the imagination of seeing what that huge mountain of trash can be. Maybe a ski jump, with snow made from green sludge. Imagine how cool St. Pat's day could be.

I agree with Scott below. That Trinity Forest is a diamond in the rough. What we need to do is to watch what Plano did with it's nature areas and make sure we've balanced access with preservation. DORBA just got through rebuilding boardwalk at LB Houston. Volunteers are driving this train all over the city.


JimI have been finding that working and communicating with Dallas City Hall an interesting experience. There are those in the upper echelons who have no creative or big ideas that will 'put home owners' in the Dallas vs. apartment renters. That's the bottom line that needs to be addressed. It's more or less like a dog reacts to being fed. They only see what is put in front of them for immediate gratification instead of long range planning that is required of any city. Mary Suhm is the worst of the worst and is the problem at the top of the ladder. No mayor can do anything without her approval. Once you get her out, and get someone good in there, will there be any progress in Dallas.


So which council person is pushing for it then. Because usually that would be enough to kill it...


Jim, I'm not sure two the ideas are compatible.  I'm not sure you were arguing as much either.  I do think we have our own, North America's largest urban forest that is formed from the effluent from our sewage--the Trinity forest is arguably fed by our treated water.  So, maybe we were green before Green was cool.  Though, let's not tout this fact as the city will no doubt seek to screw that up too. 

We do have birds on our dump, though I'm not sure that's what you were thinking.  Further, I can't imagine that trying to do any such thing makes any sense as the grade will change, and you can't grow trees in such dynamic soils.  I appreciate the challenge and the sentiment you've thrown out there, but I can't think of much that can be done till the landfill is retired. 

Mary S' plan is stupid.  Why try to hoard trash--hoarding cash would be better, but hoarding trash makes you prime for an intervention worthy of Bravo Network.  Forcing trucks to haul all their waste to South East Dallas is wasteful of gas, time and foolish.  Really, our landfill should ideally generate no methane, that would mean turning all our compostable material into compost/soil.  Only organic matter creates methane and it seems that soil would be better than collecting only the off-gassing while trying to build a mountain on a decomposing pile of trash.  This matters as decomposing material is literally turning matter into energy, the matter becomes a void. 


The irony is that the city will make very little if any profit from flow control because of the high cost of trucking material from North Dallas to South Dallas. The landfill already gets the majority of the commercial waste already and there is no green initiative available that could recycle what they already receive. Jim, you are right on the money when you point out that all the talk about mining landfills is pie in the sky and most of the proposals for recycling at the landfill are for unproven concepts that will cost millions. Most of the money from methane gas production goes to the company that built the gas plant rather than the city.


What ever happened to that big old burning flare at the land fill?  You could see it at night from I-45.  I assume it was burning off methane.  Is the methane actually being used in a meaningful way now?


yes, and it has been for some time.  The hill o' refuse has many large hypodermic needle looking things all over it, those, I assume are and have been harvesting methane. 

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