When we passed through Sierra Blanca on the trail of New York Sludge, we didn’t connect with Mr. Addington, the gentleman who seemed to know the most about sewage sludge in Sierra Blanca. Recently, Mr. Addington got in touch with us and helped to clarify some points in the Sierra Blanca story.
In 1988 the US Congress passed a ban on the ocean dumping of sewage sludge, effective Dec 31, 1991. Prior to this, NYC dumped pretty much all their sewage in the ocean. Unable to continue this practice, NYC contracted with several organizations to dump the sludge somewhere else.
Julie Sze explains what happened next in her book, Noxious New York: “Every day 1,200 tons of sludge is produced from the city’s fourteen sewage treatment plants. From 1992 to 2002, New York City’s sludge was managed under private contract costing over $2.5 billion. The first sludge contracts had a notoriously corrupt history, given on a controversial no-bid process, where cost was not the only criterion used to award the contract. For a decade, approximately a fifth of New York City’s sludge was handled by Merco, which won a $169 million six-year contract in 1992. Merco tried to put the sludge in Oklahoma and Arizona.”
Unfortunately for Merco, the State of Oklahoma had a permitting process that would have required public discussion and review of their plan to spread New York shit all over Oklahoma fields. Running out of time, Merco sought other options. Regulations in Texas in 1992 did not require public notice prior to the land application of sewage sludge for beneficial use. So the sludge came to Sierra Blanca.
Mr. Addington was not born an activist. He describes himself as a shy child. His family owned a general store and lumber yard in Sierra Blanca, where they had lived for generations. But when it was casually announced that Merco would be spreading 250 tons a week of New York City sewage sludge on fields around Sierra Blanca, Mr. Addington wasn’t pleased.
Mr. Addington began a fight that would last more than ten years and cost him a heavy price. His lumber yard burned down and the fire marshal said there was evidence of arson. He had to use money from his family store to fund the fight, paying for lawyers and travel to Washington, DC, Austin, and Mexico City, where he testified before lawmakers.
The protests attracted media attention. The show TV Nation came to town to film a segment on what was being called the ‘poo poo choo choo’. The segment aired in episode three of their first season. Merco watched the show and sued for libel. An El Paso judge named Luscious Bunton awarded $1 dollar in actual damages and $4.5 million in punitive damages. However this opinion was reversed by the US Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in a somewhat scathing determination.
In 2001, New York City cancelled its contract with Merco. It’s unclear whether Mr. Addington’s protests had any influence on this decision. Part of the contract guaranteed that NYC would supply Merco with a minimum quantity of sludge or pay a fee. NYC hadn’t been meeting the minimum quantity and cited this guarantee as well as the fact that Merco was most the most expensive sludge disposal contractor as reasons for the cancellation. Mr. Addington pointed out to us that the owners of Merco were also in the news at the time for their mafia connections and perhaps NYC was also somewhat disturbed by this fact.
Whether you think the land application of sewage sludge is good or evil, it is startling to see what can happen when a person tries to push back against the much bigger powers of city, state, and corporation. Mr. Addington lost his store, his lumber yard, most of his money, and suffered losses in his family and relationships as well–all because he tried to stand up against something that altered his whole community.