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“Rick Perry,” from page 7 Fisher learned that the state had known about the Ridgeway site for years. The original idea to build the dump on the Ridgeway site came from the Texas Water Commission, according to agency documents. And a T.W.C. engineer, Herbert Nordmeyer, took samples at the Ridgeway site and testified for the plaintiff in a 1974 lawsuit by a neighbor who had lost over two dozen cows. The company quietly settled the suit. But the residents of Ridgeway were never warned of the contamination in their water supply. In 1996, the TNRCC found arsenic in sediment in the underground tanks of the Gafford Chapel Water Company, the sole distributor of water to Ridgeway. The agency also took samples from toilet tanks of customers, which tested positive for arsenic as well. According to TNRCC memos, the agency urged the company to shut down the system and clean its tanks, and to consider switching over to the Sulphur Springs municipal water supply until the source of the contamination was determined. But regulators already knew what the source of the arsenic was the nearby Ridgeway site, which was less than two hundred yards from the nearest Gafford Chapel well, as TNRCC documents acknowledge. According to Rod O’Connor of Bryan, a chemist hired by a private law firm to take samples in Ridgeway, the agency allowed the company to reopen on a technicality. State and federal standards apply only to dissolved arsenic, not particulate arsenic, so the company was not violating the letter of the law. “The arsenic is in the tap water as a cloudiness,” says O’Connor, who was able to precipitate arsenic-laden sediment from a glass of water taken from Paulette Fisher’s house in Ridgeway. Paulette Fisher, Benny Fisher’s sister-inlaw, says cancer rates are so high in her neighborhood that it has become difficult to obtain insurance. She says neither the company not the state has ever warned the neighborhood about the arsenic. / n 1995, VPG agreed to settle one of the complaints raised by Benny Fisher’s original investigation, involving the sale of arsenic-tainted fertilizer, for $30,000. But no enforcement action has ever been taken by any agency regarding the more serious allegations of illegal dumping in Bonham and contamination in Ridgeway. A June 30 press release from the TNRCC announced that the attorney general’s office had managed to extract $2.5 million from VPG in bankruptcy court. \(Although the company declared bankruptcy in 1996, VPG continues to operoffice, that money was collected solely to compensate the state for expenses incurred in the 1995 cleanup of Sayles Creek in Commerce. The Bonham and Ridgeway sites, on the other hand, have been placed in the TNRCC’s voluntary cleanup plan. “They cut a deal,” says Rod O’Connor. The voluntary cleanup program allows companies to clean sites to a “health-based” standard \(based on the predicted future use of the standard \(which according to O’Connor is standard, companies have to leave sites as though the contamination had never occurred. O’Connor worked on an arsenic case in Bryan in which the state advocated using a health-based standard. “For health-based, you just hire a couple of experts to say the site is no longer a health threat, and you’re done,” O’Connor said. “They’ll probably get away with maybe ten percent of the cost of doing it right.” VPG will also be relieved of liability from further state enforcement under the program. Particularly in the case of Ridgeway, where an aquifer may have been irreversibly contaminated, this provision could save the company millions. Barry McBee feels the state got a pretty good deal. “You’ve got a company in bankruptcy, and we were in line with creditors fighting to get at the pot of money that’s there,” McBee said. Fines and judgments, according to McBee, are always paid last in bankruptcy court. But Fisher completed his investigation in 1990, six years before VPG declared bankruptcy. Couldn’t the state have gotten in line sooner? “You’re asking why did not the Water Commission more aggressively pursue this, and I don’t know I wasn’t there,” McBee said. But McBee was uniquely positioned, first at T.D.A., and later at the TNRCC, to follow the progress of the dumping case. Perry, speaking through T.D.A. attorney Wil Galloway, denies that Fisher’s files were confiscated. \(McBee also claims no knowledge of that action, nor could he recall Galloway said Fisher was removed from the case because the company had alleged misconduct by Fisher, which might have affected his credibility at trial. As it happened, no trial ever occurred. Galloway claimed allegations pertaining to illegal dumping were handed over to the Texas Water Commission. As late as 1993, the T.W.C.’s successor agency, the TNRCC, was claiming the Ridgeway site was “just discovered.” “All my life, I always thought that the law was for everyone to follow,” says Fisher, who was a sheriff for twelve years before joining T.D.A. “But it don’t work that way at T.D.A. If you’ve got big money, you’re cool. If you’ve got political pull, you’re cool.” Fisher was fired in June of 1993, for an unrelated incident a complaint from a farmer under investigation by Fisher that he says was merely an excuse to get rid of him. Says Fisher, “The only thing I can say is, I got one vote, that’s all I got, but I’d sure hate to see Rick Perry as lieutenant governor.” This article was partially funded by readers’ donations to the Texas Observer Investigative Reporting Fund. Turn Left on the Information Highway! Now You Can Go DownHome with The Texas Observer! Visit The Observer DownHome Page: The DownHome Page has recently been upgraded, revised, revamped, and just generally Texas-ized. Recent issues are posted Archives are available You can write to us Or send us to a friend. You can even subscribe by credit card! Check us Out! 18 THE TEXAS OBSERVER OCTOBER 23, 1998