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Don't mess with Toxic Tex. This Texas cowboy started with a mission, a badge, and a $1-a-year salary: prowling the empty lots of Jersey City, he has identified hundreds of illegal dump sites and brought the villains to justice

He's ``the Marshall,'' ``the Toxic Ranger'' - the self-styled ``Wyatt Earp of Jersey City'' - a full-size cowboy in a 10-gallon hat who hopes to clean up one of New Jersey's most polluted sites. ``My ultimate goal,'' says Earl Zela Aldredge, or ``Toxic Tex,'' as he likes to be called, ``is to turn Jersey City into a Garden of Eden.'' In his western-style suits, bolo ties, and steel-toed Durango boots, Toxic Tex began stomping around this densely populated industrial city in 1980 like an old-time bounty hunter on the trail of environmental outlaws. Since that time he claims to have helped convict some 400 illegal dumpers and has vigorously battled to clean up the worst hazardous-waste disasters in this blighted community, which is struggling to overcome its reputation for dismal vistas and year-round industrial stench.

A six-foot, 300-pound, tobacco-chewing good old boy from Texas, he sometimes wields a lariat on special occasions at City Hall. The latest addition to his Wild West wardrobe, Tex explains, bears an embroidered map of Jersey City. Yellow rhinestones mark the 103 sites where he has detected dangerous levels of chromium.

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``When I figure something is wrong, I am 98 percent right,'' he boasts in a thick Texas twang that often turns heads amid the Brooklynese garbles of Jersey City. ``Basically, it's based upon a gut feeling.''

On early last week, Tex's instincts led him to Hoboken Avenue, a debris-strewn back road straddling the Palisades of Jersey City. Situated between a residential neighborhood at the top of the cliffs and an industrial strip at the bottom, the cobblestone street is an easily accessible no-man's land, a perfect spot to dump and run.

``He's been here today,'' Tex says of a local contractor suspected of illegally dumping construction rubbish on a patch of roadside property. ``I would love to catch [him].''

Speaking into his walkie-talkie, Tex orders one of his assistants, John McDonald, to stake out the property from atop the cliff, while a patrol car waits nearby. Although Tex and his inspectors are empowered to make arrests and issue summonses, they need the police to impound vehicles - an action that could cost an offender several thousand dollars in lost business.

About two hours later, Tex is touring other waste sites in the city, when the walkie-talkie begins to crackle with news from the stakeout. ``He got one!'' Tex exclaims. ``I knew it was going to pay off for John today. ... John got a bingo. He earned his pay today.''

Mr. McDonald and the policeman caught a truck dumping refuse from a nearby factory renovation, Tex explains later. The factory owns the site, and under threat of prosecution, worked out an agreement with Tex's people to clean up the property and other areas along Hoboken Avenue, Mr. Aldredge states. The trash removal began the next morning.

Earl Zela Aldredge grew up in Port Neches, Texas, an oil company town on the Gulf Coast. In 1971, after a combat injury in Vietnam cut short the military career he had dreamed of, Tex moved to Hoboken, N.J. A self-employed locksmith and community activist, he relocated to neighboring Jersey City eight years later.

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In 1980, at age 26, he asked Mayor Thomas F.X. Smith to make him an honorary environmental inspector - a ceremonial position that, at the time, meant little more than a badge, a picture in the paper, and a salary of $1 a year. But in less than two years, this one-man Hazardous Waste Task Force had identified 90 sites of illegal dumping in Jersey City and helped the city reach a cleanup agreement with nearly all the property owners. When one case came to court, Tex showed up, an OK Corral character geared for a judicial High Noon, with some 200 photographs of the violation site backed up by a 700-page handwritten report. Rolling into a throaty guffaw, a semi-toothless grin spreading beneath his mustache, he recounts how the stunned defendant agreed to a settlement. ``Well, what would you do if a guy walked in with 700 pages of handwritten notes?'' Tex says with a chuckle.

In the beginning, he endured lengthy stakeouts to catch illegal dumpers, he says. ``I remember many a nights I was lying in the weeds, waiting. Some of them thought I was nuts.... Cops came the first night, then they found out who I was, they left me alone. They just thought it was strange, a guy there lying in the weeds, looking at property....''

State and local officials, including the three mayors he has served under, have praised Tex's work.

``I just don't know of anyone else like Tex,'' says Jim Staples, spokesman for the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (DEP). ``He is extremely knowledgeable, and he is a classic example of a dedicated citizen who sees something wrong and wants to do something about it.''

``If you meet Tex, you would associate him more with being a professional wrestler than an environmentalist,'' Bob Ferraiuolo, head of the Hudson Regional Health Commission (the local enforcement arm of the DEP), told a local newspaper recently. But ``his work has been significant. It's had a ... profound effect on this city.''

Aldredge's dedication won him the confidence of city officials, who eventually hired him full time to run their hazardous materials (HazMat) program. The position now earns him $30,000 a year and his own three-man pollution posse, consisting of an engineer and two specialists hired from the DEP.

Tex doesn't drive and he never finished high school. Yet the self-taught environmentalist says he still manages to cover most of Jersey City's 15 square miles on foot, checking for such telltale signs of chemical pollution as discolored bricks, defoliated lots, or pools of bright yellow or green slime. But more than anything else, he claims to rely on his gut instincts. ``You see a site and it don't look right to you,'' he explains. ``You take a sample.''

Another site that didn't look right to Tex was on the side of New York Avenue, another isolated cliffside street. ``Our dumping capital of the world,'' he says of the street, where hundreds of rotted and mangled barrels are stacked several feet high on unsecured property. ``PCBs, cyanides - you name it. It was here. In general terms, what was discovered here was alphabet soup.''

Dressed in a hot-red western shirt and cowboy hat, Tex strolls through the rusty mounds of twisted and corroded metal, pointing out toxic substances like an excited tour guide. ``See the plastic liners. Those are acid drums. ... There's ammonia 26. That'll peel your skin right off. ... I would stand a little further back from that [drum]. She's bulging [from the expansion of chemicals inside]. She may pop!''

Calling attention to a 10-inch gash in one barrel, Tex explains how toxic containers are dumped, punctured with an ax, and then allowed to drain into the soil. ``That's what you call common illegal disposal methods,'' he states.

Tex says he spotted the site in 1980 from his Jersey City Heights neighborhood just above New York Avenue. He has been campaigning ever since for removal of the 30,000 toxic containers he estimates were dumped there by a now-defunct drum reconditioning factory. Despite a 1983 private/public cleanup of a portion of the property, Tex claims about 10,000 drums remain.

Jersey City has long been home to some of the state's foremost environmental atrocities. In addition to toxic debris discarded by once-flourishing heavy industries, and wastes illegally dumped by late-night haulers from other cities and states, Jersey City also contained the PJP landfill, or ``the Gateway to Hell,'' as local residents called it. For more than 30 years, an underground chemical fire burned at the 77-acre site along the Hackensack River, spewing thick, noxious fumes into nearby neighborhoods.

As part of a quasi-governmental group organized to fight for a cleanup, Tex was instrumental in bringing attention to the devastated property. In the summer of 1985, he set off by himself on a 55-mile, 2-day walk to the State House in Trenton. He carried some snacks and a portable CB radio, on which he was known by the handle ``the Lost Texan.'' As on his previous solo walkathon in 1982, Tex's leg (which was wounded in Vietnam) gave out several miles before he reached his destination. The following year New Jersey began a $21 million cleanup of the PJP site that was completed last summer.

One of Aldredge's most significant contributions to Jersey City's environmental rejuvenation so far, however, has been his detection of the area's widespread chromium contamination. In 1983, an anonymous fisherman called the HazMat ``office'' - a phone Tex then shared with another city official - and reported a bright yellow stream flowing into the Hackensack River from the shores of Jersey City.

``I went down there to check it out,'' Toxic Tex explains to his interviewer while eating a greasy, heaping plate of fried fish at a luncheonette a few blocks from City Hall. ``Chromium lake. The yellow lake. It looks like that mustard container,'' he says, pointing to a bright yellow plastic bottle.

Tex later uncovered chromium contamination in 103 vacant and occupied sites throughout the city. The DEP, which began studying the disaster following Aldredge's revelations, now estimates the carcinogen infects between 2 million and 3 million cubic yards of Jersey City soil. A cleanup is not expected for months - even years - although state and local authorities are researching methods of removing the industrial waste, which is said to corrode buildings and cause lung and skin diseases.

For all his flamboyance and hard-minded enthusiasm, Aldredge seems moved by a deep, emotional desire to do something about a tragic problem.

``The most important thing is to find the problems before the children get hurt,'' Tex murmurs solemnly. His voice chokes as he continues. ``That's why I do this job. For the children of Jersey City.''

One day Jersey City will be ``the cleanest city in the world,'' he intones with tears in his eyes. He has even written a country-western ballad for the occasion. ``It's a beautiful little song and I won't sing it until that day,'' the toxic avenger sniffles. Titled ``My Children,'' the tune is a memorial to Jersey City youngsters jeopardized by hazardous wastes. As his forehead folds in anguished furrows, Toxic Tex explains how ``My Children'' is currently locked in a safe, awaiting environmental purity.

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