By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
Beneath the smokestacks of Texas Industries' Midlothian plant, four giant kilns operate 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The massive ovens burn at the hellish temperature of 2,800 degrees--hot enough to bake rock. A mixture of limestone, shale, sand, and water is blended and cooked until it forms dry crystals called "clinker." Mixed with gypsum, the clinker will become Portland cement.
When Texas is booming--like now, with people and companies moving in, wanting more houses, offices, and highways--the plant churns out about 2 million tons of concrete a year. TXI has literally laid the foundation for cities across the Southwest. Countless buildings, roads, and bridges are made from TXI's concrete. Dallas City Hall, the Morton H. Meyerson Symphony Center, and the brand-new J.C. Penney headquarters building in Plano are all built of it. TXI's cement even repaired the Alamo.
The seemingly dull business has made TXI very, very rich. It is the largest concrete producer in Texas, and the Midlothian plant is the largest in the state--its towering smokestacks rising from cow pastures about 30 miles southwest of Dallas.
The plant is also the largest industrial air polluter in North Texas, pumping out tens of thousands of pounds of metals and other debris each year, according to the government. On still days, the pollution drifts upward. More often, winds carry the plant's emissions to the northeast, over Cedar Hill, DeSoto, and Duncanville, and into the very heart of Dallas. At night, spotlights illuminate the plumes from the plant that never sleeps.
Keeping the kilns burning requires tremendous amounts of energy, and the Midlothian plant is notable in that regard as well. It is the only concrete plant in the state which burns hazardous waste, a practice it began 10 years ago when a change in federal law opened the door for cement producers to use waste as fuel.
Instead of paying for coal or natural gas to fire its kilns, TXI actually charges other companies to burn their hazardous waste. As a result, the emissions coming from TXI's smokestacks are more sinister than those of a typical plant, laced with pollutants like arsenic, cadmium, mercury, and lead released during the burning of TXI's toxic soup.
Now, the company wants permission to more than double the amount of waste it burns. TXI is seeking a permit that would allow the Midlothian plant to become the largest burner of hazardous waste in the United States.
Standing between TXI and its permit is the Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission, which must decide whether to grant the company's application. Remarkably, this marks the first time in the country's history that citizens in any state will have an opportunity to contest a cement plant's request for a hazardous waste burning permit.
There is stunning ignorance of the potential health effects of both TXI's current operations and its proposed expansion. Next week, in the second part of this special report on TXI, the Dallas Observer will examine what is known--and not known--about the plant's effects on the health of those living near it.
There is little reason to believe that the TNRCC--governed by a three-member board that includes a former TXI lobbyist--will ultimately deny the company's permit.
The agency has already announced that it believes the plant poses no threat to the environment. Rejecting TXI's permit would in effect require the TNRCC to repudiate its own public assurances that the plant is safe.
But since TXI began burning waste in 1987, people who work and live near the plant have reported a wide array of health problems, including an inexplicable number of babies born with Down syndrome, an increase in asthma and other respiratory problems, and a bizarre string of premature deaths and deformities among farm animals.
None of the health problems have been directly linked to TXI's plant, but they are occurring often enough to raise grave concerns about the plant's effect on those living within windfall of its ceaseless incinerators.
A small but persistent group of citizens and environmentalists believes that TXI is pumping out poisons that ultimately will create a Superfund site. For years, they have waged a steady, grassroots campaign to force TXI out of the hazardous waste business. The American Lung Association and national Sierra Club have weighed in with the plant's opponents.
But at this most critical moment in TXI's history--when the state can either halt the toxic burning or give TXI its blessing to continue the practice into the next century--plant opponents appear to be on the brink of near-total defeat.
Flush with two years of record-breaking profits, TXI is outspending and outmaneuvering its opponents at every turn. In Austin, TXI lobbyists easily defeated a legislative effort this year that would have required TXI to meet stricter regulatory standards. In Dallas, TXI lawyers recently beat back a class-action lawsuit brought by citizens.
To placate those breathing TXI's emissions, company spin doctors are waging an aggressive public relations campaign touting TXI as a champion of the environment. An 18-month blitzkrieg of advertisements and goodwill gestures has polished the company's once-tarnished reputation, and TXI has successfully courted elected officials, even giving the mayor of Midlothian an executive job at one of its subsidiaries.