Ill Wind Blowing

Texas Industries wants permission to burn 270,000 tons of hazardous waste each year at a concrete plant 30 miles from Dallas. That would make it the nation's largest incinerator of toxic waste. Despite stunning ignorance about what this will do to your he

The first phase of the marathon permit hearing was just a few days away. The two administrative law judges would hold a preliminary hearing to decide who could become official "parties" in the process.

The Downwinders had to set their strategy. Volunteers were needed for another balloon release. Buses had to be rented to drive demonstrators to a pre-hearing rally.

Rita Beving, president of the Dallas chapter of the Sierra Club, began the meeting with good news: The national Sierra Club was willing to hire an attorney to represent the group.

But the national office was concerned about the costs, so everyone would have to pitch in at bake sales and garage sales. The group needed to raise about $200,000, and fast. So far, it had only $14,000.

"None of us have enough money to fight this, so we'll do it with people power," Pope said, pumping her fist like a cheerleader at a pep rally.

Schermbeck tells his supporters they need to get as many people as possible to show up at the May 20 public hearing. The media will be there. It will at least be a chance for people to talk about why they believe TXI is making them sick.

"This is your time to say what's on your mind," he says. "This is the one chance we have left to affect this permit."

The day before the hearing, Downwinders gather in front of TXI's plant to release 1,500 balloons, a visual demonstration of how TXI's emissions drift northward over the Metroplex. But the gesture also serves as a reminder of better days that have long since passed. The crowd is small, and several mothers have to take their children home early because the emissions from TXI are making them cough. "We got gassed pretty good," says Pope.

The next day, waiting outside Midlothian Middle School for the hearing to begin, Green is still laughing about the balloon stunt. "Only seven people showed up," Green says. "If this is as big an issue as they say it is, then they should have had more people."

Standing in the mist, Green is further heartened by the Downwinders' seeming inability to stage even a simple protest.

At long last, the moment for which plant opponents have spent years waiting--even begging--has finally arrived, and the Downwinders are nowhere to be seen.

In a press release distributed days earlier, the Sierra Club's Beving told reporters that a busload of activists would descend upon the school, fired up and ready to trounce TXI during the hearing.

But on hearing day, Beving nervously paces inside the school's auditorium, wondering what happened to the bus. The assembled journalists are growing bored, sitting in the school's entryway clasping bright orange TXI public relations folders handed out by Green.

By the time the rented tour bus finally pulls into the parking lot and wheezes to a stop, the protest is running a half-hour late.

"Hey, hey. Ho, ho. TXI has got to go," they chant, barely audible over the idling of the waiting bus and grumbling cameramen.

As each of the 30-odd protesters steps off the bus, wearing gas masks and holding signs, the smile on Green's face grows wider.

The television cameras approach Green for TXI's official comment on the protest. Green jerks his pinstriped suit coat into place and casually clasps his hands behind his back.

"I think it's a fact that we're going to get a permit," he says.

Next week, Part Two of this special report will examine the effect TXI's Midlothian plant is having on the health and lives of those living near it. Readers with comments can e-mail staff writer Rose Farley at rfarley@dallasobserver.com

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