By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
On December 1, two administrative law judges are set to begin taking testimony on TXI's permit request. It is the last chance opponents will have to halt, or curtail, TXI's hazardous waste program. For those who fear the plant, the hearing will be nothing less than the final battle in a seven-year war against the devil's fire.
The city of Midlothian, population 5,500 and growing, proudly calls itself the "Cement Capital of Texas." A cement sign outside Midlothian City Hall says so. It is the only city in the nation that is home to three cement companies--North Texas Cement; Holnam Texas, LP; and, of course, TXI.
But "The Hazardous Waste Capital of the Nation" may soon be a more appropriate moniker. Already, TXI is the third-largest hazardous waste incinerator in the nation, according to EI Digest, an industry publication. Every day, freight trains and tanker trucks rumble along the town's edges carrying poison cargoes to the plant on Highway 67.
Most of the waste comes from elsewhere in Texas, but some is imported from California, New Jersey, Illinois, Arizona, and Colorado, according to copies of TXI's 1990-1993 shipping reports. The company has even accepted waste from as far away as Puerto Rico, according to an April 18, 1996, article published in the San Juan Star.
Under the permit it is seeking, TXI could burn up to 270,000 tons of hazardous waste every year for the next 10 years. The company is also asking for permission to increase the amount of waste it stores on its property by 290,000 gallons, to a total of 640,000 gallons.
By comparison, the nation's reigning champion for burning hazardous waste--the Rollins commercial incinerator in Deerpark, Texas--burned 102,000 tons in 1995. If TXI burns only half of what it is seeking in its permit, it will easily surpass Rollins and become the country's largest waste incinerator.
The tonnage figures alone may be startling, but what makes up that tonnage is even more telling. If granted its new permit, TXI could dramatically increase the amounts of toxins it burns, including:
*Arsenic: up from .49 tons to 4 tons per year
*Beryllium: up from .0022 tons to 1 ton a year
*Cadmium: up from .42 tons to 51 tons a year
*Mercury: up from .04 tons to 2 tons per year, and
*Lead: up from 25 tons to 435 tons a year.
Those metals have all been linked to a stunning array of health problems, including cancer, lung disease, birth defects, nervous system problems, and organ failure.
Even more important than what the company will burn is what comes out of its smokestacks. The permit will allow TXI to increase the amount of metals it pumps into the air to 52 tons a year. And even that figure doesn't include the increased amounts of dioxin the plant would emit.
One of the deadliest known chemicals, dioxin is a particularly nasty substance that interrupts the body's endocrine system and weakens the immune system. It is created when chlorine is burned. Under the permit it seeks, TXI would be allowed to increase the amount of chlorine it burns from 883 tons a year to a staggering 3,404 tons.
Both the company and state officials maintain that the plant is perfectly safe, but citizens living downwind have long complained that the "rotten egg" smell and "chemical odors" coming from TXI make breathing difficult, set off asthma attacks, and create a burning sensation in the eyes, nose, throat, and lungs.
TXI has been cited for violating state air-pollution laws four times since 1991, including complaints that it exceeded its permitted sulfur dioxide emissions and was creating an odor nuisance.
In 1995, the TNRCC ruled that TXI's emissions "tended to be injurious to or to adversely affect human health or welfare, animal life, vegetation or property" on six dates from 1991 through 1993. In response, TXI paid a $38,250 fine and agreed to complete an "odor nuisance study." To date, TXI has not submitted that study to the state, state officials say.
The gases and metals escaping from its smokestacks are only one of the ways TXI's Midlothian plant pollutes. There is also ash left over after hazardous waste is burned, which TXI dumps in its own back yard.
When commercial incinerators--that is, companies burning waste solely to get rid of it--burn waste, the leftover ash is considered toxic enough that it must be buried in permitted landfills designed to last 700 years, double-lined, and sealed to prevent metals and poisons from leaking into ground water.
But when hazardous waste is burned as fuel at a plant like TXI, the resulting "cement-kiln dust" doesn't have to go to a permitted landfill.
"Commercial incinerators are regulated up to their necks, and cement kilns are barely regulated up to their ankles," complains Charlie Schnabel, a lobbyist for Rollins Environmental Services, owner of the nation's largest commercial incinerator.
TXI dumps its cement-kiln dust into a quarry on its 1,587-acre plant site. The quarry's rock walls contain fissures, and it lies adjacent to Cottonwood Creek--a tributary to Joe Pool Lake, which is a hot spot for swimmers and a source of public drinking water. Although TXI claims that metals and toxins are not seeping out of its quarry, state and federal inspectors have found otherwise.
In 1992, the Texas Water Commission cited TXI for a series of violations, including bad record-keeping and failing to tell the state what types of waste it was generating. Of greater concern, however, was the discovery of a "reddish-brown" liquid seeping from TXI's landfill. It is not known if the liquid reached Cottonwood Creek.