By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
A year later, the TWC discovered that ground water samples taken at the plant routinely contained unusually high pH levels, as well as elevated levels of antimony, iron, mercury, selenium, and methylene chloride, among other contaminants.
"These laboratory results demonstrate that an adverse impact on the ground water has occurred," a TWC inspector wrote in an April 23, 1993, letter to TXI.
In both cases, TWC officials threatened TXI with $10,000-a-day fines, but backed down after TXI officials promised to fix the problems.
In 1992, the Environmental Protection Agency determined that TXI had failed to properly sample its cement-kiln dust and that, as a result, the company could not prove that its ash was not hazardous. The EPA cited the company for operating a hazardous waste landfill without a permit. The agency initially proposed fining TXI $304,314, but settled for $26,000 and promises that TXI would do better in the future, according to EPA spokeswoman Cheryl Hochstetler. But the company's promises did not resolve safety concerns about its disposal of cement-kiln dust.
In 1994, the EPA identified TXI as a "case of potential damage to ground or surface waters" because it believed toxic metals and cement-kiln dust from TXI's landfill could leak into nearby tributaries and ground water.
Today, the EPA is still deciding whether to classify cement-kiln dust as a hazardous waste--a question it has been unable to resolve for about eight years, according to Steve Gilrein, an associate director in the permit division of the EPA's Region 6 office in Dallas.
"There has just been a historical belief that it [cement dust] just didn't present the same hazard as commercial incinerator waste," Gilrein says. "There generally is agreement that there has to be an appropriate waste disposal system, however."
Dressed in baggy jean shorts and a 1994 Lollapalooza T-shirt, Jim Schermbeck cracks open one of the large black binders that consume every available inch of the cramped office of Downwinders at Risk. From the binder, he extracts a single piece of paper.
The fading July 17, 1987, interoffice memo from the Texas Air Control Board contains the state's permission for TXI to burn 100 percent "waste-derived fuel" at 6,696 gallons per hour. (The Texas Air Control Board and Texas Water Commission have since been merged into the Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission.)
"The company has submitted information which shows that the emissions from the cement kilns will not increase by a significant amount and public notification is not required," the memo states.
With the state's permission--unknown to residents of Midlothian, DeSoto, Cedar Hill, Duncanville, Dallas, and other nearby communities--TXI began burning hazardous waste. It took two more years before residents learned that TXI's smokestacks were spewing a whole new set of pollutants over their rooftops.
Residents finally learned the truth in 1989, almost by accident. TXI went to the state for permission to begin storing hazardous waste at the plant. Neighbors didn't even know TXI was burning waste, much less that it wanted to start storing thousands of gallons of the stuff.
At the time, the state wasn't required to hold a public hearing on the storage permit unless someone asked for one. Although TWC officials appeared ready to grant the permit in the fall of 1989, a sudden influx of citizen complaints prompted them to delay the decision.
"One of the most disturbing aspects of this whole thing is that...we just happened to find out about it by accident," Midlothian resident Linda Lott wrote in a letter to state officials.
Lott was one of dozens of area residents who wrote the state opposing the storage permit, outraged that the original decision to let TXI burn hazardous waste was made behind closed doors.
Plant neighbors began to ask questions, exchange information, and attend public meetings. A grassroots movement was born. During the past eight years, the movement has operated under various names and configurations. But its numbers peaked several years ago, and since then it has been withering.
Today, Downwinders at Risk represents the dwindling leftovers of a once-hardy movement. For all practical purposes, Downwinders is the only organization battling TXI.
This bantam group of mothers, housewives, and retirees are penny-ante bettors trying to beat a corporate giant in a game with millions of dollars on the line. Their chances of victory are slim.
"These guys entered the process really believing that the system was there to work for them. When they see that it doesn't work like the civic books say it does, they become very angry," Schermbeck says. "It causes a real deep cynicism in people when this happens."
As the Downwinders' only paid staff member, Schermbeck works--and lives--in a tiny, red house in Cedar Hill, its cracked front window held together with masking tape. Each month, members of the group dig into their pockets to cover Schermbeck's $450 rent, plus bills. Although Schermbeck gets reimbursed for his expenses, his paycheck usually comes in the form of groceries.
Downwinders hired Schermbeck in the fall of 1994, when it first appeared that TNRCC was preparing to hold public hearings on TXI's permit application. Schermbeck was enlisted to track the technical aspects of the permit and to guide Downwinders through the process. The job was expected to last two years.