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

"I never thought that when this May was up, we'd be just beginning the permit process," Schermbeck says. "It's awfully hard to live this way, but I don't like to walk away from a fight."

A graduate of Austin College whose bachelor's degree is a combination of political science, philosophy, and religion, Schermbeck spends his time researching TXI's operations and plotting Downwinders' strategy.

For the past 18 months, the group has tried to build a coalition of cities to intervene in the permit hearing and oppose TXI. It has also recruited area doctors and lobbied state lawmakers in hopes of obtaining legislation that would require TXI to meet tougher environmental standards.

"This is as much a political process as it is a legal one or a technical one," Schermbeck says. "As long as you keep the spotlight on Governor Bush and the TNRCC, you're putting them in the hot seat, and that's where they need to be."

The Downwinders have won several skirmishes over the years, but as they prepare to enter the ninth inning, Schermbeck says they need bigger hitters.

"It's that hump of money and politics at the higher echelons of state government that we can't get past," Schermbeck says. "It's very, very frustrating to get 90 yards downfield and come up against this brick wall. We just don't have the money to compete."

TXI certainly has money. In 1996, the Dallas-based company rang up $360 million in sales and earned a record-breaking $90 million in profits, eclipsing the previous year's record profits of $69 million.

Credit a vigorous Texas economy, but TXI should also thank the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which handed cement companies a whole new way to make money back in 1985.

That year, the EPA changed the rules on hazardous waste-burning, creating a nifty little loophole for cement companies like TXI.

Commercial incinerators, the companies burning hazardous waste solely to get rid of it, are required to obtain special permits and meet specific health and safety standards. But the EPA decided to let companies like TXI start burning waste as fuel without meeting the same standards.

Thousands of manufacturers across the country had hazardous waste to get rid of. Owners of voracious cement kilns saw a new supply of fuel. Virtually overnight, the EPA created a brand-new industry which it was not prepared to regulate.

Now, the American Lung Association estimates that 60 percent of the hazardous waste generated in this country is burned not in the special incinerators built for that purpose, but in cement kilns. In 1995, cement companies burned 1.2 million tons of hazardous waste, compared to 845,000 tons burned by commercial incinerators, according to EI Digest.

The incentive to burn hazardous waste is obvious: Not only does TXI save a small fortune on coal and natural gas, it gets paid to take hazardous waste off the hands of manufacturers.

Nowadays, TXI advertises the practice as a "recycling" program, good for the environment. But the company's decision to burn waste was driven by the color of money, and the need to undercut competitors.

In 1986, Gifford Hill Cement Company (now North Texas Cement Company) began burning hazardous waste a few miles north of TXI. The company was forced to stop the practice in 1991 after being cited for violating its permit.

At the time, at least one TXI executive was troubled by the prospect of hazardous waste being burned in Midlothian. Then-TXI plant manager Rudy Hall penned a letter to state officials on March 30, 1986, questioning the wisdom of allowing cement kilns to use hazardous waste as fuel.

In his three-page letter, Hall formally requested that state officials hold a public hearing to examine the risks. Ironically, the TXI manager's 1986 argument is the same one TXI's opponents are making today.

"As a citizen of Midlothian, I am concerned about the air quality in this area and also the effect on the water supply from burning the waste-derived fuel, especially the lead and metals concentrations," Hall wrote in the letter, in which he did not identify himself as a TXI employee.

But the next year, TXI got its own permit amendment and started burning the waste itself. Hall had argued that a public hearing on such waste-burning was essential. But when TXI started burning waste itself, the need for a public vetting became less obvious to the company. TXI aggressively--and successfully--argued that it should not be required to tell the public it was going to burn hazardous waste, according to a series of memos that circulated at the now-defunct Texas Air Control Board (TACB).

Since 1987, TXI has steadily increased the amount of hazardous waste it burns each year, from 26,924 tons in 1989 to an estimated 100,000 tons now, according to the TNRCC.

In 1991, the EPA did try, at least partially, to close the loophole it had created and impose stricter standards on industrial furnaces, including cement kilns. The new rules required companies like TXI to apply for permanent permits to continue burning hazardous waste. It is that permit TXI now seeks.

State and federal officials contend that the new standards are as tough on cement kilns as the old standards have always been on commercial incinerators. Environmentalists don't buy that for a minute, and say cement companies like TXI will still be allowed to belch excessive pollution into the air.

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