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 law judges--Tommy Broyles and Carol Wood--will hear evidence, listen to witnesses, and make a final recommendation to the three TNRCC commissioners. Testimony, beginning December 1, is expected to last at least a month.

Neal Carman, who will participate in the hearing, believes there's a good chance the law judges will recommend a permit that is stricter than the one TXI is seeking. But he also believes the TNRCC commissioners, who have the final say, will give TXI everything it wants.

"You cannot separate politics from regulation at TNRCC. All TXI has to do is pick up the phone and call the governor's office," says Carman, who calls the agency's track record on polluters appalling.

"They turn communities into sacrifice zones to save polluters big bucks," he says. "It happens all the time all over the state. It's a broken record."

Opposition to TXI first flourished in 1989, after the company applied for a state permit to store hazardous waste at its plant. Letters from nearby citizens prompted a series of public meetings from 1990 through 1993, during which hundreds of residents routinely turned out to voice their concerns about TXI's hazardous waste program. The movement was in its heyday.

"You wouldn't know it these days," Jim Schermbeck says. "But back at those initial meetings, 500 to 600 people would show up."

Sue Pope doesn't remember the exact day she learned of TXI's toxic burning, but she remembers how. Pope found four balloons trapped in the bushes on her 27-acre ranch. The balloons had been released by CAUSE--the group that preceded Downwinders--to alert residents to the wind patterns of TXI's emissions.

At the time, Pope was preoccupied with the business of breeding horses on her ranch, which lies just outside the Midlothian city limits on land her family has owned since the 1930s. In the early 1990s, Pope's prizewinning Arabians were starting to have trouble reproducing. And Pope and her husband were increasingly having problems breathing.

Pope called the phone number attached to the balloons that landed in her yard, and began a seven-year journey that would consume much of her time and energy. Since then, Pope's son has gone off to college, and she has converted his bedroom into an office filled with medical reports, veterinary reports, and thousands of documents collected from various state agencies.

Like her neighbors, Pope didn't know the first thing about how a state environmental agency works. She didn't even know what Greenpeace was.

"I was so naive," Pope says. "I thought if I went down to the state and told them I was having health problems relating to this, they'd do something about it. I really did."

In the years since then, Pope says she has been ignored, insulted, and humiliated by state officials. Her claims might sound like sour grapes from a beaten activist, but state records bear her out.

In November 1991, Pope was the subject of an interoffice Texas Air Control Board memo, in which one state inspector sarcastically concluded that Pope was a "rational human being" even though she believed there was a "spy" in the agency who was giving TXI advance warning of surprise inspections. (Other documents included in the state's files show that the state did warn TXI of upcoming on-site investigations.)

The inspector then proceeded to attack Pope for her lack of scientific knowledge. "She didn't know what an organic compound was," the inspector sniped.

Recollection of those types of comments cause tears to well in Pope's eyes. "We're going to them on bended knees, and they don't care," she says. "The average person doesn't know how to begin to fight. And it costs money and time. There's no profit in this for us--except survival."

Planting her elbows on her kitchen table, Pope buries her head in her hands and sighs. "I'm tired," she says.

Pope, like Schermbeck and the few others who have remained true to the cause, knows that TXI is winning. The company has won in the legislature and in court, and most likely will win at the TNRCC. Whatever momentum the Downwinders had three years ago has been lost.

That is exactly what TXI hoped for when it brought in a hired gun named Harold Green to wage war on the plant's opponents.

The smiling lass kneels in a sea of bluebonnets, wearing an airy summer gown, its sleeves neatly pleated and delicately puffed. A cluster of trees stands behind her, leafy branches extending toward a cloudless blue sky.

"Healthy Children. Colorful Flowers. Green Trees. Bright Blue Sky. All the Elements of a Beautiful Picture and a Beautiful Earth," states the full-page advertisement, which recently ran in the Arlington Morning News. Underneath the idyllic picture was the motto "TXI: Building a Better Environment."

This is the work of Harold Green.
TXI hired Green as its director of communications in September of 1995 and assigned him to lead the company through the rocky public relations journey certain to accompany its quest for a new hazardous waste permit. At the time, Downwinders was still strong, and Green acknowledges that he took control of a public relations disaster.

"Up front we were in a reactive mode, because we did come in behind," Green says. "I didn't really have time to sit down and plan, as much as I had to sit down and react and get out as much information as we could."

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