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

Two years earlier, the council had agreed it would become actively involved in the TXI permit hearing because Cedar Hill's citizens believed the company posed an unknown threat to their environment. The decision to take a stand followed numerous council meetings, during which hundreds of area residents led by the Downwinders turned out to debate the issue.

But at its May 13 meeting, the council was asked to change its mind and stay out of the permit hearing. If the city would back off, TXI promised to pay for some independent waste and soil samples after it received the permit.

The Downwinders were nowhere in sight that night, but TXI spokesman Harold Green was. Seated in the last row of seats, Green calmly plucked lint off his pinstriped trousers as the council plowed through its agenda.

When the council reached "New Business," only one council member, Makia Epie, expressed reservations about the TXI resolution. But his lone vote didn't change matters. As it turned out, the deal had already been cut.

Even as the mayor and council members raised their hands to vote six to one in favor of abandoning the challenge to TXI's permit, Green sprang from his chair and began passing out copies of a press release that had already been printed lauding the council for its action.

With the vote, the Downwinders lost another member of the coalition of cities it had hoped to build in opposition to the permit. For Green, the victory was just another good day at the office. And Green has had a lot of good days at the office lately.

Just two months earlier, more than 30 Downwinders and other citizens trekked to Austin for a meeting of the House Committee on Environmental Regulation. The committee was considering a bill that would have required TXI to meet the tougher standards already applied to commercial incinerators.

But the citizens, who took vacation days and arranged car pools to attend the hearing, were easily drubbed, beaten to the punch by a team of 14 lobbyists whom TXI paid more than $290,000 this year to carry its legislative agenda, according to the Texas Ethics Commission.

The lobbyists' work was done long before Rep. Warren Chisum threw down his gavel and called the committee hearing to order.

Three TXI employees were on hand, ready to extol the safety of the Midlothian plant. But before the company's experts even testified, the state did most of the work.

Officials from the TNRCC--supposedly neutral in the hearing process--effectively argued TXI's position, saying that the plant poses no health threat; that cement-kiln regulations are already strict enough; and that if TXI has to raise its prices to pay for regulation, the state will be encouraging illegal dumping.

When citizens rose to speak in favor of the bill, they were grilled with technical questions they couldn't possibly answer.

Duncanville council member Judy Richards begged the committee to consider the fears of citizens. In response, she was asked if she had a better idea for getting rid of waste, a question that prompted the committee to break out in giggles. The bill, sponsored by Rep. Jesse Jones of Dallas, died in committee.

Another victory for Team TXI.
Last month, the company's lawyers scored a win in Dallas County District Court when Midlothian residents Rick and Wendy Early withdrew a class-action suit they had filed against TXI in 1995.

The Earlys claimed that TXI's emissions were, in part, damaging their health and property. But after almost two years of litigation, they found that proving those claims was an insurmountable task.

The Earlys produced some 10,000 documents in response to more than 100 "discovery" requests by TXI lawyers, who conversely dragged their feet in answering questions about the plant's operations, according to a motion the family's lawyer filed last year.

"This case has now been on file for almost a year, and [TXI's] tactics have precluded any discovery from being taken whatsoever! Plaintiffs respectfully request this Court deny the pending motions and let this case actually get under way," attorney Steven Baron complained in the brief.

Ultimately, the Earlys could not sustain the effort, and the lawsuit was dismissed. Baron initially agreed to discuss the lawsuit with the Observer, but canceled the interview shortly before he withdrew the case. He did not return subsequent phone calls.

Defeated in Austin, in local city council chambers, and in the courts, the Downwinders have only one fight left--the permit now under consideration by the TNRCC.

On a Thursday evening in May, Mary Risinger's doorbell began ringing just after 7:30 p.m. Sue Pope was the first to arrive, her arms filled with a heap of statistics, notepads, and copies of recent correspondence with the TNRCC.

Within a half-hour, 20 people filled Risinger's tiny living room, which is otherwise jammed with miniature statues of birds, flowers, and wildlife bric-a-brac. Jean Trees and Linda Lott were there, along with Jeannie Rivers, whose husband couldn't come because he had to look after the couple's six-year-old son.

"Gosh, it's like a reunion in here," said Jim Schermbeck, who arrived late after spending an unsuccessful day lobbying state lawmakers in Austin.

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