Something In The Air

Downwind of TXI's Midlothian cement plant, people and animals keep getting sick. Instead of investigating whether the plant is to blame, state regulators appear ready to let TXI burn even more hazardous waste. Part two of A Dallas Observer Special Report

Jeanne Rivers does not profess to be a scientist, but she does know that her six-year-old son, Shawn, didn't have tungsten and trichlorethylene in his blood two years ago, before the family moved within shouting distance of Texas Industries' Midlothian cement plant. Now, there are traces of the potentially harmful toxins in Shawn's bloodstream.

Symptoms of Shawn's epilepsy and autism grew worse after the family settled into a house near the plant. His seizures--once under control--returned with a vengeance, and now the boy can't make it through the day without lapsing into blank stares, losing his balance, and collapsing to the ground.

Rivers suspects that the emissions which tumble ceaselessly from TXI's smokestacks have contributed to her son's failing health. She can see the white dust coming from the plant, and smell the fumes. To Rivers, it only makes sense that her son is breathing the pollution into his body.

Mary Risinger, another Midlothian resident, knows that on days when the wind is from the southwest, TXI's emissions will blow directly over her house. She can't spend much time in her yard before her eyes begin to burn and her lungs seize until she can hardly breathe. She doesn't step outside without checking which way the wind is blowing.

Don Holley is just trying to make a living raising ostriches on a ranch across the street from TXI. But his birds keep suffering from bizarre health problems. Last year, Holley was horrified to discover scores of his ostriches lying dead in their pens. Their legs had snapped like toothpicks under the weight of their own bodies, and, in most cases, they bled to death.

Holley was equally dumbfounded when one ostrich was born so deformed that it resembled a bizarre space alien poking through its shell. And Holley can't begin to explain the unnatural purple goo that oozed out of one egg that never hatched a live bird.

Similarly, Debara Booth can't explain why so many of the Doberman pinschers she breeds have birth defects or die prematurely. She's pretty sure it's something in the air, because she and her husband are constantly choking on the air they breathe.

TXI officials steadfastly maintain that the plant is not causing health problems among nearby residents, and point out that the company operates within the limits of permits granted by the state and federal regulatory agencies. TXI spokesman Harold Green says the company should be praised because its hazardous waste "recycling" program gives businesses a cheap, safe place to dispose of their waste.

"I think that it is helping the environment," Green says. "I think, under most circumstances, we should be winning environmental awards instead of being attacked."

But common sense tells the people living near TXI's plant that something is wrong--that too many people and animals have gotten sick since the plant started burning hazardous waste almost a decade ago.

Many living in the path of TXI's emissions are convinced that the plant is causing their health problems. They have complained. They've collected evidence to bolster their theory. And for years, they've begged state officials for an answer to one question: Is TXI making people sick?

To this day, no one has attempted to provide a complete answer. Not the federal and state agencies charged with protecting public health and the environment, and not TXI itself.

State officials have interviewed Midlothian citizens and collected hundreds of soil and air samples from around the plant. But no agency has ever undertaken an in-depth study of the health of those living near TXI's smokestacks.

Instead--based primarily on tests of dirt and air--the Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission says it sees no evidence that the plant is contributing to the ill health of those living nearby.

Now, the TNRCC is considering a permit that would allow TXI to more than double the amount of hazardous waste it burns each year--from about 100,000 tons to 270,000 tons--and become the largest hazardous waste incinerator in the nation. That would inevitably increase the amounts of toxic metals, chemicals, and dust the plant spews into the air.

TXI already ranks as the number-one industrial air polluter in North Texas, according to government figures, and the plant's opponents are convinced that the permit will only make the situation worse. For the last seven years, a small band of citizens-turned-activists has unsuccessfully fought to halt, or at least slow, the company's toxic burning. But now the plant's critics are on the brink of defeat. TNRCC officials appear likely to give TXI the permit it needs to expand its hazardous waste burning operation.

As they await a final decision, the residents can only wonder what the future will be like for them, their children, and their animals.

"It's such a quiet little town," Rivers says, her voice bitter and sarcastic. "It's like something you would see on TV--everything is hunky-dory. But everything isn't hunky-dory."

The state's leading producer of cement, TXI quietly began its toxic burning in 1987 when a change in federal law opened the door for cement makers to use hazardous waste as a substitute for coal and natural gas. Today, TXI is the only cement maker in Texas that burns hazardous waste to fire its kilns.

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