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Permit hearings begin in TXI's quest to become the nation's largest toxic waste incinerator

Critics of the Texas Industries cement plant in Midlothian have obtained company documents that appear to bolster their contention that TXI officials distorted information about health hazards posed by the plant's emissions.

The information comes as TXI opponents prepare their final challenge of TXI's attempt to win a 10-year state permit that would allow the plant to continue burning hazardous waste for fuel.

An administrative hearing on the permit application began Monday at the Holiday Inn in Duncanville. For the first time ever in the United States, the hearing will give residents a chance to contest a cement plant's request to burn hazardous waste, a practice TXI began secretly in 1987 thanks to a loophole in federal law.

As part of the hearing, TXI officials must answer questions about the plant's operations. Residents also will have an opportunity to testify about a variety of health problems they believe are caused by the plant's emissions.

Even before the hearings began, plant opponents obtained TXI documents indicating that company officials withheld information as part of a public relations effort to counter critics.

TXI, located 30 miles southwest of Dallas, is the state's largest cement manufacturer and the only cement plant in Texas that uses hazardous waste as fuel. The plant is also the largest industrial air polluter in North Texas, its towering, antiquated stacks pumping out tens of thousands of pounds of metals and other debris each year.

In its permit request, TXI is asking the Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission for permission to more than double the amount of waste it burns. If the permit is granted, TXI would become the nation's largest incinerator of hazardous waste.

The Dallas Observer detailed the history of TXI's hazardous waste program last year in a two-part series titled "Ill wind blowing" and "Something in the air." The series illustrated how state officials are poised to grant the permit despite questions about the hazards TXI's hazardous waste program poses to human health and the environment.

To TXI, the advantage of burning hazardous waste is obvious: Instead of paying for coal or natural gas to fire its kilns, TXI charges other companies to burn their hazardous waste. At the same time, TXI is not required to install the same safety mechanisms as commercial hazardous waste incinerators. As a result, the emissions coming from TXI's smokestacks are more sinister than those of a typical cement plant, laced with pollutants like arsenic, cadmium, mercury, and lead released in what critics describe as a "toxic soup."

Those who live downwind of TXI's emissions have long complained about sulfurous odors and believe the plant's pollution is to blame for various health problems, including an inexplicable number of babies born with Down syndrome, an increase in asthma and other respiratory problems, and a bizarre string of premature deaths and deformities among farm animals.

TXI officials maintain that their waste program is a recycling effort that poses no threat to human health. TXI has hired lobbyists, public relations experts, and politicians, including Midlothian Mayor Maurice Osborn, to push its case.

During the first round of testimony, plant opponents say they plan to use TXI's own documents to show how that public relations effort intentionally excluded information about serious health risks the plant's emissions pose. The company was forced to disclose previously unavailable internal documents during a seven-month discovery process that began last summer.

Among the information plant opponents found was a series of internal memos written in 1991, when TXI hired a consultant to analyze three 3-hour air samples taken downwind of the plant. TXI wanted to use the information as evidence of the plant's safety in advertisements it was planning to publish in local newspapers, according to a memo written by Randy Jones, who is in charge of overseeing TXI's hazardous waste program.

"I want to publish this information in the local newspapers next week if I can come up with some way to make the data meaningful," Jones stated in the July 24, 1991, memo, which was addressed to Kathryn Kelly, a consultant for Environmental Toxicology International Inc.

Jones was so confident that the results would reveal that TXI's emissions posed no threat to human health that he even joked about how to spin the information to the public.

"Could you tell me how many steaks a person would have to eat to equal this health risk," Jones wrote. "Just kidding!"

Kelly, however, couldn't find much to joke about two days later when the results of the tests came in.

The good news, Kelly wrote, was that the non-cancer-causing compounds the tests detected were all within limits that the Environmental Protection Agency considers safe. The bad news, she added, was that she found carcinogenic compounds--namely arsenic, beryllium, cadmium, and chromium--at levels well beyond what the EPA considers safe and what it allows under federal law.

Under rules that govern the operation of boilers and industrial furnaces, the EPA has determined that carcinogens cannot present a risk of cancer that is greater than 1 in 100,000. But, Kelly wrote, she found carcinogens present at levels where the risk of cancer was 1 in 5,000.

"I would suggest you not [print] that risk data, at least not for carcinogens," Kelly wrote in a memo dated July 26, 1991.

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