Chemical Warrior

When Phyllis Glazer learned a chemical plant was making her East Texas neighbors sick, the wealthy Dallas homemaker could have cut and run. Instead, she chose to stay, fight, and win.

"I often felt I was fighting the government more than the company," Glazer says.

When the state refused to provide the resources the town needed to do a thorough environmental and medical assessment, Glazer hired her own doctors, geologists, and toxicologists. She also retained environmental lawyers from some of the most prominent firms in Dallas and Houston to ask the courts to do what the state and federal government wouldn't--shut down the plant until it came into full compliance with the law and implemented environmental protection measures.

In addition to filing several lawsuits against Gibraltar--and later American Ecology Environmental Services Corp., which bought the plant in 1994--Glazer funded a federal lawsuit against the EPA, alleging it had reduced the standards for protecting human health and the environment in order to allow the plant to expand.

The campaign cost her plenty--financially and emotionally. Over the years, she spent several million dollars--depleting her entire inheritance and much of her immediate family's savings in the process--to defend both the town and herself.

While many residents clearly saw Glazer as a savior, others considered her a misguided fanatic who used melodrama and unsubstantiated allegations to destroy an important economic resource in the community: The plant employed more than 100 people and provided financial support to numerous youth programs in town. The company employed almost one-fifth of the town, not including upper management, who coincidentally didn't live anywhere near Winona.

Over the years, Glazer and several other prominent members of MOSES were the targets of repeated death threats. Glazer also claims that on several occasions someone fired bullets at her house and mutilated her animals, leaving their remains hanging on a fence--proof of which she captured on videotape.

As her campaign picked up momentum and garnered national attention--an NBC Dateline segment on Winona dubbed Glazer the Toxic Avenger--she became increasingly concerned for her family's welfare. Fearing the threats of violence and health problems, Glazer sent her son back to Dallas to live. After an anonymous caller threatened to kill him, Glazer sent him out of state to boarding school. Glazer remained behind in Winona, protected by a bodyguard hired by her husband.

In March 1997, Glazer's campaign paid off when the company unexpectedly announced it was closing its Winona plant. American Ecology denied it posed a threat to the community or the environment; they blamed the shutdown on the financial drain of Glazer's legal assault, plus the personal-injury lawsuits filed against it by more than 600 area residents. Several of the plaintiffs, in fact, are former employees of the facility.

News of the plant's closing delighted Glazer and her followers and gave hope to hundreds of environmental activists like them across the country. But Glazer's glee was short-lived.

Shortly after American Ecology stopped receiving hazardous waste at the Winona site, the company filed a federal suit against Glazer, her 76-year-old mother, her husband, and her husband's business, Glazer Wholesale Distributors, claiming they had engaged in a "conspiracy" to destroy American Ecology by publishing "patently untrue statements" and engaging in a "pattern of widespread defamation" that created "false and adverse publicity."

The suit specifically accused Glazer of inventing stories to scare residents and claimed the sole motivation behind her campaign was to protect the value of her land.

Glazer found most of the suit's allegations laughable, particularly the part alleging a familywide conspiracy to destroy the company. No member of her prominent Dallas family had anything to do with MOSES; what's more, most of them hadn't a clue what she had been doing all these years out in the boondocks.

But defending the lawsuit would be costly. Seasoned activists, including consumer advocate Ralph Nader, who had become a supporter of Glazer's, considered the suit a company ploy to silence Glazer, who had spoken derisively of other controversial American Ecology projects around the country. Such legal tactics--referred to as strategic lawsuits against public participation (SLAPP)--are frequently successful in muzzling community protesters, who cannot afford the lawyers and experts it takes to defend them. As a result, many states have enacted legislation to deter or limit SLAPP suits. Texas, however, is not one of them. In fact, the same company that sued Glazer threatened to sue a group of scientists in California who spoke out against its plans to build a low-level radioactive-waste disposal facility in that state.

But it would take more than an expensive lawsuit to stop Phyllis Glazer. True to form, she fought back, filing a counterclaim accusing the company of filing a frivolous lawsuit. And she vowed to fight the suit to the end.

Wherever Glazer and the members of MOSES went, be it the Texas Legislature, Congress, or the White House, they left behind crude dolls they fashioned from old pantyhose stuffed with moss. They called them wasted babies, and they symbolized the young lives they claimed were lost or harmed by the environmental pollution in Winona.

The stories of the children of Winona were heartrending and the reason Glazer refused to give up. None of these stories was more tragic than Linda and Steve Smiley's.

The Smileys' first child was born healthy in 1981, the year the plant first opened, but before it began accepting hazardous wastes. Three years later, after the toxic-waste plant was fully operational, Linda's second child, Courtney, was born with numerous birth defects, including webbed toes, partially formed ears, kidney disease, and a rare form of tumors in her mouth that had to be surgically removed when she was 6 weeks old.

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