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.

Nevertheless, as far as Legator is concerned, the health department's indifferent response to Winona is indicative of the way every agency dealt with the issue. "This is real gut-wrenching stuff, but Phyllis got almost nothing but grief from the people who should have helped her," he says.

Glazer also chafes at the blatant double standard government has for its corporate citizens and the people it is supposed to protect. "Citizens have to prove they've been harmed--within an inch of their lives," she says. "But the company never has to prove it won't harm them. There was no environmental-impact study done before the plant opened. There was nothing but promises--empty promises."

When John Mobley, a well-connected East Texas businessman who ran Lloyd Bentsen's first U.S. senatorial campaign, first founded the Gibraltar plant in Winona, he said the company planned to inject salt water from the oil fields into open-ended wells and grow fruit orchards on the surrounding acreage.

Instead, the facility received the first federal permit to operate a commercial hazardous-waste injection-well facility. In this process, toxic refuse is flushed underground through a mile-long concrete shaft into a limestone cavern, where company officials promised it would not migrate for 10,000 years. The company also recycled solvents and blended other hazardous wastes for use as fuels.

No orchards were ever planted here, but plenty of toxic plumes flowered.
During its 14 years of operation, the facility logged more than 740 errant emissions and received more than 400 notices of violations from the Texas Air Control Board, the Texas Water Commission, and the TNRCC, according to Dallas lawyers Bob Buchholz and Bady Sassin, who represent more than 600 plaintiffs in personal-injury lawsuits against the two companies that owned the plant. These violations ranged from poor record keeping and failure to report emissions to incidents such as explosions. In one instance the state cited the company for accepting 24 times the amount of PCBs it was allowed to and covering it up by doctoring its record manifests. But that doesn't begin to describe the degree of irresponsibility the company displayed in Winona, evidence of which is just coming to light through discovery in the lawsuits the lawyers have worked on for five years.

They uncovered evidence of other shocking lapses in safety. "In the solvent area, the pipes were sealed with grease," says Sassin. "You know what solvents do to grease--they dissolve it. That's what happened here, and the pipes leaked like sieves."

In the pumping system, waste clogged the pollution controls. When the filters became saturated, workers just took them out and never replaced them.

"If these violations were ever found, nothing was ever done," Sassin says.
Gibraltar isn't the only company at fault. The lawyers unearthed a 1992 inspection report of the facility conducted by Mobil, which shipped its hazardous waste there. The report's author said it was the worst facility he had ever seen in terms of pollution control and number and degree of infractions. Citing problems such as defects in the plant's containment system, poor procedures for dealing with emergencies, groundwater contamination, and chemical spills, the report's author gave the plant an F. But Mobil continued to send its toxic refuse there anyway.

At IBM's behest, Gibraltar built a section at the plant to store cupric chloride, a nasty by-product produced from the manufacture of circuit boards. Gibraltar got around the hazardous-waste permitting process by alleging the plant was a recycling facility in which it extracted copper from the chemical.

"There is no evidence they extracted enough copper to make a plug penny," Sassin says.

According to state and federal hazardous-waste standards, cupric chloride must be stored on an approved site, in vented containers with filtering devices to capture emissions. In Winona, it was stored in open vats set into the ground 50 feet from Wiggins Creek, which the chemical ultimately contaminated.

Attempts to reach officials at Mobil and IBM for comment were unsuccessful.
In 1992, shortly after MOSES became involved, the Texas attorney general filed suit against Gibraltar for violating state air-safety and hazardous-waste statutes. The attorney general settled with the company two years later for $1.2 million, plus an agreement to implement certain safety devices.

Yet despite the numerous citations and eventual lawsuits, plant opponents point out, Gibraltar was allowed to continue to operate and contaminate the surrounding countryside.

Glazer's group, which had filed for party status in the attorney general's suit, was kept out of the settlement, which it criticized for being too little, too late. MOSES had wanted the company to put in emergency sirens and state-of-the-art air-monitoring devices, and to guarantee that a reputable company would monitor them.

"There were no provisions to keep the problems from happening again," Glazer says. "We wanted protection, not revenge. The company's previous air-monitoring devices were installed incorrectly and were worthless. How was that allowed to happen? How could we be sure it wouldn't happen again?"

The settlement came on the heels of a 1993 explosion at the plant; the result of mixing incompatible chemicals that sent a cloud of corrosive lithium bromide and sulfuric acid into the air. The company did not report the incident for 35 hours, and the state took the extraordinary step of shutting the company down. But within weeks, it was back in business.

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