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.

When American Ecology bought the plant, the company was bound by law to remedy Gibraltar's past problems as outlined in the state attorney general's order. When the plant closed three years later, there were several elements of the order it had yet to satisfy. American Ecology is in the process of cleaning up the contaminated site, but how far past the company's property the contamination may have spread is anyone's guess.

"No one has bothered to do a study," says Glazer. MOSES had turned to the Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission for help when Wanda Erwin's water well became so contaminated that she and her family could no longer use it for drinking water. Erwin's farm, which had been in her family since the abolition of slavery, was one-fifth of a mile from the plant. The TNRCC gave the water sample to the company for testing, which turned up traces of benzene, xylene, toluene, and naphthalene, according to Glazer, but the plant, which processes all those chemicals, said the source of the contamination could not be pinpointed. Erwin eventually reached a settlement with American Ecology that required her to move off her land.

When Glazer tried to enlist the EPA in its cause, the federal agency instead went to work to assist the plant's new owners. After American Ecology took over operations, it wanted to reopen a second injection well on the premises. The federal agency had initially denied a permit for a second injection well because it lacked the protective cement casing required by both the state and federal standards. Immediately after issuing the permit denial, the EPA worked with the TNRCC to lower its standard, then issued a permit when the company reapplied.

Even officials within the EPA were outraged. "The law requires that a state program approved by the EPA shall be conducted in accordance with the federal requirements," Houston-based EPA enforcement officer William Sanjour wrote last year in a letter about the Winona plant to EPA Administrator Carol Browner. "Conspiring to reduce the environmental protection below the federal standard in order to promote business interests may be breaking the law and is certainly corrupt, immoral, and unethical."

But Sanjour wasn't surprised by the EPA's behavior, as his letter went on to point out. "This bias in favor of the regulated facilities and the contempt for the poor and disenfranchised who have the temerity to complain about it, is widespread among EPA personnel and is especially strong in Region 6 [the Dallas-based EPA office, which covers East Texas]," Sanjour wrote.

EPA spokesman David Bary declined to comment, saying, "It is irresponsible to respond to these allegations."

Adding insult to injury, an EPA official accused Glazer of using the black residents of Winona to make a bogus case of environmental racism out of what was simply a case of "Not in my back yard."

"We didn't want it in anyone's back yard," Glazer says. "These facilities, in our opinion, shouldn't be within 100 miles of where people live. But it is not a coincidence that these facilities always wind up in poor and minority neighborhoods, where the people do not have the resources to fight them."

In a lengthy chronicle of the evils the plant had visited on his community, Don Hampton, a black pastor in Winona, took issue with the EPA's attack on Glazer. "The fact that a white woman has joined the cause of a minority community in fighting against environmental injustice should not be scorned. When we judge Phyllis Glazer of MOSES by the contents of her character, we find her a sister."

Glazer withstood numerous attacks on her character and motives. In the face of incredible odds and seemingly intractable obstacles, Glazer refused to quit, which won her many admirers.

"I can say without hesitation that she is the most generous person I've ever met in my life," says Mary Sahs, an environmental lawyer based in Austin who has worked with MOSES almost since its inception. "She is entirely selfless. She came to a community, and somewhere in her soul identified with people with whom, on the face of things, she didn't have a whole lot in common. She was much wealthier, had a different religion and cultural background. But she felt a kinship with them. There were some low points when she said, 'Can I keep this up? It's so hard, so expensive. It's ruining my life.' But I never saw her waver."

Glazer grew up pampered and protected in an Orthodox Jewish home in Arizona. Her father escaped Latvia at age 19 just days before the Nazis invaded. His entire family was slaughtered and buried in a mass grave in the forests outside Riga. He came to the States alone and penniless. He worked odd jobs during the day and studied engineering at night, and eventually founded his own company that manufactured air-distribution systems for buildings. It made him a small fortune.

Groomed to lead a traditional life of wife and mother, Glazer, at 17, wed the man her parents had chosen for her. "It was an arranged marriage and a loveless one," she says, "but it produced two beautiful boys." After divorcing, she decided to relocate with her two sons to Dallas in 1977. Before she left, a friend of her father's encouraged her to contact R.L. Glazer. "He'll look out for you," he said.

« Previous Page
Next Page »
My Voice Nation Help