Blowing smoke

Denton residents like Parks and Delores Olmon want to know how a posse of city slickers managed to railroad plans for a lead-belching copper factory in their town

Plant opponents dispute the notion that the lead emissions are safe. Whether there's any basis for their fears presumably would have been answered during the public hearing process, but the state said no to residents' requests for a hearing.

In some ways, Trammell Crow officials have invited the backlash. The developers omitted details about the factory's potential for emitting lead until after the tax abatements were approved. At the January council meeting, the developers displayed an artist's rendering of the site in which no smokestacks were visible. Then they made no effort to clarify when city staff promised council members that no smelting--a process that produces lead as one of its by-products--would take place.

When local residents later discovered that the proposed plant would indeed pollute, they began to organize against it, distributing informational fliers at soccer games. Trammell Crow lawyers responded by threatening to sue one of the pamphleteers.

For months, the activists' concerns failed to slow the plant's progress. Trammell Crow representatives had locked up support in the most important places. The mayor, school district trustees, and general manager of the Denton Record-Chronicle have all vigorously backed the newcomers. "If you're not ready for growth, maybe you should move away from Denton," Bill Patterson, general manager of the newspaper, scrawled in a recent note to one of the factory opponents.

But earlier this month, the activists surprised even themselves when they won their first significant victory--at a district court hearing far away from Denton. A Travis County judge ruled that the TNRCC had erred in issuing an air-quality permit to United Copper without holding a public hearing. When the state judge issues a written order as scheduled later this month, she is expected to revoke the factory's emissions permit. The factory can still begin operations, as long as it uses only pure copper.

Neither the Dallas developers nor the local activists expect the fight to stop soon.

Trammell Crow Vice President Robert McFarlane insists he and his colleagues have not played it fast and loose in Denton.

"I can guarantee that a year from now, people are going to look back and say Denton made the right decision," he says. "The only thing that got people churned up over there were the alarmists."

A white-haired 67-year-old former administrative officer with the U.S. Department of State, Parks Olmon qualifies by the Crow executive's standards as one of those "alarmists." Olmon, who spent his working life in far-flung places such as Beijing, Frankfurt, and Mexico City, returned to his hometown of Denton eight years ago to retire.

These days, Olmon steers his Suburban around town and distributes packets of newspaper clippings detailing the damage that exposure to excessive levels of lead can cause to kidneys, lungs, or a child's brain--as well as information on the organization activists have set up, Citizens for Healthy Growth. "I run around town with these packets in my hand, because now I'm an activist," Olmon says.

For Olmon, the United Copper plant would be a tolerable neighbor--he lives three-quarters of a mile away--if it didn't emit lead. "The minute I heard the word lead, I had a problem," he says. "I have a big garden. I'm not planning to grow anything next year. I've got two grandchildren. I'm not going to let them play in the back yard."

In the earliest stages of its project, United Copper considered operating a plant where all of the copper would arrive in sheets of pure metal. Only later did the company opt to add a scrap-burning facility to eliminate the impurities in copper. An unintended side effect of that purifying process is lead emissions.

Olmon now monitors progress at the plant construction site several times a week. The smokestacks will go up soon, he says.

Occupying the back seat of Olmon's Suburban a few weeks ago as he pulled up to the back of the plant was Carol Soph, a former professional French horn player and mother of a college sophomore, who has spent much of her 12 years as a Denton resident volunteering at charities like Meals-on-Wheels. Now Soph and her husband, Ed, a University of North Texas associate music professor and jazz drummer, lead the movement opposing the plant. The couple learned about the lead emissions a month after the January 6 city council meeting.

When the Sophs attended a town meeting about the future of Denton, a woman pulled them aside and told them about the official legal notice of United Copper's application for an air-quality permit that had appeared in the Denton Record-Chronicle. State regulators require such notices to be posted, but many residents missed the small bulletin when it ran in the back pages of the paper for four days starting in late January.

The Sophs believe the plant will destroy their way of life. "We've finally realized our American dream of being homeowners after years of living a hand-to-mouth existence as freelance musicians," Ed Soph says. The Sophs bought a two-story brick home about two miles from the factory, in a neighborhood locals call "Idiots' Hill" because of its high prices and frequent foundation problems.

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