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

The prospect of lead emissions transformed the couple into activists. "This is the first thing that has moved us to get political," Ed Soph says.

Trammell Crow's connection to United Copper began when the Dallas company--one of the largest developers and managers of commercial real estate in the country--leased warehouse space to United Copper in Coppell.

United Copper Industries is a subsidiary of a conglomerate controlled by Peralta, one of the wealthiest industrialists in Mexico. With big plans to expand its relationship with Peralta, Trammell Crow began to lobby the businessman in 1997 to build his planned $37 million copper pipe and wire factory on a 91-acre site on the eastern outskirts of Denton.

A rural plot where horses and cattle graze on either side, the site is just a few miles from Interstate 35, the so-called NAFTA highway. Last February, United Copper purchased the tract from Albertson's, a Boise, Idaho-based grocery store chain, which had given up on plans to build a distribution center at the site. United Copper bought the land for $625,000--a remarkably inexpensive 16 cents per square foot. Tax assessors had previously valued the land at $1 million. But McFarlane says a gas line ran down the center of the site, posing future construction headaches, which accounts for the bargain price.

Since the purchase, United Copper has erected a 365,000-square-foot factory on 30 acres. Peralta has also signed on Trammell Crow to find buyers or corporate tenants for the remaining 61 acres. Crow executives say they'll develop an industrial park there, using the copper plant as the anchor tenant.

Meanwhile, Peralta is attempting to resurrect his reputation. The 46-year-old Mexican tycoon, who made his fortune in the cellular phone industry and usually lands on Forbes' list of wealthiest individuals, made headlines in early 1996 when he disclosed that he had given $50 million in a handshake deal to Raul Salinas de Gortari, the brother of Mexico's former president. Raul Salinas is now in jail on charges of murder and graft, and the $50 million landed in a Swiss bank account.

Peralta told reporters that his deal--supposedly for investment in legitimate business concerns--never went through, and he wants his money back. The Swiss government views it a bit differently. They say Peralta was laundering Salinas' drug money. Early this month, the industrialist filed suit against the Swiss, claiming they've ignored evidence that the money was legally obtained.

Industrias Unitas, S.A., the Peralta-controlled parent company of United Copper, could probably use the cash if the Swiss agree to give it up. Standard & Poor's recently assigned a double B-minus rating to an upcoming issue of IUSA's unsecured notes. The rating agency described the company as having a "weak although improving financial profile."

The fortunes of Peralta's copper factories are directly tied to the volatile new housing-construction industry. Much of the copper wires and pipes his Denton plant would produce--as well as the output from sister factories in Pennsylvania and Mexico--is headed for new homes' electrical and plumbing systems.

At least as early as December 9, 1997, United Copper officials knew the proposed factory in Denton would emit lead. That's the date the company submitted an application for an air-quality permit--or a blessing to pollute at federally approved safe levels--to the TNRCC. With two planned furnaces, United Copper told the agency, the factory would emit some 260 tons of lead into the atmosphere each year. That figure puts United Copper's proposed emissions far below the National Ambient Air-Quality standards set by the federal Environmental Protection Agency.

By federal law, states cannot allow air-quality permit applicants to exceed those standards, which the EPA sets according to medical evidence. Many of the activists are concerned that the TNRCC didn't take into account the children at the elementary school one mile away when applying the EPA guidelines.

The TNRCC's response, however, is that the EPA guidelines themselves were written to address such worries.

Of course, not everyone accepts the EPA's standards--last revised in 1990--as the final word. No one argues that lead emissions are a good thing, and an EPA spokesman pointed out to the Observer that either Denton or the TNRCC could have insisted on lower emissions.

Indeed, far away from the fight, an EPA researcher who spends his time evaluating lead exposure at Superfund sites contends that someone in Denton should already be gauging the levels of lead in local children's blood as well as examining the potential for lead accumulation in the water supply and ground. "If this facility is going to be operating for years, all this dust is going to accumulate," says the researcher, who insisted that he not be identified.

It wasn't until after United Copper submitted its TNRCC permit application that some Denton government officials apparently learned the factory would be burning or smelting impure copper. United Copper officials claim that at two meetings in mid- and late December 1997--one with the city economic development committee and the other with the city, county, and school district joint tax-abatement task force--they detailed for a few city council members and city staff, as well as county officials, all of the major pieces of equipment they planned to use at the factory. Their presentation included drawings of the furnaces that would be used to burn impure scrap copper.

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