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

For whatever reason, the implication of smelting didn't seem to register in most city and county officials' minds. Furthermore, United Copper and Trammell Crow representatives neglected to mention at the December meetings that they had already filed the air-quality permit application with the TNRCC--which signaled that they intended to emit pollutants.

J. Dean Brown, general manager of United Copper, who would not grant an interview for this story, argued in a letter to a city employee that the council members and city staff could have--and should have--learned from those pictures that his plant would be burning impure copper. "...[F]rom the very beginning, I had discussed the plan," Brown wrote in a March 18, 1998, letter to a city employee who was protesting the plant.

Who knew what and when they knew it has since become a central theme in the debate over the copper plant. While at least one of the city council members who attended a December briefing says she doesn't recall any discussions about smelting, she sees no conspiracy in that omission and says it wouldn't have bothered her if it did come up. "I guess I have a lot of confidence in the TNRCC," Euline Brock says. "Maybe I'm naive."

Whatever the case, neither city staff nor Trammell Crow representatives volunteered any information at the January 6 council meeting about the possibility of smelting.

In fact, Linda Ratliff, the Denton economic development director who'd attended both of the December briefings, advised the council not to worry about smelting or environmental concerns. Councilman Cochran specifically asked her whether it was "necessary to subject this process to an environmental assessment." Ratliff, who was presenting the Trammell Crow tax-abatement proposal to the council members, said, "I'm a little weak on that." Then she added, "The company will locate in Texas. They are already in the process of seeking a permit. I'm told that it is not going to be a smelting plant, but they will meet any requirements we might have."

Cochran, who says he was unaware of the factory's potential emissions, accepted her reply and moved on. Ratliff now insists--despite her comments at the videotaped council meeting--that she did not know United Copper had already applied for an air-quality permit. She was convinced then, and remains so today, that the plant is not a smelting operation. A smelter, she says, would refine copper from its raw form. About her response at the council meeting, she says, "It was a sufficient response at that time."

Regardless of what Ratliff knew, Trammell Crow's Noble didn't move to correct the false impression left that evening that toxic emissions simply weren't an issue at the proposed plant. Instead, Noble spoke only about a "cold-rolling" process of manufacturing copper wires and pipes--never mentioning furnaces or impure copper, let alone lead emissions.

Trammell Crow's presentation that night appears disingenuous in other ways. The developers posted on an easel an illustration of the plant. The painting, dominated by a dark blue sky with a single shining star, included a long-distance view of the factory from its southwest corner. Trees, extensive landscaping, three flags, and a glass foyer are visible. Smokestacks are nowhere in sight.

"The building looked like a Holiday Inn," says Carol Soph, who saw the same illustration when it was published in an ad in the local paper with the caption, "There's a new star on the horizon."

Trammell Crow's McFarlane says the lack of any talk about lead was neither intentional nor nefarious. From the angle the illustrator chose, he says, it just so happened that the smokestacks weren't visible.

Three weeks after the city council approved the tax abatements for United Copper--on January 27, 1996--Denton City Manager Ted Benavides, who has since assumed the same position in Dallas, told council members in a memo that United Copper had applied for an air-quality permit. A few days earlier, on January 23, United Copper had run for the first time a small notice in the newspaper stating that it had filed the permit application.

A handful of savvy Denton citizens caught the notice. One was a worker in the city planning department, who also knew about the high priority her bosses had put on United Copper. She immediately began telling friends about her concerns that the plant would be a polluter.

The woman, who asked that she not be identified by name in this story, initially led organization efforts against the plant. She hosted one of the first meetings of concerned citizens at her house, which is less than two miles from the factory site, inviting Ed and Carol Soph, among others.

The city planning worker was also one of the four Denton residents who, in February 1998, claimed they had pre-existing health conditions that gave them special concerns about the plant's emissions and could therefore request a public hearing from the TNRCC on United Copper's air-quality permit.

The TNRCC bears the responsibility of ensuring that factories with emissions don't actually harm the environment or people's health. A public hearing would enable the TNRCC to make a better-informed decision about whether to issue an air-quality permit. It has the right to deny one even if the emissions fall within EPA guidelines.

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