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

But Rick Lowerre, the Austin environmental lawyer whom the Denton activists eventually hired to represent them before the TNRCC and later in district court, says that ever since Gov. George W. Bush's Republican, pro-business appointees have gained control of the TNRCC board, the agency has "consistently" rejected requests for such public hearings. The agency simply issues air-quality permits without giving nearby residents an opportunity to review the proposal. Lowerre estimates that the agency conducted as many as 50 public hearings in 1995 but only 10 last year. (An agency lawyer disagreed with this estimate but said the TNRCC did not keep figures on hearings that far back.)

On April 22, 1998, the TNRCC formally denied the four Denton residents' request for a hearing, stating that there hadn't been enough public interest to warrant such a gathering. Five days later, the agency's contention that little interest existed would have seemed absurd to anyone who visited the cafeteria of Hodge Elementary School, one mile from the factory site.

That evening, some 300 people came to attend a meeting arranged by the Sophs and others. The activists had invited a panel of speakers representing all sides of the issue to speak to Denton residents. At the table in the front of the cafeteria were two TNRCC representatives, United Copper's Dean Brown, a UNT material science assistant professor named Rick Reidy, and Sierra club environmentalist and former state regulator Neil Carmon. Linnie McAdams, a retired Denton City Council member, served as moderator.

Although McAdams displayed tremendous decorum and diplomacy, the event was a long, tense, and at times chaotic affair. Emotions flared as homeowners and mothers of elementary students stood up, shouting their objections to the new factory.

The residents seemed particularly galled to discover that in Denton, at least, the factory was a done deal. The air-quality permit had already been issued and the tax abatements approved, yet residents in most cases were learning about lead emissions for the first time.

"Is it too late to keep them from doing it?" asked one woman in a sweater and floral culottes, her voice trembling. "I don't want it," she said as the crowd burst into a round of applause.

United Copper's Brown, a large, casually dressed man, seemed overwhelmed by the swarm of people demanding information. When he rose to speak, he made small talk and ridiculed his own weight. "I'm not an expert in anything other than good food," he told the crowd.

(When the Dallas Observer contacted Brown for this story, he was no longer in a mood for chitchat. "I appreciate your persistence in wanting to do an article," he said in a voice-mail message. "But I want to tell you I don't want an article done, and I don't want you taking pictures of our facility. I don't think I have anything that is newsworthy, so I'd appreciate it if you just don't bug us anymore.")

At the meeting, Brown pledged to erect a $50,000 monitoring device to measure emissions near the elementary school, suggesting students could learn by operating it. The crowd wasn't impressed. It seemed rather ghoulish to some--the prospect of schoolkids monitoring their own exposure to a potentially dangerous substance.

The crowd directed most of its animosity at the TNRCC officials. The woman who had requested a public hearing from the agency spoke in a quavering voice. "I'm sorry I'm a little emotional," she said, not offering her name as the others before her had done. "We've been through quite a bit. There have been four of us who have filed for a hearing. It was told to me that there was not enough public interest."

The TNRCC officials seemed cornered. "This is not the way we would rather see things done," an agency lawyer admitted that night. The state officials reiterated that there hadn't been enough interest to justify a public hearing--eliciting boos and hisses. The din grew so loud that McAdams asked for a show of hands to see who'd tried to contact the agency to learn more about United Copper's permit application. Dozens of hands sprung up, and the shouting started again.

During the rowdy proceedings, recorded on videotape, a few tried hard to bring some calm.

Rachel Reese, a slim woman who sells natural vitamins out of her home, stood up and appealed for a compromise. "We all want electricity and we need copper wires," she said, gesturing to the crowd. "And who knows...what they are willing to do here," she said, pointing at United Copper's Brown.

Despite her conciliatory words, Reese would soon get an intimidating letter from United Copper's lawyer at the Dallas firm of Jenkens & Gilchrist. Reese's offense was having written one of the pamphlets distributed at soccer games raising questions about the copper plant and its pollution potential. "Are you prepared for its effects on your [children's] asthma, allergies, brain function?" she'd written.

The lawyer threatened Reese in a May 14, 1998, letter: "This letter is to put you on notice...In the event United Copper suffers any damages as a result of the false and misleading information contained in the flier, United Copper will seek to recover such damages..."

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