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

UNT assistant professor Reidy also tried to keep the crowd open-minded, not accusatory. "We have a new neighbor," the short, boyish-looking academic told the group. "We want them to understand we want them to be here on the one hand, but want them to understand our concerns." As a scientist, Reidy questioned the projections for lead emissions. Specifically, he noted that the factory assumed all the lead would be in particulate form, but he expected most of it to come out in vapor emissions.

Reidy's words would also elicit a rebuke of sorts--this time from a UNT administrator. Fred Pole, a UNT vice president and former chairman of the Denton Chamber of Commerce, admits he called Reidy after the public meeting--supposedly because someone had called him and asked whether Reidy represented himself or the school. Pole says he posed the same question to Reidy.

Whatever Pole's intentions were, his message seems obvious today--particularly when he takes pains to point out that Trammell Crow is a "friend" and "important benefactor" to the university.

Reidy, who doesn't have tenure, undoubtedly got that message, though he wouldn't elaborate on his conversation with Pole other than to acknowledge it happened.

Trammell Crow "appears on every list you ever see," says Gene Vestal, associate vice president of development at UNT. The developer, in fact, recently offered a taste of its potential largesse to UNT.

In late 1997, roughly six months before Trammell Crow announced the proposed copper plant, the developer gave UNT an $82,000 gift of bronze sculptures. Crow had commissioned a local artist to depict 18 native Texas animal species, and these armadillos, coyotes, crows, and jackrabbits now dot the landscape outside a science building at the university. When the local newspaper ran a special supplement to herald the opening of the new building last summer, United Copper dominated the pull-out section with three quarter-page advertisements. "We support public education designed to encourage sound environmental decision-making and responsible environmental stewardship," one read.

Crow executive McFarlane insists armadillos and coyotes have nothing to do with United Copper. "We don't do that to offset United Copper," he says of the gift.

Despite McFarlane's denials, many doubt the developer's intentions.
By the end of the grueling evening at the Hodge Elementary cafeteria, even McAdams, who'd tried to appear neutral all night, sounded a note of suspicion. "If [the copper-scrap operations] had been discussed up front, or if the drawing had had the smokestacks on it," she said, trailing off for a moment, then adding, "Unfortunately, when we get to this point, it is a little hard to be trusting."

The ease with which United Copper's air-quality application sailed through the TNRCC rivals only the speed with which Denton city planners put their unqualified blessing on the factory project. Trammell Crow's zoning requests glided through the approval process so quickly and smoothly that Robbie Baughman, a 24-year veteran assistant building official who just retired last month, says, "I thought it was unusual."

Baughman contends that Dave Hill, the city's planning development director, never contacted him to ask whether United Copper was truly the "light industrial" project it purported to be. Defining the copper factory as light industrial was a key strategic move for Trammell Crow. Had city officials defined the copper plant as a smelter or a refinery--which it arguably is--United Copper would have been forced to go through the laborious, risky process of getting its land rezoned.

But Hill allowed developers to skip that step--apparently disregarding a city ordinance that requires him to consult his own building officials about the zoning designation. Instead, Hill unilaterally decided to categorize United Copper's factory as light industrial. Hill bases his decision on the premise that the burning of scrap copper--a refining and smelting process--is only "ancillary" to the plant's primary purpose of fabricating copper wire and cable. Furthermore, he says the scrap United Copper will be burning is 97 to 99 percent pure, so that wouldn't properly be termed smelting.

"Smelting would involve a relatively high level of impurities," Hill says. He adds that his decision not to contact his own building officials about the zoning designation "is not unusual."

Not surprisingly, Hill's move to fast-forward United Copper's zoning request eventually drew the ire of activists. By early May, Councilman Cochran and two other Denton residents had asked the Denton Zoning Board of Appeals to review Hill's determination that United Copper qualified as a light industrial operation.

On May 18, 1998, the Board of Adjustments, a panel appointed by city council members, held a hearing on the matter. This was another packed gathering, with discussion going late into the evening. Some 200 people, mostly activists, showed up.

One man who didn't show was Reidy--though he'd been invited by the activists.

Instead, the Sophs and others looked to UNT material science professor Russ Pinizzotto for guidance. The tenured faculty member went into some detail about the amount of lead that might flow into the air once the plant started operations. Using United Copper's own figures of 260 tons of lead emitted annually, Pinizzotto reckoned that translated into about 100 million adult-sized allowable dosages--as defined by the EPA--each year. "The amount of stuff they are talking about, I am really amazed that it got through the EPA. I think it is really bad," Pinizzotto said. "I'd rather not live there myself. I was stunned that it had already been approved by the TNRCC."

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