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

At the end of the four-and-a-half-hour meeting, Pinizzotto's words seemed to have fallen on deaf ears. The board voted unanimously to approve Hill's zoning designation.

With official support in Denton firmly in place, United Copper's drama has now moved to court--where the company's days of smooth sailing have hit choppy waters.

About 70 activists jammed into a Denton County state district court in early November to hear what Judge John Narsutis had to say about the Board of Adjustments' decision to tag the factory a "light industrial" operation. The activists had appealed that ruling with the aid of lawyer Wendel Withrow, whom they'd hired with money scrabbled together from potluck suppers.

Withrow didn't pull any punches. He told Narsutis that the notion the factory wasn't a smelter was a "bald-faced lie."

"The whole process is heavily tainted," Withrow said. "They knew months before what they were going to do. This--no pun to this industry intended--just does not pass the smell test." Withrow went on to argue that the board not only erred in allowing the plant to pass as light industrial, but had come to that conclusion with an illegal vote. The board's balloting hadn't been properly recorded that May evening, Withrow said.

Terry Morgan, the board's lawyer, defended the ruling with help from Joe Edwards, a Jenkens & Gilchrist partner who represents Trammell Crow and United Copper. Morgan and Edwards defended the board's ruling, saying it had relied on the TNRCC's definition of what constitutes a smelter. Morgan dismissed complaints about the unrecorded vote as ridiculous.

The 45-minute hearing ended with the judge promising to issue an opinion within a few days, and the activists gathered in the hall excitedly to listen to Withrow's assessment. They seemed excited at the mere idea that the court listened to their concerns.

"Now we know we're just a little bitty town, but we'd better get ready to be a big city," said Delores Olmon, who with her husband, Parks, has helped lead opposition to the plant.

These days, Denton's activists can rejoice that at least court authorities aren't dismissing them as alarmists.

A few weeks after the court hearing in Denton, Judge Narsutis ruled that the activists should get time and cooperation from the Board of Adjustments to determine whether the board had acted properly.

In the meantime, the activists have received a surprise favorable ruling from afar--a state district judge in Austin, well-insulated from Denton's small-town politics. After the TNRCC approved United Copper's air-quality permit, the four Denton residents who'd requested a public hearing filed a complaint with the court, alleging that the TNRCC had not followed procedures mandated by the Texas Clean Air Act.

Before an Austin judge heard the complaint, however, three of the four Denton residents dropped out of the case--a Denton Record-Chronicle employee, a city planning worker, and an assistant school principal. Rick Lowerre, the Austin lawyer who handled the case for the activists, says "All three of them were pretty much worried about something happening to them." Two of the individuals who quit the case confirmed in telephone conversations with the Observer that they dropped out because of possible consequences at work. No one had threatened them, they said, but the atmosphere was such that they weren't sure what would happen in the future.

Even after losing three of four individually named plaintiffs, Lowerre managed to persuade the Austin judge--who sharply criticized the TNRCC for issuing United Copper the permit without a public hearing.

Lowerre says he expects the judge to issue a written order revoking United Copper's permit within the next few weeks.

The activists haven't failed to detect the irony there. Revocation of the permit would shut down any smelting operations at the plant for at least six months while the TNRCC goes through the public hearing process. The plant can still begin manufacturing wires and pipes--using only pure copper. That, of course, was United Copper's original plan.

And it's good enough for activist Delores Olmon, who's hoping the dispute will end in a neighborly manner. "If they will stay within their original plan, then they will have a place in our hearts and our economy," she says.

Published:Last week's cover story, "Blowing smoke," contains a significant error. The United Copper Industries plant in Denton expects to emit 260 pounds of lead per year, not tons. As noted in the article, United Copper's proposed emissions fall far below the limits established by the federal Environmental Protection Agency. We apologize for the mistake.

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