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

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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

By Miriam Rozen
These days, Denton folks write dueling versions of history. To some, January 6, 1998, was the day the "city slickers" bamboozled the "country bumpkins." At an infamous city council meeting, big-city developers sat silently while Denton officials unwittingly dispensed false information about a proposed copper factory--including assurances that the dirty, lead-emitting process of copper smelting would never take place there.

Others dismiss that as the Chicken Little take on current events. City boosters--such as the mayor and the general manager of the local newspaper--see it as the day Denton took a bold step into the future, away from its past as a sleepy middle-class university town.

So that factory may end up costing local governments some $1 million in tax abatements; so it may belch a little lead into the environment, supposedly at safe levels. That's the price a small burg pays to compete for new jobs with its much larger metropolitan neighbors.

There's no question which version of history David Noble prefers. The Trammell Crow vice president chose to keep his mouth shut a year ago while city council members blabbed on--sometimes ignorantly--about the copper pipe and wire factory the Dallas real estate development company had been paid to promote. That day, Noble and his colleagues managed to score some impressive tax breaks for the factory, owned by Mexican tycoon Carlos Peralta Quintero.

The January 6 meeting, captured on videotape, shows Noble making nice to the local politicians. "We are trying to come in with a win-win," he told the council members. "We really need your backing."

Whatever it was--the smile, the soothing words, the slick suit and fashionably wide tie--Noble's tactics worked. At the end of a late-evening session, the council overwhelmingly voted to give the copper plant a 25 percent tax abatement for six years.

But before council members rubber-stamped the project, one dissenting voice was heard. Mike Cochran, a first-term councilman with a jutting jaw and liberal bent, rudely dismissed the Trammell Crow company's economic projections for the factory as "smoke and mirrors," and called its descriptive packets a "brochure for Shangri-la."

What teed him off, he says now, was Trammell Crow's exaggerations and omissions. The company initially claimed the factory would bring 800 new jobs to Denton; now that figure had been scaled down to roughly 200, Cochran says.

At one point, he told Noble point-blank: "This seems like a case of big city slickers coming in and duping country bumpkins."

It didn't take long for the Trammell Crow executive's grin to turn into a stricken look. Noble rose to defend himself. "I hope the city-slicker appeal didn't take the Iowa roots out of me," he said quietly. Then, in a louder voice, he told the council, "We want to give back to the community. We want to hire as much as we can from the local community."

The small moment of doubt and dissent came and went. Almost immediately, another Denton council member, Carl Young, tried to smooth over Cochran's remarks.

"I want to apologize for this radical over here," Young said as he turned toward Cochran. "Don't pay attention to anything he says. I hope you didn't take offense at the 'city slickers.' That's not Denton. That's just one individual. I trust everything you said. I know about Trammell Crow. It is one great company."

Despite the rebuke, Cochran stubbornly maintained his stance and cast the lone dissenting vote that night. At the time, it seemed like an ungracious gesture--not the way to greet a company bringing new economic life to a one-dimensional town of 75,000. But Cochran's vote is looking a heck of a lot smarter these days.

Events in the 11 months since that council meeting seem to have vindicated his harsh words. The Trammell Crow company appears to have steamrollered the copper factory through local government channels by misrepresenting its intentions, glossing over key facts, and strong-arming critics. The factory also flew by the Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission, which granted United Copper a permit to pollute without holding a public hearing.

For their part, Denton officials have acted a bit like the duped bumpkins Cochran ridiculed. So eager were they to engineer a reversal of "the giant sucking sound" that H. Ross Perot predicted would come with NAFTA that officials at city, county, and school district administrative offices have showered the copper factory with a potential $1 million in tax breaks over the next six years. Denton's mayor dismisses even the thought of questioning Trammell Crow's good intentions.

"I won't second-guess them," Mayor Jack Miller says. "I came from private industry. I know how you do things."

But dozens of Denton residents, many of whom either live near the almost completed copper factory or send their children to the elementary school a mile away from it, have raised doubts about the plant. With potluck suppers and bake sales, the residents have organized a somewhat belated grassroots campaign against it.

The residents' chief concern: lead. United Copper Industries, a subsidiary of Carlos Peralta Quintero's international conglomerate, has acknowledged in its air-quality permit application to the TNRCC that the toxic substance will be emitted--at federally established safe levels, it says--if manufacturing begins, as scheduled, in January. At unsafe levels, lead absorption has been linked to brain damage, asthma attacks, and a half-dozen other ailments.

Plant opponents dispute the notion that the lead emissions are safe. Whether there's any basis for their fears presumably would have been answered during the public hearing process, but the state said no to residents' requests for a hearing.

In some ways, Trammell Crow officials have invited the backlash. The developers omitted details about the factory's potential for emitting lead until after the tax abatements were approved. At the January council meeting, the developers displayed an artist's rendering of the site in which no smokestacks were visible. Then they made no effort to clarify when city staff promised council members that no smelting--a process that produces lead as one of its by-products--would take place.

When local residents later discovered that the proposed plant would indeed pollute, they began to organize against it, distributing informational fliers at soccer games. Trammell Crow lawyers responded by threatening to sue one of the pamphleteers.

For months, the activists' concerns failed to slow the plant's progress. Trammell Crow representatives had locked up support in the most important places. The mayor, school district trustees, and general manager of the Denton Record-Chronicle have all vigorously backed the newcomers. "If you're not ready for growth, maybe you should move away from Denton," Bill Patterson, general manager of the newspaper, scrawled in a recent note to one of the factory opponents.

But earlier this month, the activists surprised even themselves when they won their first significant victory--at a district court hearing far away from Denton. A Travis County judge ruled that the TNRCC had erred in issuing an air-quality permit to United Copper without holding a public hearing. When the state judge issues a written order as scheduled later this month, she is expected to revoke the factory's emissions permit. The factory can still begin operations, as long as it uses only pure copper.

Neither the Dallas developers nor the local activists expect the fight to stop soon.

Trammell Crow Vice President Robert McFarlane insists he and his colleagues have not played it fast and loose in Denton.

"I can guarantee that a year from now, people are going to look back and say Denton made the right decision," he says. "The only thing that got people churned up over there were the alarmists."

A white-haired 67-year-old former administrative officer with the U.S. Department of State, Parks Olmon qualifies by the Crow executive's standards as one of those "alarmists." Olmon, who spent his working life in far-flung places such as Beijing, Frankfurt, and Mexico City, returned to his hometown of Denton eight years ago to retire.

These days, Olmon steers his Suburban around town and distributes packets of newspaper clippings detailing the damage that exposure to excessive levels of lead can cause to kidneys, lungs, or a child's brain--as well as information on the organization activists have set up, Citizens for Healthy Growth. "I run around town with these packets in my hand, because now I'm an activist," Olmon says.

For Olmon, the United Copper plant would be a tolerable neighbor--he lives three-quarters of a mile away--if it didn't emit lead. "The minute I heard the word lead, I had a problem," he says. "I have a big garden. I'm not planning to grow anything next year. I've got two grandchildren. I'm not going to let them play in the back yard."

In the earliest stages of its project, United Copper considered operating a plant where all of the copper would arrive in sheets of pure metal. Only later did the company opt to add a scrap-burning facility to eliminate the impurities in copper. An unintended side effect of that purifying process is lead emissions.

Olmon now monitors progress at the plant construction site several times a week. The smokestacks will go up soon, he says.

Occupying the back seat of Olmon's Suburban a few weeks ago as he pulled up to the back of the plant was Carol Soph, a former professional French horn player and mother of a college sophomore, who has spent much of her 12 years as a Denton resident volunteering at charities like Meals-on-Wheels. Now Soph and her husband, Ed, a University of North Texas associate music professor and jazz drummer, lead the movement opposing the plant. The couple learned about the lead emissions a month after the January 6 city council meeting.

When the Sophs attended a town meeting about the future of Denton, a woman pulled them aside and told them about the official legal notice of United Copper's application for an air-quality permit that had appeared in the Denton Record-Chronicle. State regulators require such notices to be posted, but many residents missed the small bulletin when it ran in the back pages of the paper for four days starting in late January.

The Sophs believe the plant will destroy their way of life. "We've finally realized our American dream of being homeowners after years of living a hand-to-mouth existence as freelance musicians," Ed Soph says. The Sophs bought a two-story brick home about two miles from the factory, in a neighborhood locals call "Idiots' Hill" because of its high prices and frequent foundation problems.

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.

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.

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..."

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."

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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