Choke On It

North Texas gets schooled on the nasty politics of dirty air

In the movie The Untouchables, Kevin Costner's Eliot Ness quickly discovers just how difficult it will be to bring down the infamous Al Capone, whose bloody bootlegging operation terrorized a city and made a mockery of the law. Capone has bought off the cops, judges and the mayor and has a loyal crew of hired guns ready to protect his enterprise. Ness, meanwhile, is armed with nothing more than a sense of righteous indignation and is helpless against Capone and the shadowy control he exerts over Chicago.

Then, in a chance encounter, Ness meets Malone, a streetwise beat cop played by Sean Connery. He's the only man Ness can trust.

"If you open the ball on these people, Mr. Ness, you must be prepared to go all the way. Because they won't give up the fight until one of you is dead," Malone whispers as he and Ness kneel in a cathedral. "He pulls a knife, you pull a gun. He sends one of yours to the hospital, you send one of his to the morgue. That's the Chicago way, and that's how you get Capone. Do you want to do that? Are you ready to do that?"

On a hot, sunny day in North Texas, searing temperatures bake the air pollutants in our sky to form a corrosive coat of noxious smog strong enough to send asthmatic children to the hospital and healthy adults scurrying indoors. Like a soldier crawling underneath barbed wire, smog quietly sneaks into lungs, hinders breathing and trickles into ear and nasal passages, causing nausea. It's been like this for a generation.

But although the skies here are dirtier than Courtney Love at closing time, few here, other than the usual cast of environmentalists, figured we might want to clean it up. All that changed last year. By the end of 2006, a coalition of political and business leaders, including some supporters of the Republican Party, decided to fight for an end to the dangerously polluted air that has become as much a part of our regional character as the Cowboys, the stockyards and Reunion Tower.

Their intentions were good, but they could have used a famous Welsh actor to explain the Austin way to them before they headed south this year to get some new regulations to clean up the smog, because they walked into the Capitol like lambs and came home like lamb chops. You might think leaders of North Texas business and government would have an inkling that the governor, the Legislature and the state's environmental regulators are more than a little friendly with polluting industries, but that didn't stop clean air advocates from being outspent, outmatched and outwitted. Think St. Valentine's Day in a Chicago garage, minus the blood.

For all the immediate good our own band of untouchables did at the Capitol, legislation-wise, we might have been better off if they brought back copies of their proposals for us to cut into paper face masks to keep the smoke out.

It's not as if the region's major polluters, particularly the kilns, made no concessions. But they scrapped and clawed against any big measure that would really make a difference, both in the air we breathe and the money they make. So they politely agreed to pollute a little less, and the state applauded them like they were saving the planet. Beyond those voluntary changes, the smokestack boys budged not one inch. Why should they? The regulated industries enlist the best lobbyists in Austin while enjoying cozy relationships with a governor and his party leaders.

In contrast, the clean air advocates in North Texas think they can win merely because they're on the side of the facts and the angels. They don't know how to fight the Austin way. The business leaders and elected officials in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, who say they want to end our smog problem, don't have the relationships, the money or the power to make a difference. What exactly were they prepared to do? Certainly not to brawl for their interests the way the industries do. Perhaps, most of all, what the region lacked was an Eliot Ness, a singular, indignant leader with his own cast of untouchables, ready to take on the Al Capones of the skies.

"What was needed was a general during this past session," says Jim Schermbeck, an environmentalist who worked with the clean air advocates. "Someone telling everyone who needs to be doing what and marshaling the forces of good versus evil."


As a Park Cities Republican and former corporate lawyer and criminal court judge, Margaret Keliher didn't exactly fit the profile of a kick-ass environmentalist. The blond highlights and genteel Southern drawl didn't help either, but in her first term, the Dallas County judge quickly realized that while much of her job involved tending to the mundane details of government administration, she was in prime position to do something about the region's polluted air. One of Keliher's most important roles was serving as the co-chair of the North Texas Clean Air Steering Committee (NTCASC) with Collin County Judge Ron Harris. The steering committee had the responsibility to work with state and federal authorities on cleaning up our hazy skies. Since 1976, the North Texas region has been in violation of provisions of the federal Clean Air Act nearly a dozen times. The committee was charged with reducing our ozone levels in time to meet a 2010 federal deadline.

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