Something In The Air
Jeanne Rivers does not profess to be a scientist, but she does know that her six-year-old son, Shawn, didn't have tungsten and trichlorethylene in his blood two years ago, before the family moved within shouting distance of Texas Industries' Midlothian cement plant. Now, there are traces of the potentially harmful toxins in Shawn's bloodstream.
Symptoms of Shawn's epilepsy and autism grew worse after the family settled into a house near the plant. His seizures--once under control--returned with a vengeance, and now the boy can't make it through the day without lapsing into blank stares, losing his balance, and collapsing to the ground.
Rivers suspects that the emissions which tumble ceaselessly from TXI's smokestacks have contributed to her son's failing health. She can see the white dust coming from the plant, and smell the fumes. To Rivers, it only makes sense that her son is breathing the pollution into his body.
Mary Risinger, another Midlothian resident, knows that on days when the wind is from the southwest, TXI's emissions will blow directly over her house. She can't spend much time in her yard before her eyes begin to burn and her lungs seize until she can hardly breathe. She doesn't step outside without checking which way the wind is blowing.
Don Holley is just trying to make a living raising ostriches on a ranch across the street from TXI. But his birds keep suffering from bizarre health problems. Last year, Holley was horrified to discover scores of his ostriches lying dead in their pens. Their legs had snapped like toothpicks under the weight of their own bodies, and, in most cases, they bled to death.
Holley was equally dumbfounded when one ostrich was born so deformed that it resembled a bizarre space alien poking through its shell. And Holley can't begin to explain the unnatural purple goo that oozed out of one egg that never hatched a live bird.
Similarly, Debara Booth can't explain why so many of the Doberman pinschers she breeds have birth defects or die prematurely. She's pretty sure it's something in the air, because she and her husband are constantly choking on the air they breathe.
TXI officials steadfastly maintain that the plant is not causing health problems among nearby residents, and point out that the company operates within the limits of permits granted by the state and federal regulatory agencies. TXI spokesman Harold Green says the company should be praised because its hazardous waste "recycling" program gives businesses a cheap, safe place to dispose of their waste.
"I think that it is helping the environment," Green says. "I think, under most circumstances, we should be winning environmental awards instead of being attacked."
But common sense tells the people living near TXI's plant that something is wrong--that too many people and animals have gotten sick since the plant started burning hazardous waste almost a decade ago.
Many living in the path of TXI's emissions are convinced that the plant is causing their health problems. They have complained. They've collected evidence to bolster their theory. And for years, they've begged state officials for an answer to one question: Is TXI making people sick?
To this day, no one has attempted to provide a complete answer. Not the federal and state agencies charged with protecting public health and the environment, and not TXI itself.
State officials have interviewed Midlothian citizens and collected hundreds of soil and air samples from around the plant. But no agency has ever undertaken an in-depth study of the health of those living near TXI's smokestacks.
Instead--based primarily on tests of dirt and air--the Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission says it sees no evidence that the plant is contributing to the ill health of those living nearby.
Now, the TNRCC is considering a permit that would allow TXI to more than double the amount of hazardous waste it burns each year--from about 100,000 tons to 270,000 tons--and become the largest hazardous waste incinerator in the nation. That would inevitably increase the amounts of toxic metals, chemicals, and dust the plant spews into the air.
TXI already ranks as the number-one industrial air polluter in North Texas, according to government figures, and the plant's opponents are convinced that the permit will only make the situation worse. For the last seven years, a small band of citizens-turned-activists has unsuccessfully fought to halt, or at least slow, the company's toxic burning. But now the plant's critics are on the brink of defeat. TNRCC officials appear likely to give TXI the permit it needs to expand its hazardous waste burning operation.
As they await a final decision, the residents can only wonder what the future will be like for them, their children, and their animals.
"It's such a quiet little town," Rivers says, her voice bitter and sarcastic. "It's like something you would see on TV--everything is hunky-dory. But everything isn't hunky-dory."
The state's leading producer of cement, TXI quietly began its toxic burning in 1987 when a change in federal law opened the door for cement makers to use hazardous waste as a substitute for coal and natural gas. Today, TXI is the only cement maker in Texas that burns hazardous waste to fire its kilns.
In the first part of this special report, published last week, the Dallas Observer explored how TXI got into the hazardous waste business, and why it likely will be allowed to increase the amount of waste it burns at the Midlothian plant.
Every year, the plant pumps hundreds of thousands of pounds of toxic metals, chemicals, and dust into the air. Those pollutants, on most days, are carried by the wind northeast over Cedar Hill, Duncanville, DeSoto, and into Dallas.
The plant's neighbors claim that since TXI started the toxic burning, they have been living in an unofficial "sacrifice zone" in which they have become human guinea pigs, subjected to the unknown consequences of exposure to TXI's emissions. They believe TXI is slowly turning their community into a Superfund sight, and destroying their health.
In recent years, the American Lung Association, the national Sierra Club, and a growing number of area physicians have come to share the residents' beliefs. But they have been unable to sway the TNRCC, the state agency that now will decide whether TXI should be granted a permit to expand its operations.
The TNRCC says its limited investigations show no health threat from the plant. But there is a stunning lack of information about what the chemicals and metals burned at TXI are doing to people's health. In fact, scientists don't even have names for some of the substances coming out of TXI's stacks.
While state officials and the plant's opponents continue to squabble over what they do not know, there is little question that people downwind of TXI are getting sick.
Last year, the Texas Department of Health identified, but could not explain, an unusually high number of babies in the area born with Down syndrome between 1992 and 1994.
Area doctors report an increase in respiratory problems among patients who live in Midlothian, Duncanville, DeSoto, and other nearby cities. The problems include lung disease, allergies, and the onset and exacerbation of asthma.
In recent years, area residents and veterinarians have witnessed bizarre animal birth defects and deformities, and have also seen an increase in reproductive problems and premature deaths.
None of the effects has been tied to TXI directly, but they are occurring often enough to give cause for concern. Pinpointing a cause is complicated, because two other cement kilns and a TXI-owned steel mill also operate in Midlothian. But TXI is the largest of the plants, and the only one burning a toxic soup of hazardous materials.
State officials point out that they have taken more soil and air samples in Midlothian than in any other city in the state. But they have never studied the people, animals, or plants that live in the area. Conducting such an in-depth "epidemiological study," the state says, would cost too much money, and still might not definitively answer concerns about the plant.
Critic Jim Schermbeck says the state is effectively turning its back on people who have no choice but to breathe TXI's emissions. Schermbeck is the only paid staff member of Downwinders at Risk, a coalition of citizens that has spent years trying to halt TXI's toxic burning.
"Instead of being true scientists and coming out into the field and testing, they [state officials] sit there in Austin and say, 'These people must be making it up,'" Schermbeck says. "They would rather look at the numbers than real human experience. That's what is at the heart of this matter."
Since 1990, area residents have filed more than 150 complaints about TXI with the TNRCC, making the company one of the state's leading targets of health and odor nuisance complaints. Most of the complaints came from people suffering from coughing attacks, nausea, fatigue, nose bleeds, tightness in their chests, and burning sensations in their eyes, noses, throats, and lungs.
Over the years, residents say unbearable "rotten egg" and "chemical odors" wafting from TXI have made them prisoners in their own homes. Even when they evade the smell, residents say they still can't escape the fine layer of white dust that coats their rooftops, cars, windows, and furniture.
Despite nearly 10 years of steady and very specific complaints, the state remains unconvinced that TXI's emissions are causing health problems. Rather, investigators tend to believe that complaints are coming from people who are either "ultra-sensitive" to common odors and allergies, or bent on shutting TXI down.
In most cases, the investigators have reported that they can't track particular complaints back to TXI, because the noxious fumes could be coming from anywhere. In many cases, however, complaints have been rejected simply because investigators didn't detect any funny smells in the air by the time they arrived at the scene. Or, worse, the people who were complaining didn't look sick.
"You can smell it. You can see it. You can feel it. You can get nauseous just taking a breath of air outside. I know that what we smell is in [son Shawn's] body," Jeanne Rivers says. "This isn't just people's imaginations. This is real."
In 1995, Rivers and her husband Don moved into a tiny, one-story brick house located less than a mile north of TXI. At the time, they had no idea TXI was burning hazardous waste, or that the plant's emissions would make life unbearable.
On an April morning, the 34-year-old housewife was seated inside her living room, surrounded by toy appliances, big wheels, and various Jesus memorabilia. Barney the purple dinosaur commanded the full attention of two-year-old Hannah. Her older sister, Heather, and Shawn were off at school.
"We had it in our hearts that this was where we were going to live," Rivers says. "It takes a while for it to sink in that this dream you had isn't going to happen."
For two years, Rivers says, the entire family has been increasingly stricken with flu-like symptoms, swollen nasal passages, and allergic reactions. But their most troubling health concerns are about Shawn, a six-year-old whose life has been complicated by a multitude of illnesses.
When Shawn was younger, he had developmental problems and suffered from seizures. Later, he was diagnosed with epilepsy and autism. For years, Rivers was able to control Shawn's seizures with a special diet and close supervision. But shortly after the family moved to Midlothian, the seizures began to recur.
At first, Shawn would get a blank look in his eyes that lasted only a few seconds. Then the stare lasted longer, and his head would drop backwards. Soon, he began to loose his balance altogether. Now, Rivers says, the seizures are happening so often that Shawn is being fitted for a special helmet, which he'll have to wear at school to prevent head injuries.
Although the family noticed that the wind tended to tickle their eyes and noses--particularly on days when it was blowing north--they were reluctant to believe that TXI's emissions were related to their son's problems.
"Nobody wants to believe it. We didn't want to believe it when we first moved here. Who wants to believe that they're being poisoned? People want proof," Rivers says. "Well, we just happen to have proof."
Because of his many illnesses, Shawn has undergone countless medical exams and thorough check-ups. But when Shawn went to the doctor last year, the metal tungsten was discovered in his blood and urine. In October, another test revealed the presence of trichlorethylene--a highly toxic liquid that's used as a fumigant, refrigerant, and dry-cleaning chemical. TXI spokesman Harold Green confirms that the company burns trichlorethylene. Although tungsten is on the list of wastes that TXI accepts, Green says he does not believe the company has ever burned the metal.
Rivers is convinced that the plant's emissions are contributing to her son's eroding health. But she is learning that even blood tests aren't enough to convince the skeptical.
When Rivers traveled to the state capital this year, lawmakers listened quietly to her story but politely declined her offer to provide Shawn's medical records. When she goes into town, Rivers says, she's careful not to mention TXI among those who have grown sick of the debate, or who rely on the plant for their income. In May, the Riverses left their onetime dream home, and moved farther away from the TXI plant.
"I'm definitely not going to argue with anybody, especially with someone in my church," Rivers says. "But what other factories in town burn tungsten and trichlorethylene?"
Down syndrome is an abnormality that causes a person's skull to be smaller than usual. The cheekbones are often high, the nose flattened, and the eyes slanted. The physical deformities are usually accompanied by varying degrees of mental handicap. The syndrome is most likely to occur in babies born to mothers over the age of 40.
But age didn't explain a cluster of 11 babies with Down syndrome born in and near Midlothian in Ellis County between 1992 and 1994. Another infant with the disease died in the womb. Even after adjusting for age, the Texas Department of Health found that Ellis County's rate of Down syndrome births was almost three times higher than average.
Most of the mothers lived downwind from TXI. Although they expressed concern that pollution might have contributed to their children's illnesses, the state health department admits it does not have enough information to know.
"This study did not provide evidence that environmental factors were associated with the excess occurrence of Down syndrome cases, but its ability to do so was limited," wrote Dr. Peter Langlois, who studied the situation for the health department and published his findings in May 1996.
What Langlois found, his report said, was that there wasn't enough information to pin the Down syndrome cases on any one cause--industrial pollution, age, genetics, or other risk factors. By default, therefore, TXI's emissions were cleared of any responsibility. Part of the problem, Langlois wrote, was that he couldn't compare what happened in Ellis County with other Down syndrome clusters, or perform genetic tests.
Although Langlois recommended that the state continue monitoring births in the area, it's unlikely there will ever be an explanation for the abnormal rate of Down syndrome--not because the cluster isn't statistically significant, but because finding the cause would cost too much money.
"Including a comparison group or conducting genetic tests significantly increases the cost of the investigation," Langlois wrote.
Langlois, however, was willing to accept at face value the TNRCC's contention that TXI's plant is safe.
"TNRCC has conducted extensive air and soil monitoring in the Midlothian area," Langlois wrote. "All the substances analyzed were below health-based levels of concern."
Langlois' report effectively ended official discussion about the Ellis County Down syndrome babies, but it only bolstered the arguments of citizens living near TXI's plant that the state cannot or will not answer their questions about what is making people sick.
A long white cloth dangles from the branches of a leafless tree in Mary Risinger's front yard. A weather vane of sorts, the cloth serves as Risinger's warning system, telling her when it's safe to go outside. If the wind is coming from the direction of TXI, Risinger says, she has to stay indoors.
"My lungs close up. It's like there is a vise on my chest tightening up, and it gets harder and harder to breathe. Quite often, it's accompanied with coughing," Risinger says. "I think that's a lousy way to live, jailed up in your own house so some industry can make obscene profits."
When Risinger and her husband, Robert, left Oak Cliff and moved to Midlothian 26 years ago, they loved the area's rural atmosphere. They thought Midlothian was a great place to live until the late 1980s, when Risinger says she began to have trouble breathing. Although she always had allergies, Risinger says things grew much worse.
In 1991, she finally called the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to complain about the sulfur odors in the air. Her call was referred to the TNRCC. Since then, Risinger says she has filed nine health complaints with the TNRCC--none of which had any impact. Risinger continues to mark bad air days on a calender hanging in her kitchen, but she has stopped calling the TNRCC.
"If you make numerous complaints, they classify you as a crank," the 58-year-old retiree says. "Your name goes to the 'low-priority' list."
Risinger's complaints against TXI are just a few of the more than 150 on file with the TNRCC. In only four cases has the agency "confirmed" the complaints. In 1995, the agency fined TXI $38,250, after determining that the plant's emissions "tended to be injurious to or to adversely affect human health, or welfare, animal life, vegetation or property" on six dates from 1991 through 1993.
One person who was sickened by TXI's emissions was TNRCC technician James Doty, according to a memo he sent to his boss in December 1991. Doty recounted what happened as he was collecting air samples just downwind from the plant.
"I inhaled a breath of air which instantly caused a throat irritation accompanied by a tightness in my chest. The strong odor of sulfur dioxide lasted until the wind shifted to the southeast," Doty wrote. "My throat irritation was accompanied by a persistent cough. Both the throat irritation and cough continued throughout the night and disturbed my sleep. These disagreeable symptoms continued the next day."
With the exception of the one-time fine, the TNRCC's track record for investigating odor and health complaints lodged against TXI is scant. TNRCC investigator David Thompson says it is often difficult to trace odor complaints, because smells come and go with the wind. By the time investigators arrive in response to a complaint, the wind has usually shifted.
"Confirming odor complaints is one of the most difficult tasks that we have," Thompson says. "We cannot issue a [violation] or confirm a complaint on the say-so of the complainant."
Besides, Thompson says, he's convinced that TXI's emissions are safe, and suggests that repeat complainers like Risinger are simply "ultra-sensitive."
"There's people who feel, in their own minds, that these emissions are causing these problems that they're having," Thompson says. "We have conducted more studies in Midlothian than any other city in the state. We don't find any reasons for the emissions from the industry down there to be causing any adverse health effects."
While the changing winds are a problem, the TNRCC's self-imposed rules for confirming complaints border on the impossible. In order for a complaint to be confirmed, an inspector must smell the odor himself or experience a health effect.
Although investigators are supposed to respond to health complaints immediately, they rarely do, according to a review of complaints on file with the TNRCC's Arlington office. Most often, investigators do not arrive to check out a complaint for several days--if they show up at all.
When inspectors, including Thompson, have knocked at her door, Risinger says, they've told her that she didn't look sick. They've also suggested that her problems are probably caused by cedar trees and other allergens, which are on the rise in the summer months, when her breathing difficulties are the worst.
"Nature is the one thing that is not increasing," Risinger counters. "There's only one thing that is increasing, and that is man-made pollution. It defies common sense to say you have more allergies because of nature when nature is eroding rapidly."
Don Holley throws his beat-up pickup truck into park outside Chuck Pack's ostrich farm. Dressed in Wrangler jeans and knee-high waders, Holley is a rugged man whose bright blue eyes stand out from his graying beard and sun-worn face.
Holley, a 49-year-old Vietnam veteran, believes he has proof that TXI's emissions are polluting the neighborhood. The proof's been sitting in a freezer inside Pack's garage for months.
A cloud of cold air tumbles out of the freezer as Holley gently extracts an ostrich feedbag from inside. In it, the blob of purple goo that oozed out of a cracked, unhatched ostrich egg is frozen midstream.
Next to it is a frozen baby ostrich, which Holley says looked like a bizarre space alien when it briefly came to life some six months ago.
"Damnedest thing you ever saw. Crooked bones. White feathers. When it died, I knew I'd keep it," Holley says. "It's a perfect example of the deformity we got out here."
The mutant baby was just one of many unexplainable ostrich casualties that have recently occurred on this farm, which lies on the west side of Highway 67--across the street from TXI and directly underneath the path of its emissions.
Last year alone, Holley says, he and Pack lost 189 ostriches, worth about $1,000 apiece. Of those losses, about 100 were eggs that never hatched. But 89 more birds died after suffering a fate so bizarre that it still causes Holley's face to bunch up.
When he would show up in the mornings to feed the ostriches, Holley says, he was horrified to discover ostriches lying dead in their pens. Their legs were apparently so brittle, their bones snapped under the weight of their own bodies. In most cases, the birds bled to death.
"We would go out one day, and the body would be lying over here, and the leg would be lying over there. You could see where [they] had gone around in circles and died. Just imagine having your leg separated from your body," Holley says. "I figured it had something to do with the pollution."
Of course, Holley doesn't know what caused the brittle bones. Neither does Pack, who says he can't afford to fork over the $400 to $500 it would cost to have one of the birds autopsied. Besides, even if an autopsy turned up poisons that could be linked to TXI, Pack wonders whether the evidence would make any difference.
"You get these guys out here and say, 'What's wrong?' They say, 'Well, he got heavy and broke his leg.' Well, you don't have to be a veterinarian to know that," Pack says. "Something caused that."
In the wake of the deaths, Pack says, he called around to other ostrich farmers in the state and had been told the legs of their birds weren't snapping like toothpicks.
Holley adds that the birds aren't the only ones experiencing health problems. When he returned to Midlothian seven years ago, Holley says, he was suddenly struck with allergies.
"I break out in hives if I don't take these pills," he says holding up a bottle of Seldane. "When I leave here, nothing happens."
Like Jeanne Rivers, Holley says he is used to being told that TXI can't possibly be causing his problems.
"'You don't have breathing problems.' 'You don't have allergies.' 'There's nothing wrong with hives.' 'It's all in your imagination,'" Holley says, mocking the words he's heard from various government officials. "They don't give a damn about us."
The opinions about government officials aren't much different at the home of Debara and Cecil R. Booth, who live just a stone's throw away from Pack's Ostrich ranch.
"You get tired of calling, 'cause you know you're gonna get the same old answer: 'There's no problem here,'" says Debara Booth, a stocky 34-year-old with dirty-blonde hair and wide, muscular arms.
During the week, Booth hauls boxes for UPS in Arlington. But on weekends, she spends her time looking after the dozens of Doberman pinschers and mini pinschers that the couple breeds in their back yard. Booth says she can't even count the number of problems her dogs have had since she and Cecil moved here in 1988, not to mention the increasing respiratory problems she and her 59-year-old husband are having.
"The eyes are constantly watering in our dogs. We got dogs four, five years old that have lost all their teeth," Booth says, stepping into a pen amid a litter of bouncing baby pinschers.
Booth scoops up a pup she calls "Little Bit" and offers it for inspection. The dog fidgets in her calloused hands as she runs her finger over Little Bit's head, which is shaped like a golf ball and dented on the side. The unusual shape of the dog's skull has forced its eyes apart. Tears stream from the dog's right eye, which is sticky with brown mucus.
In the next pen, Buster stands atop his dog house. He, too, was born deformed. His right front leg joint is bent and twisted, causing his leg to point away from his body. His pen mates, Booth adds, aren't filling out the way they should, and the females are having problems reproducing. Instead of having the usual litters of 8 to 12 puppies, Booth says, the mothers are giving birth to just one pup with more frequency.
"Almost every mother gets mastitis. Their breasts, they get hard," she says. "When the pups are born, the mothers will have bad milk: It's yellow, not the nice white color it should be."
What's worse, Booth says, is that an increasing number of her dogs are dying prematurely, and she can't figure out why. Booth darts inside the house and retrieves a black book containing her dogs' birth and death certificates. In the last two years alone, she's lost eight dogs.
Booth strolls into her front yard. To the east, TXI and its subsidiary, Chaparral Steel, loom on the horizon. On this Saturday afternoon, TXI's smokestacks are still, but Booth says they'll begin to crank up in a few hours when night falls.
"There's something in the air. Like a chemical. It smells very putrid," she says. "Lately it's been getting worse and worse. In the mornings I get up coughing and coughing. Once I get to Arlington, where I work, it clears up. When I get home, after an hour, I start coughing again and my eyes begin to burn."
Booth pulls open the garage door and runs her finger across the trunk of Cecil's Cadillac. The black vehicle is covered in a thin white dust. "It was just washed two days ago," she says, adding that the garage door has been shut the whole time. "It's concrete dust."
Before TXI can obtain a permit allowing it to burn even more hazardous waste, it must first pass through an unprecedented hearing that will operate much like a civil court case. The hearing will determine whether TXI should get its permit and, if so, set the limits on how much waste the company can burn and how many pollutants it can emit.
Testimony, which is scheduled to begin on December 1, is expected to last a month. State administrative law judges Tommy Broyles and Carol Wood are expected to make a final recommendation on TXI's permit to TNRCC's three commissioners sometime next spring.
Jim Schermbeck, members of Down-winders at Risk, environmentalists, and a long line of citizens have been named as "parties" to the case, meaning they will be allowed to question and challenge the company.
Although the hearing is technical in form, it effectively gives plant opponents their first formal opportunity to plead their case that TXI's emissions are making them sick.
"Here's a chance to put the last 10 years of TXI burning hazardous waste on trial," Schermbeck says. "They [TXI officials] have never had to get up on the stand and testify about what has gone on. They're going to have to have an answer to those questions now."
Are TXI's emissions making people sick? Will they in the future? Those are the questions citizens want answered, but chances are it won't happen.
Opponents hope they can convince the judges that there are enough concerns about TXI to deny the permit. But that is unlikely, since the TNRCC has already concluded that the plant is safe.
In November 1995, the TNRCC finally unveiled the results of a long-awaited "risk assessment," conducted to determine whether TXI's emissions present a risk to the environment surrounding the plant.
In a meeting that had the feel of a college chemistry lecture, a team of state toxicologists calmly told a crowd of 500 concerned residents packed inside the Midlothian Middle School that TXI's emissions are nothing to be alarmed about.
One of the toxicologists on hand was the TNRCC's Loren Lund. In a later interview, Lund says he cannot explain why citizens continue to report health problems associated with the plant. But he has a hunch.
"It's important to remember that there are, in fact, numerous potential causes of the various citizen-reported health effects that cannot be ruled out," Lund says. "Allergies, lifestyle, inherited traits, auto emissions. Those are just a few examples."
As part of its risk assessment, Lund says, the state examined the current and future risks associated with TXI's emissions. The study was not a light endeavor. Five years in the making, it was the first such study ever conducted by the state.
The agency collected hundreds of soil and air samples at sites surrounding TXI's plant, which sits on 1,587 acres of land just south of downtown Midlothian on Highway 67.
The samples were analyzed and found to contain numerous toxic metals, including arsenic, beryllium, cadmium, chromium, and lead. But because the amount of toxins fell below the threshold limits that the state considers unsafe, health officials concluded that TXI poses no current health risk.
The state then tried to estimate how much more pollution TXI could produce in coming years, and entered those projections into a computer modeling program. During the next 30 years, the computer predicted, pollution from the plant will not rise above levels that the state now considers to be safe.
"We do not say for sure that there will not be adverse health effects," Lund says carefully. "We say based upon the available information that we have, we do not expect adverse health effects."
Lund adds: "Reasonable public health policies have to be based on identified hazards. We cannot regulate based on fears that are not supported by data."
But the TNRCC is obligated to err on the side of caution, especially when it comes to TXI, says University of Michigan Professor Stuart Batterman.
"State agencies have a responsibility to provide balanced, credible, and scientific analyses and decisions, and to employ the precautionary principle when uncertainty and stakes are high," Batterman says. "The defensive posture of the TNRCC doesn't further these goals, but instead indicates an agency which is captive to industrial or political forces, and one which is not protecting the public health."
Batterman was one of several experts that Downwinders at Risk and the American Lung Association hired to review and critique the state's risk assessment. As part of his review, Batterman concluded that the state's scientific approach was severely flawed, and its conclusions unfounded.
"The TNRCC must be strongly criticized for its tendency to go far beyond what is scientifically supportable by the existing data in making sweeping generalizations regarding the present and future safety of waste combustion in Midlothian," Batterman stated in his May 1996 report.
Months later, Professor Marvin Legator and two graduate fellows at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston published their own review of the TNRCC's risk assessment.
In their report, the researchers grappled with the TNRCC's claim that TXI's emissions are safe just because because soil and air samples fall below the official danger limits.
The glaring problem, the researchers noted, is that levels considered safe now might very well be reclassified as dangerous a few years from now. As scientists continue to glean information about the health effects of various metals and chemicals, "safe" levels of toxic chemicals continue to be lowered, says Legator, director of UTMB's Environmental Toxicology Division.
"The problem is that many of the chemicals that have been on the market, especially since the mid-'60s, have been tested in a very cursory way--if at all--for hazards," Legator says. "Therefore, we have tremendous information gaps on many, many of the chemicals that we're exposed to."
By 1993, more than 750,000 man-made chemicals were on sale in the United States, and an additional 1,000 to 2,000 new chemicals enter the market each year, according to Legator.
Not only is there a lack of information about individual metals and chemicals, but there is virtually no information about the health effects brought on when those metals and chemicals are burned together and released into the environment.
"The best thing we can do is recognize that we're going to be exposed to harmful chemicals, because we can't stop breathing; we can't stop living," Legator says. "But that doesn't give a facility the right to significantly increase our exposure to known toxic substances."
In the wake of the Batterman and Legator reports, TNRCC officials released lengthy retorts in which they testily defended their risk assessment and reiterated their public assurances of TXI's safety.
The TNRCC's Lund says that, despite citizen complaints, there is no scientific proof that TXI's emissions are harmful. The company, he says, should be granted its permit.
"I'm not going to deny that these people strongly believe that they are being affected," Lund says. "What I can say, though, is that we have done all that we can do to attempt to address those concerns."
As the two sides continue their tug of war, other researchers are providing new evidence about the dangers of pollution generated by industries like TXI.XIn 1993, a team of Harvard researchers unveiled groundbreaking research showing that air pollution--at levels deemed safe by the government--is killing people. In their study, the researchers found a 26 percent higher rate of premature death in U.S. cities with high levels of pollution compared to cities with lower levels.
What's worse, the researchers said, was that the risk may be highest from lesser-known pollutants like "particulate matter"--or dust--which are by-products of fuel burning and are tiny enough to penetrate deep into the lungs. In North Texas, TXI is the leading producer of particulate matter, sending an estimated 472 tons of the dust into the air each year, according to 1996 TNRCC records. (TXI neighbors Owens Corning and North Texas Cement Company rank second and third, respectively.)
Last month, the New York-based Environmental Defense Fund reported that pollution from industries located outside the Dallas-Fort Worth area travels much farther than state officials believe, indicating that air pollution from TXI may be traveling farther than the state contends.
The EDF believes that pollution--particularly sulfur dioxide--blows into the Dallas-Fort Worth area from as far away as Rusk County, some 114 miles southeast of Dallas. TXI's plant is about 30 miles southwest of Dallas.
University of Texas Professor David Allen, who completed the study, says his findings are circumstantial and should only be used as a basis for further investigation. "Predicting levels of air pollutants is a lot like predicting the weather," Allen says. "You may know it will rain on a particular day, but it's very hard to say exactly where that rain will occur and how intense it will be."
While researchers continue to study how far pollutants travel and how much they contribute to ozone levels and disease, there is no question that the substances TXI is spewing into the air have been linked to health problems.
In its permit request, TXI is asking to dramatically increase the amount of toxic waste it burns, including the amounts of arsenic, beryllium, cadmium, mercury, and lead, to name just a few. Under the permit, TXI would be allowed to emit 52 tons of metals a year--metals that studies have linked to an array of health problems including cancer, lung disease, birth defects, nervous system problems, and organ failure.
A growing number of doctors who work in communities downwind of TXI say they are seeing an increase in respiratory illnesses, including lung disease, allergies, and asthma. One of those doctors is D. Lee Walters, a family practitioner who has worked in Duncanville for 13 years.
"More people in this area seem to have these problems than in the past, and they seem to be more serious and more frequent," Walters says. "My concern as a family-practice doctor is not just respiratory problems, but if these are toxic wastes that are being pumped into the environment, what will ultimately arise is the risk of cancer in the area."
Dallas physician Richard Wasserman concurs with Walters' diagnosis that respiratory illnesses, particularly asthma, are on the increase.
"Anything that increases the amount of pollution will increase respiratory disease, emergency room visits, and medication requirements for children and adults with asthma. I am very concerned about that," Wasserman says.
While other factors, like auto emissions, are a big part of the problem, Wasserman says the state shouldn't make a bad situation worse by allowing TXI to increase its burning.
"Anyone who has any kind of lung problems--asthma in a child or emphysema in an adult--or even heart patients who have breathing problems, may have problems that come from inhaling these particles," Wasserman says.
Instead of squabbling over what are presumed to be safe levels of exposure, Walters says, the state officials should pay attention to common sense in deciding the future of TXI's emissions.
"One has to ask how much toxic substance is OK to breathe, and the answer should be none," Walters says. "It's like, how much arsenic is a bad thing?"
A 1937 advertisement that appeared in Life magazine hangs on a wall of the Cedar Hill office of Downwinders at Risk. In the ad, and old woman is laughing, as a wisp of smoke twists and bends about her. She is clutching a Lucky Strike cigarette.
The woman's apparent age and hearty laugh are supposed to be a testament to the cigarette manufacturer's claim that its product offers "throat protection."
Next to that ad is another, showing a pair of U.S. soldiers atop a tank, dousing an African-American boy with DDT, a colorless insecticide that in 1945 was advertised as a "miracle product"--safe enough for direct human exposure. The lethal carcinogen was banned in the United States in 1972.
The advertisements are a haunting reminder of how ignorance thrives in the absence of knowledge: Today, DDT isn't for sale, and everyone knows that cigarette smoking causes lung cancer, heart disease, and emphysema.
Seated on a fraying blue love seat underneath his collage, Schermbeck says he's confident that someday a third advertisement will belong in this corporate hall of shame.
The advertisement was produced by TXI's public relations department. It features a sleek photo of the Morton H. Meyerson Symphony Center, which the company proudly reports is made with its "quality cement"--a safe product that's building a better environment.
Government officials, Schermbeck says, continue to discount real health problems occurring downwind of TXI, while clinging to dangerously thin scientific evidence.
In the meantime, he says, citizens can only hope that government officials aren't repeating the same mistakes they made 50 years ago, when they believed that products like DDT and cigarettes were safe, too.
"I'm convinced that we're doing the right thing," Schermbeck says, thumping his forehead with the palm of his hand. "I'm convinced that 20 years from now, people will say, 'Burning hazardous waste in cement kilns? That's crazy!'"
Readers with comments can e-mail staff writer Rose Farley at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Observer's biggest stories.