Chemical Warrior

Early on a mid-October day in 1991, Phyllis Glazer barreled down Highway 155 on the way to her son's elementary school in Winona, an East Texas hamlet northeast of Tyler. Her 9-year-old son, Max, had forgotten his math textbook the previous day, and he was determined to be at school as soon as the doors opened, so he could finish his homework assignment before the school day began.

Halfway there, Glazer felt the ground under her car rumble "like an earthquake." Then, as she passed Gibraltar Chemical Resources--a plant she knew little about except that it often emitted an offensive, nostril-burning odor--she saw workers scurrying to evacuate. Seconds later, she drove through an eerie black and reddish cloud that wafted from the plant across the highway. It was so thick, she had to turn on her headlights.

Glazer didn't give the incident much thought until a few days later, when her throat hurt so badly that she could hardly swallow. When she inspected her mouth, she saw skin hanging from the roof like stalactites and white ulcers covering her gums and throat. "It was like my mouth had melted," she says. She went to the doctor, who also discovered a small hole in her septum, the cartilage that separates the nostrils. Several weeks later, her toenails curled up and fell off.

Glazer soon discovered she was not the only Winona resident made ill by the toxic cloud. Days after the incident, the breasts of 65-year-old Marian Steich began to swell and lactate, as if she had just given birth, and Steich's 600 chickens suddenly stopped laying eggs. Two young brothers, whose family lived just on-fifth of a mile from the plant, started suffering seizures.

For most of the three years since Glazer and her husband had purchased their sprawling Piney Woods ranch, they had used it mostly as a weekend retreat. But Glazer recently had traded in her North Dallas city lifestyle for full-time country living. Her husband, R.L. Glazer, whose family owns one of the largest wholesale liquor and wine distributorships in the country, commuted between their Winona and North Dallas homes.

After the cloud incident, Glazer set out to learn more about her adopted community of 450 mostly poor and working-class folks. What she found alarmed her. The "smelly plant" was in fact a toxic-waste treatment facility that handled the most hazardous substances known to man--from benzene to toluene and PCBs--many of which were known to cause cancer and birth defects. The company injected some of the waste into underground wells for disposal and mixed others into fuels to be burned by cement kilns.

What's more, the plant had a decade-long track record of flouting state regulations designed to safeguard the community. As an Environmental Protection Agency official would later report, "This plant has been a horror to its neighbors for years...causing considerable suffering over many years to the poor and mostly black residents living nearby."

Two months after the October mishap, Gibraltar held a public hearing at Winona High School to announce plans to expand its facility. The normally apolitical and apathetic Glazer decided she must attend. During the hearing, a company representative cavalierly dismissed residents' concerns about toxic emissions and their potential impact on the Carrizo-Wilcox Aquifer, the source for wells in the region. In the unlikely event that chemicals seeped into the aquifer, he said, the company would clean it up.

Taught never to raise her voice, Glazer shocked herself as she jumped to her feet and challenged the man. "That's the most ridiculous thing I ever heard!" said Glazer, who knew how costly it would be to clean up an aquifer that was so large, it provided drinking water to one-fifth of the state. "You couldn't possibly have the kind of money that would take."

In the weeks following Glazer's performance at the public meeting, many of the town's residents streamed to her ranch. Many brought along their children, who suffered myriad mysterious ailments--breathing problems, skin diseases, growth disorders, unexplained tumors, and cancer. From the time the plant opened in 1983, these people had complained about it to assorted state agencies, but to little effect.

"I was just this housewife and mother, but I knew something was terribly wrong," Glazer says. "I also knew I was the only one in the community with enough time and resources to do something."

In this flamboyant woman, with her multi-colored cowboy boots, gaudy silver jewelry, and floor-sweeping skirts she calls "cowboy drag," a woman whose biggest concern once was choosing which new Dallas restaurant to frequent with her friends, the town of Winona found an unlikely ally.

And in this woman, with her surfeit of moxie and money, the toxic-waste company met its match.

Practically day and night for six years, Phyllis Glazer led a campaign against the plant and the government to protect the people of Winona.

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Ann Zimmerman