Chemical Warrior

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At IBM's behest, Gibraltar built a section at the plant to store cupric chloride, a nasty by-product produced from the manufacture of circuit boards. Gibraltar got around the hazardous-waste permitting process by alleging the plant was a recycling facility in which it extracted copper from the chemical.

"There is no evidence they extracted enough copper to make a plug penny," Sassin says.

According to state and federal hazardous-waste standards, cupric chloride must be stored on an approved site, in vented containers with filtering devices to capture emissions. In Winona, it was stored in open vats set into the ground 50 feet from Wiggins Creek, which the chemical ultimately contaminated.

Attempts to reach officials at Mobil and IBM for comment were unsuccessful.
In 1992, shortly after MOSES became involved, the Texas attorney general filed suit against Gibraltar for violating state air-safety and hazardous-waste statutes. The attorney general settled with the company two years later for $1.2 million, plus an agreement to implement certain safety devices.

Yet despite the numerous citations and eventual lawsuits, plant opponents point out, Gibraltar was allowed to continue to operate and contaminate the surrounding countryside.

Glazer's group, which had filed for party status in the attorney general's suit, was kept out of the settlement, which it criticized for being too little, too late. MOSES had wanted the company to put in emergency sirens and state-of-the-art air-monitoring devices, and to guarantee that a reputable company would monitor them.

"There were no provisions to keep the problems from happening again," Glazer says. "We wanted protection, not revenge. The company's previous air-monitoring devices were installed incorrectly and were worthless. How was that allowed to happen? How could we be sure it wouldn't happen again?"

The settlement came on the heels of a 1993 explosion at the plant; the result of mixing incompatible chemicals that sent a cloud of corrosive lithium bromide and sulfuric acid into the air. The company did not report the incident for 35 hours, and the state took the extraordinary step of shutting the company down. But within weeks, it was back in business.

When American Ecology bought the plant, the company was bound by law to remedy Gibraltar's past problems as outlined in the state attorney general's order. When the plant closed three years later, there were several elements of the order it had yet to satisfy. American Ecology is in the process of cleaning up the contaminated site, but how far past the company's property the contamination may have spread is anyone's guess.

"No one has bothered to do a study," says Glazer. MOSES had turned to the Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission for help when Wanda Erwin's water well became so contaminated that she and her family could no longer use it for drinking water. Erwin's farm, which had been in her family since the abolition of slavery, was one-fifth of a mile from the plant. The TNRCC gave the water sample to the company for testing, which turned up traces of benzene, xylene, toluene, and naphthalene, according to Glazer, but the plant, which processes all those chemicals, said the source of the contamination could not be pinpointed. Erwin eventually reached a settlement with American Ecology that required her to move off her land.

When Glazer tried to enlist the EPA in its cause, the federal agency instead went to work to assist the plant's new owners. After American Ecology took over operations, it wanted to reopen a second injection well on the premises. The federal agency had initially denied a permit for a second injection well because it lacked the protective cement casing required by both the state and federal standards. Immediately after issuing the permit denial, the EPA worked with the TNRCC to lower its standard, then issued a permit when the company reapplied.

Even officials within the EPA were outraged. "The law requires that a state program approved by the EPA shall be conducted in accordance with the federal requirements," Houston-based EPA enforcement officer William Sanjour wrote last year in a letter about the Winona plant to EPA Administrator Carol Browner. "Conspiring to reduce the environmental protection below the federal standard in order to promote business interests may be breaking the law and is certainly corrupt, immoral, and unethical."

But Sanjour wasn't surprised by the EPA's behavior, as his letter went on to point out. "This bias in favor of the regulated facilities and the contempt for the poor and disenfranchised who have the temerity to complain about it, is widespread among EPA personnel and is especially strong in Region 6 [the Dallas-based EPA office, which covers East Texas]," Sanjour wrote.

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Ann Zimmerman