In April, public ire rose when Texas Industries scored a 10-year air permit renewal -- no public comment period required -- for its notoriously toxic Midlothian cement operation. The renewal came with one condition: TXI's cement kilns, the only ones in North Texas authorized to burn hazardous waste, couldn't increase their emissions. But, as it turns out, TXI has applied for a permit to burn "tires and tire shreds" in one of its Midlothian kilns, which appears to be a direct violation of that promise. The icing on the cake? The company is billing this tire fire as a way to reduce NOx (nitrogen oxide) emissions.
According to public documents released by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, TXI applied for a standard air permit to burn tires on June 1; classifying tire-burning as a pollution reduction method would allow TXI to bypass the public notice and hearing processes. The April exemption was essentially the same: Since emissions wouldn't (ostensibly) increase with a permit renewal, there was no need for public input. But under TCEQ regulations, parties that had previously objected to the renewal had 45 days to apply for a re-hearing.
Downwinders at Risk, the Dallas-based air-quality activist group, was one of those parties -- but earlier this week, in preparation for a public hearing next Wednesday on the same plant's mercury emissions, Downwinders field organizer Jim Schermbeck discovered that TXI had filed the tire-burning permit request. As far as kiln fuel goes, tires are cheaper than coal, and while they do release fewer nitrogen oxides (NOx), they also come with their own bag of toxic goodies: benzene, carbon monoxide, zinc, chromium and highly toxic dioxins.
Schermbeck tells Unfair Park that the point of filing the tire-burning permit now -- just days away from the 45-day deadline for the TCEQ to decide whether it wants to acquiesce to environmentalists' demands for a re-hearing on the permit renewal -- allows TXI to fly fast and under the radar. "They've been planning to get tires burned for some time," he says. "They waited until the final days of getting that renewal approved, and then they put in for this permit, knowing that they had the renewal sewed up.
"For most people, that would have been a red flag," Schermbeck continues. "The whole reason [the TCEQ] denied us a hearing was because emissions weren't going to increase. Before that period is even up, they apply for another permit that has the real possibility of raising emissions."
TXI did not respond to repeated requests for comment from Unfair Park, and the only TCEQ rep who did was Patricia Martin, an administrative officer in the Air Permits Division who processed TXI's $900 check and sent the proposal on to tech staff.
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"It was a pollution control project, so those don't require public notice," Martin tells Unfair Park -- but she says she can't speak to whose job it was to verify what truly constitutes "pollution control."
In Schermbeck's view, TXI should be required to submit scientific test data showing that burning tires is better than burning coal -- and environmental regulation should be taken out of TCEQ's hands.
"To our way of thinking," Schermbeck says, "both the state and TXI are abusing this exemption, [and] TXI can see the savings. We shouldn't rely on Texas to do this kind of work anymore."
Will he tell the EPA as much at next Wednesday's hearing? Schermbeck laughs, then says, "Oh, yeah."