In a small, bright room at the Center for Community Cooperation this morning, Katy Hubener, the grant coordinator for the Sue Pope Fund, officially announced $1 million available in funding for new clean air projects in North Texas. The fund was established in 2005 in honor of Sue Pope, a Midlothian rancher known for her role in the decades-long fight against air pollution emanating from TXI's cement plant-cum-hazardous waste incinerator. The story is a long and dramatic one (we told it back in '97), and a classic tale of David and Goliath, in which the powerful industry titans were finally made accountable by the dogged efforts of a small, local environmental group, Downwinders at Risk. Today, the legacy of Downwinders -- one of whose original members was Hubener's mother, Ann -- is a growing awareness of the risks of air pollution and the challenges of mitigating it.
Katy Hubener says her family's advocacy stemmed directly from need: Their medical bills were skyrocketing; they couldn't pay them; they knew the contaminated air was taking its toll, and they didn't think it was right. These days, Hubener, a tall blond with quick blue eyes behind stylish black-and-fuchsia-rimmed glasses, throws around acronyms like "NOx" (nitrogen oxides) and "SIP" (State Implementation Plan) with ease; the mantle of environmentalism has settled snugly around her shoulders.
Apart from its continuing fight to bring all of North Texas into compliance with federal air quality standards, one of the group's greatest achievements was a 2005 settlement in which Holcim (US) Inc. agreed to fund $2.25 million in local air quality improvement projects for North Texas through the Sue Pope North Texas Pollution Reduction Program. Businesses, nonprofits and government entities apply for funding, with the key requirements being that the project does something to reduce NOx emissions -- which are of particular interest because they react with volatile organic compounds to create ground-level (or "bad") ozone, an area in which North Texas exceeds federal allowed levels -- and have some degree of public resonance in order to set examples for future projects across the country.
The Sue Pope Fund disbursed money for the first wave of approved projects early last year. Hubener says one of the most effective programs was the City of Dallas's "Mow Down Air Pollution" event, where people could swap out old lawnmowers (which emit more NOx than cars) for greener ones. Other monies went to the McKinney Ave. Transit Authority's trolley service, a joint green building project between Habitat for Humanity and the city of Dallas and the North Central Texas Council of Government's program for enforcing vehicle emissions standards.
This year, the Fund has received 10 project proposals, but no funds have been disbursed yet, and the roughly $1 million is up for grabs until June 22; Hubener estimates that once decisions are made on which projects to fund, the money will be sent out by this August. With forward-looking subsidies for solar energy dead in the water at the end of this year's legislative session, Texas's best model for cleaning up its air might have to come from where it always has: small, grassroots projects spearheaded by Midlothian's finest.
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Take it from Hubener herself, who put it this way to the small group at the meeting: "I don't know of another organization in the whole country that's been able to sit down with their adversaries, negotiate a settlement of this magnitude, turn around and fund grassroots and community organizations who are doing great things."