Frisco Shut Down its Exide Plant, but It May Keep the Waste as a "Community Asset"

While other upscale suburbs are known for having clean air and being far from dirty factories, Frisco went against the grain. The affluent north Texas suburb last year had the distinct honor of being one of only 21 areas in the United States that failed federal air quality standards for lead, thanks to the Exide battery recycling smelter in town.

After lots of violations from the state and heavy campaigning by grassroots environmental group Downwinders at Risk, Exide finally shut the smelter down last year. But while the smelter is closed, all of the toxic, contaminated soil left behind from the plant might be staying in the Frisco for good, in a permanent toxic waste dump. The landfill would be upstream from Frisco's planned Grand Park and above groundwater that flows into the Stewart Creek.

"This type of metal waste can be fairly straight forwardly contained and made into a community asset, rather than being a fenced off hazardous waste landfill," Frisco's Austin-based environmental attorney Kerry Russell tells Unfair Park.

Russell made similar comments to The Dallas Morning News earlier this week, drawing criticism from Downwinders at Risk, which accuses Frisco officials of leaving the public out of the decision-making process.

"That's the first time they ever said out loud, 'Yes, we prefer the landfill option to hauling it away,'" Downwinders at Risk Director Jim Schermbeck tells Unfair Park. "The city is on the wrong track, they're making a terrible decision, they're clearly in over their heads."

In a conference-call phone interview with Unfair Park, Frisco officials insist they haven't made a decision about clean-up yet, and that they have no power to decide where the waste will go. But they do have a chance to ask Exide to pay for the clean-up in bankruptcy court. And Downwinders points out that Frisco has so far only asked Exide for $20 million --enough to keep the waste in a toxic dump in Frisco but far from the $100 million or so needed to haul the waste away.

"I believe that Kerry, as the city's environmental lawyer, is going to recommend the on-site option but I don't know that for certain," Frisco's City Attorney Richard Abernathy tells Unfair Park. He adds that Frisco still has plenty of time to adjust how much money it wants to demand from Exide in court.

So is it smart to store that toxic waste in Frisco, a suburb with a creek that feeds into Lake Lewisville, parks and lots of homes? At least one expert we spoke with says no. "That doesn't strike me as being a terribly a good idea," says Dr. Bob Criss, a researcher at Washington University in St. Louis, speaking generally. Criss isn't familiar with the Exide plant specifically, but he has been studying landfills in Missouri. His research led him to the conclusion that hazardous waste landfills and residential areas don't mix. He recently found that Missouri's Westlake Landfill could contaminate the groundwater that feeds into the Mississippi River.

"There are geologically sensible places to put certain kinds of things, and distance from people and potential problems is an important one," he says. A licensed hazardous waste facility, out in an isolated area in the desert somewhere, is the kind of "geologically sensible" place that Frisco's local environmentalists would like to see the Exide waste go.

That preference is backed by a fair amount of research linking health problems to living in close proximity to a landfill. A 2002 study that found that women who live within two miles of a hazardous waste landfill have a 40 percent greater risk of having a baby with a chromosomal birth defect.

Another recent study (published in May) linked shortened lives in India to proximity to landfills.

Abernathy, the Frisco City Attorney, brushes off those studies. "Are you aware that in Texas, there are a number of landfills upon which significant construction has been built in urban areas?" he said. "It's not in India, it's in Texas, and they've done it successfully."

And Russell, Frisco's environment attorney, says that the contaminated soil left over from Exide is different, and impossible compare to other types of landfills. "You can't really just talk about landfills because that's a very different subject matter, as to the type of environmental concerns with the landfill ... this is a very different type of situation," he says. But he couldn't cite any environmental impact report commissioned by Frisco that might back that claim up. "No, there's no study on this, because this whole process is ongoing in the regulatory process," he says.

One of the major concerns of locals is that the Frisco waste contains lead, a vicious neurotoxin. "It is a nasty, nasty chemical, very poisonous, very toxic at low levels," explains Criss, the Wash U researcher.

But Schermbeck, from the Downwinders group, is no longer focusing so much on the public health aspect of the whole controversy. Instead, he says, he's now searching for an economist to study the effects that toxic waste dumps could have on home prices.

"The City Council might not care that much about public health, but they might care about destroying property values," he says.

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Amy Martyn
Contact: Amy Martyn