Until Unfair Park called him at home this afternoon, mayoral candidate Sam Coats had only heard about Jim Schermbeck's missive in which the enviromentalist and filmmaker brands Coats a hypocrite. As you no doubt read in the post below, Schermbeck is furious that Coats is running for mayor while also sitting on the board of director of Texas Industries (TXI), whose cement-manufacturing plant in Midlothian has for years been the target of enviromentalists who've branded it the largest burner of hazardous waste in Texas. Coats' son and two daughters phoned their daddy today to tell them of the essay, which Coats asked Unfair Park to read to him in its entirety. (Uncomfortable...)
"My kids are very thin-skinned when it comes to criticism of their father," Coats said, laughing.
But what of the criticism itself? What of Schermbeck's point that Coats is asking "for support from voters in Dallas while at the same time making it harder for them to breathe"?
"When I was asked to join the board at TXI, that was right as I was finishing the restructuring of Schlotzky's," Coats says. "And I told them, 'I am a long-time environmentalist. I am very independent. I am member of The Nature Conservancy. So I don't know if you want me on this board or not, but I want environmental reviews at every meeting,' which is done. I finally acquiesced after meeting with every board member and reviewing records. And although cement plants by nature do emit toxic emissions -- and I would prefer they didn't -- TXI has reduced emissions at Midlothian since 1996. They've won two EPA awards since then, patented CemStar -- which plants all over the country are using, because it reduces emissions -- and most recently we filed an application for the Hunter plant...outside New Braunfels, and after the whole public comment period, no one objected to the technology -- not Downwinders or Texas Business Clean Air Coalition, of which I am member, which speaks highly of what TXI is doing."
In coming weeks, this will likely become far more than a he-said-he-said issue. This is a battle not only for voters, but for North Texans' health and well-being. It's been there for years -- this story of politics and pollution. Exactly 10 years ago, Rose Farley reported and wrote a two-part series for the Dallas Observer about this very thing. The headline said it all: "Downwind of TXI's Midlothian cement plant, people and animals keep getting sick. Instead of investigating whether the plant is to blame, state regulators appear ready to let TXI burn even more hazardous waste."
In a decade, there appears to have been little progress made: Coats asserts that the Midlothian plant has been made more eco-friendly, that there have been scrubbers installed to filter out the toxins the plants put into the air. He insists Midlothian "has the most modern technology available." He says, "That plant has continuously updated itself over the years because the technology has improved, and it will continue to do while I am a board member."
Schermbeck insists otherwise.
"He doesn't know what he's talking about," he says. "Coats doesn't know the company he's on the board of directors of."
Coats, who hasn't even been on TXI's board for two years, says the company's doing the right thing. Schermbeck, who has been in the trenches of this fight going on two decades, says TXI is still polluting and still poisoning. Indeed, he laughs when Coats' quotes are read back to him. And not because he thinks it's funny.
"To have all this bullshit blown back at me after 10 years of hearing this, it's ridiculous," he says. "The consequence of time is that everyone is on the same page: [former Dallas County Judge] Margaret Keliher, [Dallas Mayor] Laura Miller, [Arlington] Mayor [Robert] Cluck. The Sierra Club, us, Public Citizen, Blue Skies Alliance -- Coats didn't check in with any of those groups. He didn't do his due diligence before he joined that board. You can't be an advocate for TXI and an advocate for North Texas' clean air and its citizens. Those things are at odds with each other. I don't see how you can serve two masters like that. But that's just me. Call me crazy."
Schermbeck says he wants to talk to Coats. Coats says he "would love to" talk to Schermbeck. Perhaps they can get this thing hashed out yet -- over coffee or a cloud of toxic smoke, whichever comes first. But before this mayor's race is over, it will likely become an issue -- perhaps not one as sexy as public safety or potholes, but an issue nonetheless. After all, as Schermbeck points out in his essay today, the city is talking about passing "a new 'clean air' cement procurement spec that would prohibit municipal projects from buying cement from TXI's old haz-waste burning kilns." That issue will be before the City Council's Transportation and Environment Committee in coming days. In time, it could, would and should wind up before the council -- when someone else, perhaps Sam Coats, is mayor.
"I don't intend to be defensive about my service" to TXI, Coats says. "I think it's a benefit to that company and to the community because of the perspective I bring. One reason a lot of people don't want me to be mayor is they're scared to death of me. I am independent about things, like the Trinity, because the more I hear about that stupid toll road, the more concerned I am that's not a good idea, which means I will disagree with two good friends of mine, Laura Miller and Ron Kirk, and the business establishment. I'd rather sleep well at night than be mayor of the city." --Robert Wilonsky