Smoke-free environment

The view of Denton from Parks Olmon's kitchen window has changed over the years. He speaks wistfully about the rolling countryside he used to see while eating breakfast. But these days, his view is not of lush oak trees or acres of crab grass. Every morning, Olmon gets an eyeful of United Copper's huge white factory and office buildings. And the road near his home, U.S. Highway 380, has gone from two lanes to seven since October, with semis rumbling by at all hours.

But at least the air he breathes is clean; things could be worse.

Many Denton residents, including Parks, fought hard to keep United Copper out of this otherwise quiet college town. The mere mention of UCI elicits all sorts of disapproving reactions from members of Citizens for Healthy Growth, a nonprofit organization started as a result of UCI's move to Denton. Local residents were none too happy that a huge factory would not only be moving in but would be bringing a big, bellowing cloud of lead-filled smoke with it.

In January 1998, United Copper Industries, an offshoot of Industrias Unidas S.A. in Mexico City, was lured to Denton in part by Trammell Crow, one of the largest developers and managers of commercial real estate in the country. On paper, the deal seemed perfect: a win-win situation for both UCI and the city of Denton.

United Copper sold itself to Denton by promising to hire 250 people -- most of whom were to be pulled from the local population -- and paying them an average of $34,000 a year. The factory was also expected to generate tax revenue from an assessed value of $35 million.

If all these benchmarks were met, Denton, in turn, would give UCI more than $40,000 a year in tax abatements.

But that's when things started to go awry.

Freshman Denton City Council member Mike Cochran cast the lone dissenting vote against the project in 1998. He told Trammell Crow Vice President David Noble that United Copper's presence was a case of "...big city slickers coming in and duping country bumpkins." (See the Dallas Observer's December 24, 1998, cover story, "Blowing smoke.")

The possibility of lead emissions was at the center of residents' objections to the plant. But there were other concerns, including the factory's zoning as light industrial and the Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission's decision to grant UCI a permit to pollute without holding a public hearing. Many residents thought the state and city had railroaded the factory before worries about lead emissions had been adequately addressed.

United Copper eventually built a copper refinery on its site. The plan was to collect copper scrap from various sources, including some that might contain lead, and smelt or refine it at high temperatures, which would cause lead emissions. Although the emissions would fall within EPA guidelines, residents were concerned because the plant was only one mile upwind from Denton's Hodge Elementary School.

"There were so many different levels to this thing," Councilman Cochran says today. "One problem is the fact that our planning department rolled over and allowed an interpretation of zoning to go on out there that I think was totally inappropriate, and that's to put a heavy industrial plant in a light industrial area by manipulating the zoning ordinance. But since they're not putting lead emissions out, I am less troubled about it than I was before. The lead was the major issue for me."

In fact, the only lead in and around Hodge Elementary is the kind in children's pencils.

And United Copper is experiencing a set of problems that have nothing to do with the environment. It failed to meet all three criteria for its tax abatements, and, as a result, must pay an additional $44,000 in taxes, bringing its total taxes for 1999 to more than $800,000. In addition, while officials had hoped to employ some 250 people, there are only 143 on staff.

Two major layoffs reduced the employee pool, leaving United Copper at bare-bones staffing. UCI attributes these layoffs to the price of copper -- at its lowest point in 14 years -- and says its numbers can only go up.

In February, UCI shook up the management team at the Denton site, dismissing General Manager Dean Brown and CEO Alejo Peralta, nephew of UCI owner Carlos Peralta Quintero. Peralta and Brown had been under tremendous pressure from UCI to get things rolling in Denton, but they weren't able to turn an adequate profit, says new president and CEO Guenther Bauer. He inherited a company in the midst of rough economic times. Wire rod, the base material for copper wire, is now cheaper to purchase than manufacture. UCI made its own copper wire for only three months, ending in June 1999.

Bauer and Trammell Crow Vice President Robert McFarlane insist that, contrary to popular opinion, UCI is not running a "smelter." What they operate is a refinery -- though environmentalists say there's no difference. "We did not start up our process to refine or smelt copper," Bauer says. "There is no refining involved, and hence no detrimental emissions of any sort."

Emissions or not, two lawsuits concerning the factory are still grinding their way through the courts. Both were spearheaded by local residents Ed and Carol Soph, founders of Citizens for Healthy Growth. One lawsuit, which takes aim at the Denton Zoning Board of Adjustment for zoning UCI's site light industrial, is on its way to the Texas Supreme Court. The second suit, filed in Austin, targets the TNRCC for giving an air-quality permit to UCI without holding a public hearing. The residents won the first time they went to court, but lost on appeal. They have since filed their own appeal.

But United Copper insists there's no need for worries about lead emissions, now or in the near future. UCI has a permit that expires on March 31, 2001, to extend one of its back buildings to house a refining furnace. But Bauer suggests that the smelter may not be built. "By that time, we have to decide whether we're going to go ahead with smelting our copper scrap or whether to keep going like we are now," he says. "Concerning the smelting of copper at the Denton site, I confirm that we have no plans to start a copper refinery in the foreseeable future."

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Adam Pitluk
Contact: Adam Pitluk

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