Feds Have Another Go in Midlothian to Investigate Cement Kilns

The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, the investigative arm of the Centers for Disease Control, will hold a meeting at the Midlothian Community Center tonight to explain what it plans to do in the “Cement Capitol of Texas.” Why should you care? As the press release from Downwinders at Risk says: “According to state industrial inventories, Midlothian’s cement plants account for half of all industrial pollution in North Texas.” (Full release after the jump.) Not only are the cement kilns there endangering children’s lives in Midlothian, but they’re choking us up here, too. For more on this, I point you to Julie and Tom Boyle’s fine story about their experience living in Midlothian.

MIDLOTHIAN — Less than a year after being taken to the woodshed by a Congressional Committee for its first attempt to find out if there are unusual rates of illness in Midlothian, a federal agency is back in town for another try.

The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR), the investigative arm of the Centers for Disease Control, will be holding an “informational meeting” at the Midlothian Community Center tonight to explain how its approaching its mission the second time around in the “Cement Capitol of Texas.”

Although recent reports have spotlighted the dangers of toxic gases from Barnett Shale gas production in North Texas, concern over being exposed to thousands of tons of toxic air pollution from the nation’s largest concentration of cement kilns has been bubbling in Midlothian since 1986. That’s when hazardous waste started being burned for fuel and profit in some of the kilns. By the mid-1990’s, Midlothian hosted the largest hazardous waste incinerators in the state.

Using the same data the cement plants submit to the state and EPA, UNT students reported the town’s three cement plants and steel mill released approximately one billion pounds of air pollution from 1990 to 2006. According to state industrial inventories, Midlothian’s cement plants account for half of all industrial pollution in North Texas.

Five years ago, Midlothian resident and former CDC employee Sal Mier organized a grassroots petition drive to bring the ATSDR to town to investigate higher rates of certain birth defects and cancers, as well as respiratory illness and other potential pollution-related diseases he had observed. But after the agency responded by punting the effort to state agencies that relied on old data and ignored interviews, Mier ended up testifying against ATSDR in front of the Congressional Committee on Science and Technology last March.

In June, 2009, ATSDR announced it would go back into Midlothian, this time taking the lead itself. But even this 2.0 version got off to a shaky start when complaints from citizens led to the abandonment of an official “Community Assistance Panel” late last year that was supposed to provide feedback. Out of 18 members, seven started out with a connection to one of Midlothian’s cement plants.

Tonight’s meeting is part of a revamped public relations strategy that decided to scrap that selected Panel in favor of open public meetings.

Based on its track record, activists remain skeptical of the ATSDR’s ability to find anything wrong in Midlothian, no matter how obvious the public health impacts. But they’re also encouraging people to attend to show their concern that the feds get it right this time and support Mier’s hard work.

“There’s are lots of good reasons to do a well-researched and thorough health study in and around Midlothian,” said Jim Schermbeck, Director of Downwinders at Risk, “But it remains to be seen if ATSDR can do one.”

“Nevertheless, we’re urging folks to go to the meeting so that the ATSDR knows there’s plenty of support for getting answers, as well as honoring Sal’s persistence. He’s been a great role model for all of us.”

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