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TOXIC HOT SPOT: MUDSLINGING IN FARMERS BRANCH

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TOXIC HOT SPOT: MUDSLINGING IN FARMERS BRANCH

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At a time when chemical companies worldwide are being accused of negligence in the disposal of toxic wastes, the last thing any business would want to be is a pesticide plant sitting atop contaminated soil and ground water. But that’s exactly where Zoecon Industries Inc. in North Dallas has been.

About two years ago, according to Farmers Branch Mayor John Dodd, Zoecon officials announced that it had found concentrations of toxaphene, dieldrin and chlordane (all toxic chemicals used in pesticides) in the soil and ground water on its 18 acres. The Zoecon land is adjacent to Farmers Branch Creek as well as a 22-acre tract that the city has designated as historical park land. After the announcement, construction on the proposed park was halted.

The main concern, says Bry-an Dixon, chief of the Texas Department of Water Resources’ (TDWR) solid waste and spill response division, is whether or not the contaminated ground water might even-tually seep into the creek, which feeds into the Dallas water supply. Dixon says that the City of Dallas has monitored the creek for years and that it has no records that con-taminants have ever been found. Testing is currently being done by the TDWR to determine the direction that the ground water might be moving. Dodd says his main concern is protecting Farmers Branch citizens and making sure that Zoecon uses an effective cleanup procedure.

Dodd says that Zoecon’s cooperation and the TDWR’s assurance that it will enforce a cleanup effort by Zoecon have kept the city from taking legal action against the company.

But Shane Jackson, who heads Citizens Against Silence, is not satisfied. Jackson, who claims that he’s the person who informed Farmers Branch of the likelihood of contamination in the park area, said in February that he was prepared to go public with documentation that would support his group’s allegation that contamination at Zoecon is much worse than the company or the TDWR will admit. Jackson said he was also-prepared to request an investigation of the TDWR by the state attorney general’s office for what he claims is documented proof of negligence in the investigation of Zoecon.

Despite the fact that it is next to impossible to prove that Zoecon is solely responsible for the land and ground water contamination, company president Ron Brakke says that his company will have spent at least $100,000 to study the contamination and to determine (in conjunction with the TDWR) how the site should be cleaned up. Dixon says that the topsoil might have to be removed and replaced and that the ground water might have to be pumped to the surface and treated.

Dixon says that the contamination is not serious enough to warrant the type of media coverage that has plagued Zoecon for the past two years. “We’ve had a very serious contamination site in Houston, and it’s my perception that it has been given very little attention,” he says. Brakke shudders at television coverage of his plant that shows rainwater draining from the company’s parking lot and pouring into the creek. “It makes people think that we are dumping raw chemicals into the creek,” he says.

Brakke believes that his company may be a victim of location. He points out that the once-agricultural land could historically have been contaminated by people using chemicals to spray along railroad tracks near the plant to control brush, by ranchers dipping cattle for scabies near the creek or by cotton farmers spraying their crops to protect them against boll weevils. But neither Dixon nor Brakke denies that contamination could have occurred at the plant before guidelines for the general handling and disposal of toxic wastes were established by state and federal agencies.

The plant was built in 1958, says Brakke, and it was bought by California-based Zoecon Corp. in 1970. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), formed in 1968, is the federal agency that approves most Zoecon products. The plant, which employs about 300 workers, manufactures and packages such things as roach traps, flea collars, rat bait and home-extermination chemicals.

Jackson first pulled Zoecon into the national limelight earlier this year when he contacted U.S. Rep. James Florio, a New Jersey Democrat and author of the “Superfund” cleanup bill for hazardous waste, asking him to urge the EPA to make its own investigation. But both Dixon and Dodd believe that EPA involvement could only lead to more bureaucracy and delays in the cleanup process.

Dodd says that as far as he is concerned, the problem won’t be gone until Zoecon is gone. “I got it from a higher source than the company president,” he says, that Zoecon will be forced, for “economic reasons,” to abandon its plant within five to seven years because the value of the land near the intersection of LBJ Freeway and Interstate 35 will exceed the property taxes the company can pay. But Brakke, pointing to the company’s high-rise building that’s now under construction on the site, says that Zoecon is here to stay.