The first time 1 beheld the three mammoth cement kilns in Midlothian-the largest such cluster in the country-a winter norther had set in. The small North Texas town, whose farming economy has all hut yielded to heavy industry, is perched on a slight hill I? miles south of Dallas. A shroud of low, gray clouds and rainy mist lowered the skies and intensified the outline of the thick plumes of steam spiraling up from triple and quadruple smoke stacks. For a moment I thought tornadoes had dropped down. Maybe, for the people of Midlothian and Dallas, tornadoes would have been a preferable visitation. Tornadoes come and are gone. Toxic residues-the kind being produced in Midlothian as an unwelcome byproduct of a new way of making cement-slay for a lifetime.
And not just where they start out. What escapes from a slack in Midlothian-lead, mercury, cadmium, hydrogen sulfide1-ran drift as far north as Piano, borne along by winds which blow from the southeast 60 percent of the time.
What may lie buried in the ground in unlined limestone landfills-dioxins and furans in particular-can leach into soil, watersheds and aquifers. What is put into the cement itself shows up, without a warning label, in the concrete slabs and blocks of homes and buildings aaywhere in the country. I wasn’t watching a storm in Midlothian. I was watching a once-pastoral paradise gone to biological hell.
I was also on the front lines of the most bitter and protracted environmental fight in Texas since the failed effort to block nuclear reactors at Comanche Peak. An increasingly vocal resistance of private citizens and public officials from Dallas to New Braunfels are demanding the state or the: federal government rein in the Texas cement industry. Not from making cement, which is their rightful and unquestioned purpose, but from burning hazardous waste.
The basic issue is not complicated: Instead of using coal or natural gas as fuel for their giant kilns, about 24 of the nation’s 114 cement-making plants have been substituting liquid hazardous waste. They can do so thanks to a loophole in the 1976 Federal Resource and Recovery Act, compounded by amendments in 1984 and revised regulations in 1991. Over the years, American cement plants have burned billions of pounds of the “waste-derived fuel.” The practice came to Midlothian in 1986. The largest plant, TXI, now consumes approximately 80,000 tons of waste per year and wants to increase its storage capacity by 370,000 gallons.
The rationale for the fuel substitution is that the wastes- refinery oils, household and industrial solvents, paints, organic chemicals, pesticides, herbicides, sludges, etc.-are actually being “recycled” when used as fuel. To the cement plants, recycling is terrifically profitable. They don’t just get their fuel for free; they get paid to burn it, and do so from 20 to 100 percent of the time. And since they are “recycling” the waste, the kilns are not being held to the same licensing standards that apply to commercial incinerators. To use but one example, opacity levels-the darkness of the smoke-from kiln stacks can run as high as 20 percent, compared to only 5 percent for licensed incinerators.
Under the Reagan-Bush administrations in Washington and the Clements administration in Texas, neither the EPA nor the Texas Air Control Board (TACB) paid much attention to the implications of the slow but steady shift in the identity of cement plants. If anything, the metamorphosis was looked at as evidence of social conscience-a commitment to creative ways of disposing of waste.
But times have changed. There’s a new sheriff in Washington, with new encouragement for long-stymied regulators in Austin. Following the lead of other states which have begun to challenge what Greenpeace and other environmental groups call “sham recycling,” Texas is taking a fresh look at a problem most of its citizens don’t even know exists-except the approximately 10,000 people who live in the so-called exposure zone near the plants. Not to mention the nearly four million of us within the Dallas/Fort Worth wind path, water table and milk distribution routes.
In the beginning, about 30 years ago, the construction of cement plants in Midlothian was pretty much what it appeared to be-a boon to the local economy. First came Texas Industries, Inc. (TXI), the largest in the state, then Gifford-Hill (now North Texas Cement). They opened what would become mammoth facilities along the Austin Chalk limestone outcropping that stretches from east-em Oklahoma to San Antonio and down into Mexico. The location made sense. Cement plants blast limestone from quarries for raw material to produce their product. Indeed, Texas is dotted with plants churning out millions of tons annually for American construction.
It’s always been a dirty business, producing huge quantities of dust and smoke swirling over surrounding countryside and leaving mounds of cement kiln dust, known as CKD, to be buried in landfills. But cement-making is a staple of industrial society and few objections were raised. When BoxCrow Cement Company L.P., then affiliated with developer Trammel! Crow, opened its brand new plant in 1989, just across Highway 67 from North Texas, it figured to carve out a piece of the huge and profitable market.
But by then things had changed. By then it was unclear just what a cement kiln was. Towns such as Midlothian that had welcomed one kind of industry were beginning to struggle with the reality that they now had something quite different. The Burma Shave-style signs on Highway 67 read, “We’re Glad You’re Here/We Hope You Stay/If Not Forever/Enjoy Today;” but since “waste-derived fuel substitution” began, a nice day in Midlothian hasn’t always been easy to come by.
Ivy Howard knows all about the bad days. One of them came last July, when she was hosting a birthday party for her sister-in-law. Friends and relatives had gathered outside Ivy’s converted trailer home in Cement Valley to eat barbecue and watch the kids play. Cement Valley is located on a broad, wind-swept declivity directly north of TX1. Not much farther away are North Texas and BoxCrow. Effectively triangulated by the kilns, the low-income neighborhood of modest frame ranch-styles and converted trailer homes gets fumes and dust from the stacks no matter which way the winds blow. But the worst come from the direction of TXI, the biggest of the three plants.
“The wind got up and was blowing out of the south,” recalls Howard. “My husband’s uncle said. ’What in the world is that smell’’”
“I told him, ’That’s the fantastic air we breathe.’”
In fact, it was the smell of rotten eggs- probably a sulfur compound, a frequent byproduct of burning and one of the most persistent chemicals cited in numerous complaints against cement kilns. But Howard never found out exactly what it was. All she knew at the time was that it was ruining the party.
“Pretty soon everyone started complaining,” remembers the mother of two. ’They all had a stinging feeling in their nose, eyes and throat. One of the little children had to be taken inside in front of the air conditioner because she was gasping for breath.”
Like most of her neighbors. Howard learned to take such incidents for granted. Nobody could ever prove anything. And for those with economic connections to the cement plants-which meant almost everyone, directly or indirectly-it was risky to complain. But you couldn’t live there and see what Howard had seen, smell what she’d smelled, and believe all was right with the world.
“One night the sky was ketchup red,” she says of a particularly memorable evening in 1988. “At night is when they usually do it. The next day the windows on this house were covered in red dust and smoke. It took three days to clean my mother-in-law’s windows. I called the TACB. They came and tape-lifted the residue. They said it wasn’t harmful. One of the inspectors even said to me. “Don’t you think this is in your mind?”
Trouble is, it may be. In her mind, her lungs, her colon, her skin. Since the burning began, Howard has suffered serious respiratory problems, as has her husband, who works nearby but not at the kilns. One of her sons has developed asthma; the other now has chronic sinusitis. Both Howard and her husband also suffer chronic fatigue and sleeplessness. She is now on an anti-depressant, which she says she needs because of the constant anxiety about what she says is the deteriorating health of her family.
The TACB has been of little help. The> have given Howard special canisters to fill with air whenever she felt there was an “upset”-an excess burst of emissions from the plants. But so far the TACB says the results are inconclusive or inconsequential. Even responses from their own field agents don’t make waves. In one documented incident, a TACB investigator set up his equipment directly north of TXI. After a day of direct exposure, the investigator became ill with nausea and upper respiratory symptoms. The causes were never traced.
The photographer assigned to this story had similar experiences, as did I. On two visits to the Cement Valley area, I experienced noticeable eye, nose and throat irritation, and a slight headache which persisted for hours. The photographer reported stinging in his eyes and nose-“like chili powder was rubbed in them”-while directly downwind from TXI for less than a half hour.
To many residents in Midlothian, such as those who gather for lunch around Dee Tee’s cafe or other popular local hangouts that cater to cement plant business, my complaints, as well as more serious health or environmental concerns, are met with skepticism or hostility. When the TACB wanted to place an air monitoring device on a local school roof, the school district refused permission. Midlothian, population 5,300, is what you might call a company town.
Both the mayor and the town doctor testified enthusiastically on the side of the cement companies at a public hearing conducted last November by a special TACB task force studying the effects of burning hazardous waste. According to Mayor Maurice Osborn, “85 to 90 percent” of Midlothian supports the cement factories, which employ approximately 500 people in the area. When Ivy Howard visited Dr. Roy Bohl, who has also served as a paid consultant to the cement plants, she says he told her, “Listen to you, maybe you need to pack your bags and move.” Howard says she “told him to go to hell,” left his office and found a new doctor in Waxahachie.
As for moving she’s in a bind. Real estate values in Cement Valley have fallen by 50 percent or more. The 18-acre farm on which she and her husband live-it belongs to his father-has been reduced from $150,000 to $75,000. A brick house across the street has been on the market two and a half years. In Dallas, falling prices may be due to market factors and recession. In Cement Valley, it’s not that abstract, You wouldn’t live there unless you absolutely had to.
Or unless you don’t think you ought to have to leave. “This is home,” says Howard. “It’s home. There is where my husband moved when he was in the third grade. I went all 12 years of school here. I couldn’t be any prouder of where I live. It’ I packed up and moved somewhere else, it wouldn’t be home. It would be hard to leave here. My daddy even worked at TXI, I knew about the dust, but not all this other stuff. Why should we have to give up our home for the crap they’re doing now?”
Howard isn’t the only one who has wondered.
And her story isn’t even the worst.
The TACB Task Force on Waste-derived Fuels for Cement Kilns-which would ultimately call for restrictions on the practice-received dozens of affidavits from residents of the Midlothian/Cedar Hill area attesting to a disturbing incidence of severe health problems within the past seven years. Among the most serious: birth defects, asthma and other respiratory diseases, skin rashes and lesions, hormonal irregularities, intestinal problems, hyperactivity among children. At least two people said they had depression so severe that they attempted suicide.
Several women said their menstrual cycles had altered, in some cases going on for weeks at a time, since the burning began. Terry Atchison, who lived on a small ranch between Midlothian and Cedar Hill, underwent a hysterectomy at age 29, and developed migraine headaches. One of her sons, born after the waste-burning was started, was jaundiced at birth. Another is hyperactive. Atchison moved to Aubrey, Texas, last August, and says her health and that of her sons improved almost at once.
Atchison’s children, as well as several others in the area, were tested in 1991 by a private laboratory for chemical residues in their hair. In almost every case, total toxicity was extremely high, including measurements of lead, arsenic, mercury, cadmium and other heavy metals. One of the affected children has developed bone cancer. At least one child directly downwind of the kilns has developed leukemia. Another was born with a cleft palate, and two babies, from neighboring families, died after being born anencephalic.
Sue Pope, 52. whose 27-acre Hidden Valley Arabians ranch lies directly in the path of the prevailing southerly winds from the kilns, has been ill almost continuously since 1987, suffering from attacks of endometriosis, autoimmune syndrome, severe sinusitis and upper respiratory problems. She ana her husband, Ralph, are under constant medication and have had to outfit their house with special fans and other devices to enhance breathing. They rarely sleep through a night.
Like Howard, she’s gotten little help from the state When she asked the TACB last July to test the area for furans and dioxins, two lethal chemicals known to be generated from hazardous waste residues, she received a patronizing letter saying it would be too expensive.
But, like other area ranchers, the Hopes health is just part of the impact. According to affidavits and testimony before the TACB, outdoor stock in the Cedar Hill/Midlothian area have developed a number of severe health problems in the past seven years. Dr. Mikel Athon, a Cedar Hill veterinarian, reported in a Nov. 19, 1992, letter that from 1989-1992 reproductive problems had afflicted 10 horses belonging 10 five owners in the area around the Ropes’ ranch. “This appears to be an abnormally high incidence of reproductive problems for such a small area and population of horses,” Athon concluded.
The reproductive abnormalities included several incidences of twinning, a rare multiple-birthing phenomenon among livestock that has been linked to toxic exposure in some European studies. Hidden V alley ranch, the tack room walls of which are lined with national championship ribbons, now maintains only eight horses.
Its prizd $25,000 stallion, born in 1986-the year the waste-burning began- has yet to sire live offspring. The most recent attempt resulted in a twinning. Both foals died. Last year, the ranch lost all five of its foals through miscarriages. This spring, Pope watched in horror as a calf on her father’s adjacent ranch emerged from the womb so deformed “it looked like a monster.” It quickly died.
Are these just isolated misfortunes, random bad luck or cause for alarm? Virtually every issue surrounding the burning of hazardous waste at kilns, even the most basic data and measurements, let alone the epidemiological meaning of anecdotal evidence, is in dispute.
Dr. Edward Kleppinger, a Washington, D.C., consultant who served on the state’s 18-member hazardous waste-burning task force, represents those who are plenty worried. Kleppinger, whose clients have included Greenpeace and commercial incinerators, is well known for opposing the burning of hazardous waste in cement kilns. One of the major sources of his opposition is the possibility of unknown, unpredictable dangers.
“Animals in the field are potentially the canaries in the coal mine,” says Kleppinger. “And here’s what really bothers me. If, in fact, animals represent elevated levels (of toxins), and I said if, if, if-then I’m very concerned about the dairy herds in that area. If the cattle are exposed to it, then that gets into the milk going into Dallas. It would be nice to see the breeding records of those dairy herds, but there’s a better way. Why not just test the damn milk?”
Indeed. According to an EPA study of hazardous waste incineration ettects in Ohio, “risks from beef and milk consumption can be 1,000 times higher than risks from inhalation.” Greenpeace says the risks are 10,000 times greater. But to order testing would be to imply officially that there might be a problem. The first line of defense of waste-burning is denial that a problem even exists.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in the studied indifference of the Texas Department of Health. No specific testing for kiln-emitted substances in the milk of the five herds downwind of the Midlothian plants has ever been ordered from Austin.
Despite numerous complaints over the years from the Midlothian area, the only effort at tracking the effects of emissions exposure on the local population has been the distribution a year ago of a brief self-assessment survey form around the city. About 300 forms were turned in. They have yet to be evaluated.
Dr. Richard Beauchamp, a state health department medical toxicologist in charge of the survey, says flatly that there is no unusual health risk in Midlothian. “On the basis of monitoring data from the TACB, there does not appear to be anything in the way of hazardous exposure that would warrant a health study,” he says. “Nothing that would not be comparable to any other urban area. We would have to have a known pollutant source that would be exposing people to higher than acceptable levels. . . Right now there is no known source of pollution.”
Asked the obvious-if the three giant cement kilns might not be possible sources-Beauchamp responds: “No more than coal-fired plants. The people in the area are exposed to things that would be adverse at high levels, but they are exposed al low levels-far below the lowest level known to produce adverse effects.”
In essence, this is the same position taken by the cement industry. Insisting its practices are both safe and environmentally sound, the industry suggests that those who oppose waste-burning simply have the facts wrong. TXI’s chief lobbyist, Dallas-based Randy Jones, blames much of the problem on “outsiders” who have come in to convince local residents that they are sick. Virtually every charge made against waste-burning, from somewhat esoteric quarrels over kiln temperature destruction rates to disagreement over whether a creek bed actually skirts TXI’s primary quarry, is stonewalled with counter-facts or counter-interpretations.
“We have 1,300 employees at TXI and Chaparral La large steel-making subsidiary next door to TXI],” Jones explained one morning in a modest prefab office that serves as the company’s Midlothian head-quarters. “It’s absurd to think we’d do something not in their [workers’] best interests. There is no price on that. If it’s not a safe method it shouldn’t be done.”
Outside, a succession of tanker trucks moved in and out of the guarded entry gate of the plant’s huge compound. Many trucks carried liquid waste-mostly from the Gulf Coast petrochemical complex, the most polluted area in Texas. But waste is also being shipped in increasingly from other states-as far away as New Jersey. These “waste generators” contract to incinerators or kilns when burning is necessary. Kilns are the best deal, undercutting the prices of their competitors the incinerators by as much as four-fifths.
Once inside TXI’s compound, me tanker trucks are directed to a special unloading area, where their contents are analyzed. Some chemicals, such as PCPs, cannot be burned in kilns and must go to incinerators. The wastes which pass muster head for the 450-foot long revolving cylindrcal kiln in which the controversial combustion takes place at temperatures between 2,600 and 3,000 degrees.
Plant manager Ken Reed, a 30-year TXI veteran, was, like Jones, unyielding in the defense of waste-burning. “If you can’t recycle safely, you shouldn’t be doing it,” Reed asserted. “If you’re a renegade, you shouldn’t be in operation.” He did not consider himself in that category.
“Look, 1 think people are concerned and have the right to know,” he said. “And I think this is resolved in most people’s minds-in the community. But there’s some here who accuse us of turning off the precipitator [an emission cleansing device) at night.” He laughs without humor at what he considers paranoia-the accusation from local residents and environmentalist opponents that the company would sneak excess or illegal releases in the dark. “My mother lives here. So do I. We’re not about to make a profit for TXI at the expense of the community or our employees.”
Of all the battles between the kilns and their foes, nothing has produced more disagreement than the interpretation of a January 1992-April 1992 TACB study of air quality in Midlothian. Essentially, the study, which predated the convening of the task force, said it found no levels of heavy metals or volatile organic compounds above permissible levels. Armed with the report, toxicologist Kathryn Kelly of Seattle, who, like Kleppinger, also served on the task force, co-authored a subsequent study by her own consulting firm. The study claimed that the TACB report was proof the Texas plants created “no adverse health effects.”
The state immediately protested Kelly’s report. “We do not feel comfortable with the tone of your review nor do we agree with the conclusions you have drawn,” TACB staffer JoAnn Wiersema wrote back to Kelly, whose clients have included the national Cement Kiln Recyling Coalition. Wiersema demanded Kelly remove any appearance that the TACB data-which made no health assessments at all-supported Kelly’s interpretation, “Since the conclusions expressed in this draft review do not accurately represent our position, we do not want this Agency to appear to agree in any way with these conclusions,” Wiersema wrote.
The strongest objection to the use of the TACB study to defend waste-burning in Midlothian came from the group that has most fiercely contested the practice-Texans United. A grass-roots activist group that expanded from Houston to Dallas in 1989. Texans United has, along with Midlothian-based Citizens Aware and United for a Safe Environment (CAUSE), an organization of local residents, figuratively kepi alive the flame of opposition. Jim Schermbeck. the Texans United field director whose red hair and beard have become familiar sights to industry counterparts and state agency policy-makers, says the study was a ’’whitewash” that “doesn’t settle the health issue one way or another.
“What you think about that study is a matter of whether or not you believe a small amount is harmful over a long period,” insists Schermbeck, whose small office on Edgefield in Oak Cliff is chock-ablock full of maps, wind charts, scientific reports, public documents and agency memos. “And the report didn’t even look at how some of these substances combine with each other over time.
“Look, they found 15 to 20 different chemicals at any one time-just not any single one in concentration. Exposure to toxins isn’t linear. As far as the ESL levels [Effects Screening Levels, a safe-health indicator], they’re based on arbitrary and outdated science in the first place. Some of the health assessments on which the levels are based came from the chemical companies themselves back in the ’50s.”
That, says, Schermbeck, gets to the nitty-gritty.
“What really scares Austin is the explo-siveness of this health issue,” he says. “It’s the hardest thing for the people to prove, but it’s the most dangerous issue of all to the agencies in Austin. That’s why they like to say they don’t have enough analysis or data to draw conclusions about health.
And the key to it all are these health-safety figures. If they’re not valid, what do you do about regulating what comes out of those stacks? This question lies at the very heart of how we regulate industry in the state of Texas.”
Kleppinger’s assessment is similar. “The cement guys say there are no demonstrable effects,” he says. “But look, we’re not talking dead bodies. We’re looking at chronic problems that take 10 to 20 years to develop. If 10,000 people are exposed in Midlothian from direct inhalation, and if the risk was only one in 10,000, that’s 10 excess deaths in 70 years. You just can’t pick that out.”
Kleppinger also buttresses Scherm-beck’s complaint that industry is hiding behind numbers that may have about as much validity as early theories about exposure to atomic radiation. “Science has no technology to determine if a kiln or any incinerator is negatively impacting public health,” says Kleppinger. “Some chemical byproducts of burning are toxic below detection levels. But it only takes a molecule or two of dioxins or furans to affect hormones. The statistical tools for determining whether there is an impact are extremely bad. Scientists have reached opposite conclusions in this matter.
“The problem,” says Kleppinger, “is these cement guys really believe their own propaganda. They think they have a God-given right to burn hazardous waste. Their fallacy is saying they have the right to burn as long as you can’t prove danger. That’s absolutely, fundamentally wrong. The burden of proof should be on those who get the benefit, not on the community.”
In fact, it’s mostly been the other way around. When Gifford-Hill and TXI began burning waste in 1986 and 1987 respectively, they did so through so-called interim status permits after one limited-access public hearing, Gifford-Hill even wrote to the Texas Water Commission (TWC). which regulates soil and water pollution, informing the agency that it wouldn’t need permits for unloading incoming truck and rail shipments of liquid hazardous waste, since no storage would be involved. Until the TACB Task force convened a formal public hearing in December 1992. the seven-year history of burning and transporting millions of tons of waste through the Midlothian area was all but devoid of public input.
The task force made Texas the First state in the nation to stop and take a closer, more comprehensive look at what making cement had become. Austin’s attention was initially grabbed in February 1991, when newly elected Gov. Ann Richards issued a six-month moratorium on all new permits to burn hazardous wastes.
But the ban expired, and the two plants that already had “interim” permits-North Texas and TXI-were allowed to resume burning. At the moment, that’s down to one. Following a fire and inability to fully pass state emissions “test burns,” North Texas temporarily reverted to coal and natural gas last year. The third Midlothian kiln, BoxCrow, wasn’t able to get an “interim” permit, but it is one of several kilns in the state applying for one. BoxCrow also wants to renew a lapsed temporary permit to burn used tires-a “recycling” process at least as dirty as coal-burning and. as with hazardous waste, fraught with unknown environmental liabilities.
Public pressure mounted to extend the moratorium, or to stop waste-burning altogether. In July 1992, Gov. Richards’ newly appointed chair to the TACB, attorney and environmentalist Kirk Watson, set up the task force. From inception, the body took pains to achieve balance-leaning if anything toward industry. Chuck Rivers, a Bill Clements TACB board holdover and former Shell Oil engineer openly hostile to environmentalists, served as chair. Half the members-such as Kathryn Kelley, Randy Jones and Lafarge executive Duncan Gage, were sure industry votes; the other half-such as Kleppinger, Midlothian CAUSE member Cynthia Fava and New Braunfels council member Paul Fraser-were independent or anti-burning proponents.
After months of study-including a tour of TXI-the panel held a public hearing in Austin on Nov. 20, 1992. Most opponents of burning expected little more than a chance to air their anger. They expected a rubber stamp! They were mistaken.
What was to have been a routine session turned into Hours of passionate debate. As usual at a public hearing, the room was filled with industry lobbyists, such as R. Kinnan Goleman, representing the influential Cement Manufacturers Association. The presence of the kilns was evidenced by a contingent of employees wearing “I-(heart)-LafaDge” buttons. A French-owned corporation, Lafarge wants to bum waste in its kiln in New Braunfels. It is challenging a Texas “’siting” law that prohibits burning within a half-mile of residences. With the expiration in 1991 of the so-called Frost Amendment, by U.S. Rep. Martin Frost of Dallas, which blocked the burning of hazardous waste in kilns within cities of more than 500,000 population, the “siting” law is virtually the only statute protection against Lafarge or other kilns.
Small towns are especially vulnerable. Mayor Ryan Trimble of the Central Texas town of Blanco engaged Rivers in a heated exchange about whether the task force hearing was sufficiently publicized, echoing the sentiments among burning opponents that their complaints have seldom been heard. Testimony against burning followed from chemical engineers, university professors and the usual group of ordinary citizens woo believe, despite what their government tells them, that they are being poisoned.
The task force also heard from a former TACB field investigator, Neil Carman, coauthor of a special Sierra Club report on industrial pollution in Texas. Issued last August, the report accused Texas industry, including the cement plants concentrated in Midlothian, of using “upsets”–accidental emission violations-as a way of getting rid of unknown levels of improperly burned toxins.
Carman said upsets are investigated less than 20 percent of the time, occur increasingly at night and, in some cases, “become par! of normal operation.” The implication was that upsets-like the one experienced by Ivy Howard-may be a major way kilns can get rid of wastes that wouldn’t meet governmental removal specifications.
Perhaps surprised by the broad nature of the opposition to burning, the task force recessed for two months while it tried to agree on its final report. During that time, heavy lobbying was exerted on committee members, especially the swing votes. Lobbyist Goleman was described by one task force member as “hovering like a moth” at meetings of the committee and its subcommittees. The chemical industry supports fuel substitution.
In January, committee members fought over which recommendations would be written into the formal report-Rivers at one point was forced to revise his own executive summary. Released in February, the report hewed to a decidedly middle ground. Yet, considering the tilt of the field, the middle ground was enormous progress for opponents.
One of the most controversial issues- me labeling of cement produced in waste-burning kilns-succumbed to industry pressure. Although a subcommittee voted unanimously to require waste-fuel cement to be labeled, the task force stalled on an 8-8 vote, with TWC staff executive Ken Ramirez unexpectedly absent. Chuck Rivers cast the tie-breaker. Labeling was not mandated.
“If we burned coal, we’d need 260,000 tons a year,” TXT s Randy Jones observed later, defending the task force decision. “Should you label that, too? I don’t think so. There’s more lead outside Reunion Arena-from cars.” But the Texas attorney general’s office is considering legal action to determine whether labeling should be required for consumer safety. The Legislature is also getting into the act. State Rep. Helen Giddings of DeSoto has introduced a bill to require labeling.
The task force also failed on another especially controversial effort to label cement kiln dust, CKD, as hazardous waste. Growing mounds of this dust-perhaps 100,000 tons a year in Midlothian- are, according to Texans United, becoming “future Superfund sites” because of the proven danger of the waste-tainted residues from dust leaching into the soil. But although the task force said CKD landfills should be lined, it only asked for continuous testing of the dust. TXI. meanwhile, is negotiating a $300,000 fine assessed by the EPA in October 1992 for allegedly operating a hazardous waste landfill-i.e.. its CKD disposal quarry- without a permit. TXI maintains the issue is mainly the result of an administrative technicality.
Both labels and dust have become hot national environment issues. A recent EPA staff report says that dioxins, furans, benzene and heavy metals have been found in both CKD and cement, based on tests in eight hazardous waste-burning facilities. The EPA said it was not yet drawing conclusions, but planned to continue the testing. Some industry insiders predict the EPA will substantially rewrite regulations on the practice.
In 1992, a major cement company in France, Société Des Ciments Francais, recently acquired by an Italian multinational, was reported to have stopped burning waste because of concerns over product liability. This could be important, since most cement-making is controlled by fewer than a dozen companies, most of them foreign. Mexico’s CEMEX, for example, which is a major supplier of cement to Texas, burns hazardous waste in four of its kilns, with little hope of domestic regulation.
In the U.S., meanwhile, there is word that a major U.S. do-it-yourself retailer is considering banning the sale in its stores of cement from waste-burning kilns. And a number of local governments-in Maryland, Montana, Pennsylvania, Alabama and Colorado, and in New Braunfels, Texas-have passed ordinances or resolutions-untested in court-prohibiting not only the burning of hazardous waste in kilns, but also restricting the use of cement from such kilns in public construction.
Having given in on at least two major points, and winking at die growth of tire-burning, the task force, and the TACB, created at least one major change in public policy. From now on. even though they may continue to burn waste, the kilns will be held to the same state emissions standards as are commercial incinerators. A quiet but far-reaching rule, it could cost the kilns millions of dollars in new equipment or retro-fitting,
Surprisingly, none of the cement companies balked. TXI’s Jones said it was no big deal. He insisted that the 1991 federal regulations known as the BIF rules (Boiler and Industrial Furnace), which govern kiln and incinerator emissions, require the same standards anyway. That’s true, but the state can tighten the federal rules when issuing permits. And it does. The size of particulate emissions for dust, for example, cannot exceed .03 grams from incinerators licensed by the state. The kilns, which because of their “interim” burning status are bound only by the more lenient federal rules, can pump out particulates as big as .08 grams.
Should the state truly crank down on kilns at the same level as incinerators, the industry’s seemingly passive acceptance of the TACB call for equalization might vanish. Therein may lie the real fight. State agency policies are frequently weakened as staff engineers and bureaucrats wrangle with special interests over precise wording of rules and regulations. What seems administrative tedium to the public is a notorious playground for lobbyists.
All this will become yet more complex next September, when the TACB and the Texas Water Commission will be phased out of existence by a new environmental mega-agency known as the Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission. The TNRCC’s three commissioners will be the current TWC commissioners. No TACB commissioners will survive the merger.
Regardless of the name or the players for the regulating agency, the nature of the battle over burning waste in kilns will continue. Nothing will ensure that more than the task force’s most remarkable conclusion: It’s not necessary. Not now. And certainly not in the future. The simple arithmetic of marketing provides the smoking gun against waste-burning that has so consistently frustrated opponents citing health and environmental grounds.
Based on figures compiled by the Texas Water Commission, the TACB task force found that Texas already has approximately twice the capacity it needs for disposing of every drop of its liquid waste through 1995. That’s a lot of drops-a projected 141,300 tons in 1995. But that’s only half the 274,400 ton volume, based on conservative estimates, that could be processed using existent kilns and incinerators.
Even without the kilns, the incinerators can easily handle the load already. Chemical Waste Management. Rollins Environmental Services and Rhone Poulenc-the state’s three licensed commercial firms-can currently process 122.600 tons per year-only 18,400 tons short of total projected 1995 needs. If reserve capacity is factored in, the incinerators can handle 153,239 tons of waste. That would give the state almost 12,000 tons’ excess annual capacity three years into the future-just from incinerators.
The kilns are overkill.
Under its current interim permit, TXI is licensed to burn 200,000 tons of waste per year. North Texas can, if it starts again, bum around 100,170 tons. That’s 300,000 tons above what the incinerators can take in. In fact, because neither plant uses its full limit, the practical capacity of both kilns is estimated at more like 190,000 tons per year. Even that lower figure is still far more than the state needs.
And that doesn’t count BoxCrow’s application to burn. Or TXl’s pending application, which the TWC staff has recommended for approval, to build new hazardous waste blending and storage tanks, which could add 370,000 gallons potential capacity. Nor does it count the efforts of Lafarge in New Braunfels, or two other Texas plants applying for burn permits. Nor does it count the plans of the incinerators to expand their own capacities.
The task force came to an inexorable conclusion. If Texas keeps adding to its liquid waste disposal potential, and doesn’t generate even half the amount to fulfill it, what becomes of all that potential space?
The task force had an answer. “To utilize all of the surplus capacity,” it said, ’’the State would have to accept over 100,000 tons of out of state liquid wastes.”
The Lone Star state would become the Last Chance Dump.
TXI provides tours of its plant, but won’t let you take photos unless you agree to allow company technicians to develop the film-ostensibly because of fears of industrial spying. A college newspaper photographer was once stopped on a public road outside the TXI plant; his film was confiscated by a TXI security agent. So were portions of film taken for this story.
Maybe it’s the incineration that you’re not supposed to see without supervision. At any rate, I thought a better way to see the cement kilns was not through the company guided tour, but via a narrow, muddy, public road that winds along the back side of the TXI plant until it crests a hill overlooking the plant’s quarry. Newton Branch Creek runs off to one side, finally joining Mountain Creek before feeding into Joe Pool Lake.
From the top, TXI is the base of a panorama spreading across a huge prairie valley, with North Texas off to the north and BoxCrow to the east. Chaparral Steel is also in the picture, as are the black mounds of tire scraps at Safe Tire Disposal Corp., across the highway from the TXI plant. They’re being stockpiled in anticipation of expanded permits to burn tires at TXI and/ or BoxCrow. Word is that a new asphalt plant will be built next to Box-Crow. In the middle of it all is the desolation that is Cement Valley. Pretty industrial for a place that was once a haven for Dallasites yearning for a few country acres.
Is it also fraught with peril? New Braunfels City Councilman Paul Fraser has little doubt. The advent of hazardous waste-burning into a community-such as La-farge’s plans for his own town-ultimately changes the fabric of everything, says the outspoken ex-Marine. “Burning is only part of the problem,” he says. ’Transportation, burial and blending of this stuff might even be a worst danger to us.”
Many in Midlothian share the concern In 1990, the highways, roads and bridge around Midlothian shuddered under the weight of nearly 5,000 incoming true! shipments of hazardous waste. That figure could increase fivefold if TXI gets its new storage tank permits. According to Ray Bernard, a member of the Ellis County Emergency Response Committee, neither the county nor the Midlothian fire depart ment “are capable in any manner at all” or responding to a toxic spill or fire. The closest emergency Haz Mat (Hazardous Materials) team is in Fort Worth.
Looking down at the valley of paradise lost, trying to be sure what I was seeing, I remembered something TACB chair Kirk Watson had said: “In Texas we’ve always understood water and land. Air, on the other hand, we’ve not thought about. So when you say, let’s clean up the land or the water, die response is, ’Oh, we’ll bum it.” That’s the way we’ve always approached things in Texas. If we can’t bury it or haul it away, we burn it. It’s just in the air. But it’s really a short-term solution.”
“My intuitive reaction has been that you don’t want to burn hazardous waste near people unless you can be sure you’re not exposing the people to something unreasonable. You’re dealing with something that has risks in it.”
In the end, the dilemma about using kilns to bum hazardous waste comes down to two fundamental questions: Would I care if a cement plant were located in my town? If I didn’t mind, would my opinion change if the plant, without so much as asking my consent, began to burn things that could harm me, my family or my animals every day as fuel for that cement?
Paul Fraser minds. So much so that he, like some other members, refused to sign his name to the task force report when the TACB assembled to approve it. Not so much because of the findings, but because of something more basic-because of language referring to the burning of hazardous waste as a “premise” of the study. To Fraser, word choice was important.
“That isn’t my premise.” he told Watson. Rivers and the rest of the board. “It was an assumption but not a premise. An assumption is a starting point. A premise is something you agree about. I don’t agree that burning this stuff is OK.
“The scientists can argue about the feasibility of the technology forever. But what we want to get back to is the main point. We don’t want to not make cement. We just don’t want to bum hazardous waste.”
One Scientist’s View
The slightest wind often blows plumes of Midlothian cement kiln smoke across the 15 miles to Dallas, says Dr. George Crawford, a retired SMU physics professor who has been studying a:r quality id the Metroplex since 1974. Just as alarming, he says, the government incorrectly measures the chemical content of those emissions.
Crawford a nuclear physicist who has testified at numerous state aid federal Hearings, has tested every rainfall in Dallas since 1984 for acidity. Partially because of his work, the National Atmospheric Exposition Program changed its methods of measuring.
Crawford also has been studying wind patterns and Texas Air Control Board measurements for nine years, trying to determine what is blowing into the Metroplex and where it’s coming from. Be has calculated that any time the wind blows from the south, southeast or southwest, emissions from Midlothian cement kilns blow somewhere over Dallas and Fort Worth, and that the prevailing winds blow from those directions 609c of the time. Because the plumes from the cement kilns are opaque, it’s easy to follow their movements. But just where the emissions settle and how far they disperse depends on wind direction and velocity. When the wind blows hard, the plumes blow over, and few particles fall into the Metroplex. But a steady breeze. 10 to 15 knots, can cause molecules in a plume to settle directly over the area.
Crawford has serious concerns about the Texas Air Control Board methods of measuring air quality. He says the TACB uses an arithmetic mean to average the results of measurements, but he believes the^ should use a concentrated weighted mean. In other words, if people in Dallas breathed high levels of sulfur dioxide for five hours aid no sulfur dioxide in the next 10 hours, those hourly Measurements would be averaged to reflect a misleadingly low figure. The numbers wouldn’t show dangerously high levels, but people would have breamed them, nevertheless. “Average has no meaning al all to the illness,” he says. “It’s the sudden increases that cause the illness response. That’s quite a different approach to the subject.”
Not only does Crawford take issue with the way TACB reports figures, he also disagrees with what they measure. The instruments sample the air for sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide, ozone and paniculate matter, all elements proven to cause respiratory problems and lung disease. But they do not check for heavy metals and toxins that could be coming from the Midlothian kilns. Because the government does not require cement kilns to keep a public log of what they burn or what comes out of the kiln, the TACB wouldn’t know exactly which chemicals to test for if il wanted to conduct such a test.
Crawford puts his faith in what he calls the best instrument of all-the human body. The most accurate measurement is in the lungs of people. They may not know exactly what caused it. but their physical reaction is the most sensitive and the most accurate.” Crawford believes asthma attacks, allergies and respiratory problems in Dallas are aggravated in part by emissions from Midlothian kilns.
Crawford has recently begun a study sponsored by the American Lung Association that will test his hypothesis. He plans to gather hospital records, wind patterns and TACB air quality measurements in the Metroplex to link days of unusually high occurrences of respiratory problems with chemical content in the air. Then he will study wind patterns of those days and try to pinpoint the origins of those chemicals.
“People’s response will be a definitive answer. If people are sick in Cedar Hill, but not in Irving, the winds are blowing from a certain direction and there’s nothing in the air which triggers an asthma attack…You have what you could call a smoking chimney syndrome.” Crawford says with a chuckle. -Elizabeth Rabbins
My hese cement guys…think they have a God-given right to burn hazardous waste.”-DR. EDWARD KLOPPINGER
“In Texas “we’ve understood water and land. Air, ’we’ve not thought ahout. So, when you say, let’s clean up the land or the water, the response is, ’Oh, we’ll burn it. ’ ” TACB chair Kirk Watson