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No Place Like Home

My wife and I wanted a place in the country to raise our kids, so we moved to Midlothian, the cement capital of Texas. Then our neighbors started getting cancer, so we had to figure out why.
By D Magazine |
STANDING TALL: At first, Julie and Tom Boyle didn’t pay much attention  to the cement plants like Holcim, in the background.

Plano made sense.

After 11 years and three children, our DeSoto home was cramped. When Congress killed the Superconducting Super Collider, property values in our neighborhood declined. My wife Julie was grieving the loss of her best friend, who had recently died of cancer. We were ready for a change.

I pushed for civilization. Sidewalks. Stores. But Julie thought everything north of the Trinity was snooty and cookie-cutter. So on a whim, we drove 25 miles south of Dallas to Midlothian and discovered 3 acres of red oaks and bluebonnets on a country road. Julie and the kids were smitten. Eleven-year-old Tommy and 8-year-old Ryan found an enormous pecan tree, perfect for a tree house, overlooking a winding creek on the property. Katie, 3, collected bouquets of wildflowers. We did try Plano, but one weekend of shopping for homes there with a weepy wife and bawling kids convinced me that moving to Midlothian was the only way I would ever be happy again.

As a child, Julie spent summers in Georgia on her grandparents’ farm, stringing tobacco and pole fishing with crickets. I grew up in Pocatello, Idaho. For fun, my friends and I rolled boulders down a mountain, where they crashed like bowling balls into brittle maples.

Raising our kids in a small, conservative town in the country fit us. We built a house and pressed our hands into the cold, wet concrete of our driveway. We bought a baby John Deere tractor. We got a black lab and somehow acquired a goat. With potato cannons, a go-cart, and diesel-powered bonfires, our kids quickly took root.

That was five years ago.

I had heard about the cement plants. Midlothian was called, after all, the cement capital of Texas. With three major plants—Ash Grove, Holcim, and Texas Industries (TXI)—some, in fact, called Midlothian the cement capital of the world. In 1999, Midlothian produced 3 million tons of cement; it will soon be 6 million. Odds are, in North Texas, if it was built with cement, that cement came from Midlothian. Dallas City Hall, the Meyerson Symphony Center, and the J.C. Penney headquarters were all built with TXI cement.

I hardly noticed the smokestacks. Red oaks and bluebonnets were growing on me. I bought an Audubon book to identify birds. As a Republican, I believed in free enterprise and figured regulators probably kept the plants on a short leash. The whining environmentalists were wackos. I was more concerned about the grammatical error on the downtown neon sign that read “The Cement Capitol of Texas.” Besides, everybody said the cement plants dumped truckloads of money into the community and schools, which we loved. The teachers and staff were terrific. Life in Midlothian was good.

FAMIILY MATTERS: After the Boyles moved to Midlothian, the kids—Katie, Tommy, and Ryan—occasionally needed inhalers. Their daughter kept getting sties.

The first real sign of trouble came in early 2003, when a modest school-bond package went down in flames, jolting us from our rural reverie. We were stunned. The schools were great but they were crowded, and some of the facilities were dilapidated. “Come to Midlothian—we vote down school bonds.” This wasn’t good.

In large part, it seemed the bond had failed thanks to the efforts of an anonymous group calling itself the “Concerned Citizens.” The group had mailed inflammatory fliers criticizing waste in the schools and in the bond. Then there was the Midlothian Today’s editor, who preached libertarianism and decried taxes, regulations, and “government schools.” Julie decided Libertarians were the bad guys.

If there’s a problem Julie wants solved, she’s tenacious as chiggers. Years earlier, after receiving the bleak news that we may never have children, Julie headed to the library. She diagnosed her medical condition, decided upon the course of treatment, and convinced a doctor she was right. He performed surgery as recommended. Tommy, Ryan, and Katie soon followed.

There was a problem with our children’s schools. Julie was on it. While the kids and I were sleeping, she studied, often deep into the night, nosing around the Internet for clues. Within a few days, she unearthed an outfit called the Republican Liberty Caucus of Texas (RLC). She was giddy. “They’re Libertarians!” she said. And she produced a copy of the RLC’s March 2003 newsletter, in which the group bragged about defeating a school bond in Hays County. “And guess what,” she said, wide-eyed. “There’s a cement plant in Hays County.”

I put my bird book away.

I suggested Julie run for the school board. Although she considers herself shy and uncomfortable in public settings, I thought she would be good at it. But she was too busy studying Libertarians. Somebody needed to get on the school board and find out what was going on.

Two family councils produced little support for the idea, but 30 minutes before the deadline, I signed up to run for the school board. Julie stayed awake all night worrying. I lay awake for two. But before long, I was pounding in yards signs at the gas station.

And that’s when weird things started happening. Two weeks into the race, on Easter Sunday, we saw an unfamiliar man standing by the road near our home as we left for church. Later that day, we found some papers out of place in the house. Our back doorknob was loose. Marks on the door were consistent with its being forced open—at some point. Maybe I hadn’t noticed the door problem before. Then again, maybe it was the Easter Bunny.

I was a little creeped out. Julie was mortified. She said if she had known someone was coming over, she would have cleaned up. Then she went into CSI: Midlothian mode and reminded me that, two weeks earlier, my Dallas law office had been burglarized. Someone had rifled through some desks in the office, including mine. I decided it had to be just coincidence.

The next day, when I got home, Julie’s face was ashen.

“Don’t think I’m a nut, okay?” she said.

“What is it?”

“Just promise!”

“Okay, I promise.”

“I’m hearing strange noises on our phone.”

She was pushing it. But I, too, started hearing strange noises. Whatever she had, it was contagious. I didn’t want to hear noises. I called AT&T. They said it sounded like our phone was on call forwarding. But we had never used call forwarding and, in fact, didn’t even know we had it. We got rid of it, and the noises stopped. Mystery solved. Our phone had been on call forwarding by mistake. That’s all.

A few days later, Julie met me at the door.

“Don’t start thinking I’m a nut again, okay?”

Too late.

She said she’d seen joggers stop at our mailbox. Letters had been opened and taped shut. In the following weeks, she saw cars and trucks parked in front of our house on our lonely country road. Julie had good instincts, but she was sounding a little paranoid.

“You think Libertarian joggers are bugging our phone and casing our house and reading our mail?” I asked in such a way that would communicate how silly it sounded.

“And they sabotaged the school bond election,” she added.

I blinked.

“You don’t believe me,” she said.

“Well, of course I believe you,” I said. People like her had to be kept calm.

As a precaution—to make my wife feel better—I said we’d start using our home security system. In a test run, I armed the system and opened the front door. Nothing happened. No siren. I tried again. Nothing. I checked the horn and found wires disconnected. Or maybe they had never been connected. We eventually called the sheriff, who sent over a deputy. He checked the back door, listened to our concerns, and nodded a lot. He said he’d file a report and left.

On election day, I won enough votes to nail down third place among four candidates. I lost to a longtime Midlothian resident who rides a Harley (315 votes) and to a recent Midlothian High School graduate who wants to be president (297 votes). I received a whopping 243 votes.

“Promise me,” Julie pleaded, “you will never run for office ever again.” I needed no convincing.

TXI, the largest cement producer in Midlothian, actually gets paid by chemical plants and oil refineries to burn hazardous waste to fuel its kilns.

We remained troubled about our schools. Midlothian had obvious wealth. Three giant cement plants, a sprawling steel mill, and a new half-billion-dollar power plant were our neighbors. Why were our schools and roads in such bad shape? We had no real community library and few parks. The industrial plants’ property values had to be staggering. Where was the tax money going?

Maybe the Libertarians were right and waste was rampant. But as Band Boosters, with two percussionist sons, we saw no waste in the school’s band program. Uniforms were old, there weren’t enough instruments, the band needed a truck, and the school auditorium was a 30-year-old pig.

Midlothian’s wealthiest resident, TXI, said on its corporate web site that it proudly supported our band. So I called Maurice Osborn, a former mayor of Midlothian who is also TXI’s manager of communications and government affairs.

Julie and I met him for breakfast at Dee Tee’s, where the waitresses wear jeans and tank tops. A local institution, Dee Tee’s is the coffee shop across the street from the “Cement Capitol” sign. We sat near the cowboy mural in the nonsmoking section, which is dwarfed by the smoking section. We told the waitress we would order when Maurice arrived, but when he showed up, he didn’t want to eat. So we didn’t, either.

Tall, thin, graying, and sporting a goatee, Maurice is intense. We had heard he’d had cancer. I told him our band needed $50,000 for instruments and a truck. The high school needed a new auditorium. And our teachers were overworked and underpaid. I was hoping he had brought his checkbook.

Maurice thought I was kidding. Fifty thousand dollars, he said, was a lot of money. He assured us TXI supported the schools. Every six weeks, TXI placed ads in the local papers to congratulate students for good grades. He suggested we write a grant proposal, but he promised nothing. Leaning forward on the table, he said pleasantly: “You don’t want to make demands.”

We left Dee Tee’s with Maurice. After he drove away, Julie and I went back in and ate.

One night, at 1:30 a.m., Julie turned on my bedside lamp, blinding me. “Tom, wake up!” she said, shaking me violently. “Our schools are giving away millions of dollars to TXI!”

My heart pounding like a tympani, I sat straight up, trying to grasp the nature of the emergency. After our meeting with Maurice, Julie had gone online to find out whether TXI could realistically afford to help our band. She learned that TXI is a Fortune 500 company and brings in $1.87 billion in annual revenues. But, more important, she also learned about something called RailPort and how it is financed.

RailPort is TXI’s 2,223-acre industrial park with emphasis on rail transport. It is also part of something called a TIRZ, or “Tax Increment Reinvestment Zone.” (For more on this, see companion story on p. 81.) In a TIRZ, property values are capped on a specific date, and in subsequent years, the taxes on the incremental property values above the cap are funneled back into the project, in RailPort’s case for 35 years. That tax money would otherwise go to the schools.

Because the schools don’t get that tax money, the district winds up in the eyes of the state as “tax poor” and collects millions of dollars in Robin Hood money from wealthy districts. Someone decided it was better for Midlothian ISD to be poor rather than rich. The mayor of Midlothian when this deal was made was none other than Maurice Osborn.

“If TXI is going to gas us,” Julie reasoned, “they should at least give our kids a decent library!” It was the weirdest argument I’d ever heard.

Julie pressed on. She wrote U.S. Rep. Joe Barton (R-Ennis), believing that he would want to know about TXI and TIRZ and that he would make things better. After all, we’d voted for him twice. And weeks earlier, Julie had written him about our bond election being sabotaged by the Libertarians. She was most likely now on an FBI list. And, of course, so was I. Barton never responded.

My wife struck up a correspondence with two writers at the Dallas Morning News. She had kept the paper from March 3, 2003, the day after our failed bond election. That day, the News had run an editorial calling Barton “Smokey Joe” and criticizing him for shielding Midlothian’s cement plants from environmental regulators. Intrigued by the Barton editorial, Julie found her way onto the paper’s blog and quickly spotted veteran editorial board members Timothy O’Leary and Jim Frisinger as Barton thorns.

Julie soon inundated O’Leary and Frisinger with tales of bonds, Libertarians, and tax schemes that stole school kids’ money. She told them they had the right suspects—TXI and Joe Barton—but their storyline was all wrong. Pollution wasn’t the problem; the problem was that tax money was being siphoned from our schools.

O’Leary and Frisinger occasionally responded with polite questions. I began calling them her imaginary friends, and I figured they understood, as I did, that people like Julie had to be kept calm. But they went right on editorializing and blogging about “Smokey Joe” and Midlothian’s pollution. So Julie told them in no uncertain terms that they weren’t very smart, and she stopped writing them—though she monitored the blog to see what they were up to.

Months passed. Families were moving in, and new neighborhoods were popping up like toadstools. The growth made it even more apparent that something had to be done about the schools, and I served on a committee with 60 other community members—including cement-industry leaders—to identify the schools’ needs. I wanted to bring TIRZ into the discussion, but no one wanted to talk about it. In the end, through compromise, we produced a bond package proposal. An election was set for February 2004. Though hardly perfect, it had to pass.

This time, we’d be prepared. Julie and I knew the anonymous “Concerned Citizens” would resurface with fliers and letters, so we decided to strike preemptively. We launched a letter-writing campaign in community newspapers to quell insurgents—Libertarian or otherwise—who might try to scuttle this new bond. We challenged the status quo. We challenged “economic development” at the expense of “educational development.” We tried to embarrass the faceless, nameless “Concerned Citizens” who dared not sign their names to their anti-education message.

An anti-tax zealot wrote a letter in the local paper stating taxes should be the priority when considering school funding.

Julie fired back: “It’s our kids, stupid.”

Her shot didn’t go unanswered. A searing “special” column in Midlothian Today soon ran. It denounced Julie, her letter, “the government school monopoly,” and “its groupies.” It was written from Austin by Don Zimmerman, the executive director of none other than the Republican Liberty Caucus.

Holy moly. There was actually some basis for my wife’s Libertarian-conspiracy theories. We couldn’t say for sure whether the Republican Liberty Caucus had anything to do with defeating Midlothian’s last school bond, but its executive director seemed intent on killing this one.

And that column did something else: it  broadened our focus from just schools to include environmental issues. Having drawn public fire on the school issue, we needed help. And the only media guys we knew were the ones talking about pollution. Julie gave her imaginary friends a second chance, and we submitted a letter about the RLC that Frisinger decided to print in the News’ prime slot. Texas Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson was the RLC’s Texas chairman. Frisinger was surprised the News had never heard of the group. After coming to our aid by publishing the letter, Julie’s imaginary friends suddenly, in her eyes, had credibility. And she started asking questions I couldn’t answer.

“If TXI would hurt our children’s schools,” she asked, “what makes us think TXI wouldn’t hurt their health?” It was a natural, gradual shift for her to start researching what came out of those smokestacks. She learned TXI burns hazardous waste in four of its five cement kilns. Seven of Midlothian’s 10 kilns are among the oldest and dirtiest in the country. Holcim increased emissions after promising its new kiln would have no new emissions.
Technology could reduce cement-plant pollution by 80 percent, but local plants didn’t want to spend the money.

More than a few times, as I walked through the front door—my suit coat slung over my shoulder and briefcase in hand for the next day’s deposition—she greeted me and launched into rants about tire burning or the latest health study from the American Lung Association. I longed for the good old days when she greeted me at the door to say the phone bill was wrong again.

I cautioned her that she shouldn’t believe everything she read online or in a newspaper. Environmentalists were well-meaning but goofy. Her imaginary friends seemed nice enough, but they were part of the liberal media. “The pollution can’t be that bad,” I said. “There are regulators.”

“One of the state’s three regulators, Ralph Marquez, is a former TXI lobbyist,” Julie shot back.

I didn’t know how to parry that. And when I thought about it, since we’d moved to Midlothian, the kids occasionally needed inhalers. Our daughter kept getting sties.

But there was so much to like about Midlothian. The lives of parents revolved around their children. We liked the Christmas parade and the scarecrow festival, where people each October compete to build the city’s finest scarecrow. We liked the donut shop. And we still liked our red oaks and winding creek. Midlothian had become home.

If we were going to stay, I told Julie, we didn’t have time to worry about pollution. Someone else could do that, like the environmentalists or her imaginary friends. We would lose all credibility in Midlothian if we opened a second front. Schools were our thing, not pollution. Julie said no more about it.

SIGN OF THE TIMES: It’s a good idea to check your grammar before you put your brag in neon.

On February 1, 2004, the News published an editorial about Ellis County’s efforts to escape “nonattainment” status under new federal clean-air standards. In short, the Dallas area needed to improve its air quality; Congressman Barton and others argued that Ellis County wasn’t responsible for Dallas’ dirty air and therefore shouldn’t be forced to cut its emissions. The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) was meeting in Austin the next day to discuss it. Public comments would be heard.

With ominous words, the editorial began: “People of Dallas-Fort Worth—all 5.2 million of you—beware: your future will be at stake when the TCEQ convenes tomorrow in Austin.”

Julie studied the editorial. She thought her imaginary friends were sending us a message. She read it to me. I tried to ignore her. The school bond election was less than a week away. I was busy at work. Our garage needed cleaning.

Of 5.2 million residents, surely someone with more time to spare would go to Austin and report to the TCEQ about Midlothian. But not us. It wouldn’t be us.

Early the next morning, the editorial stared at me from the kitchen table. “Go to Austin,” blared the newsprint. Who would go? I wondered. Environmentalists? Out of 5.2 million people, I doubted that any regular people from Midlothian would show up. Our community newspapers didn’t exactly fill their pages with pollution stories. We were reassured week after week that our good corporate citizens were good for our community. And I didn’t want to get into a fight with our good corporate citizens about their bad habits. I just wanted Midlothian to be more livable for the long term.

I checked my calendar and called my office.

“Okay, let’s go,” I said.


“Austin. Let’s go.”

I rarely surprise Julie. And rarely has she gotten ready and into the car more quickly than she did that morning. At about Waco, we realized we had to think of something to say. And it needed to be about pollution. I drove. She jotted. Then we switched.

We found the hearing room. It was full of suits and important people on cell phones. Julie was a bundle of nerves, continuously rewriting the short paragraph she intended to read.

A parade of scientists, environmentalists, and politicians spoke. Some had charts. Our names were called and we made a few simple comments. We said our industrial plants needed to be better neighbors. It was time, we said, that they cleaned up their act.

Immediately after speaking, we headed for the door, but we were swarmed by reporters and environmentalists. The reporters wanted our names, and the environmentalists shook our hands and wondered who we were. Sue Pope of Downwinders at Risk hugged Julie, saying she thought everyone in Midlothian had had lobotomies. But a guy named Jim Schermbeck did most of the talking. With his locks of wavy red hair and beard, Schermbeck had battled Midlothian’s cement plants for 17 years. He looked like a recovering hippy.

It was unsettling because I felt no kinship with this group. We weren’t one of them. We were just parents on a strange mission that didn’t even make complete sense to us. We scooted out and went back home.

I was pretty sure our spur-of-the-moment jaunt to Austin would be our one and only lapse into environmental activism. A few days after we returned, the school bond passed. We would get our instruments, our uniforms, and a truck. Finally, everything seemed to be returning to normal.

But Julie had reconnected with her imaginary friends and they told her that Schermbeck wasn’t really a nut, that we might want to talk to him. I had to bring my wife back to our nice, conservative, Republican reality. We were Mormons, for heaven’s sake. I was a scoutmaster and Julie was a room mother. She had never knowingly voted for a Democrat. Ever. I may have, but I couldn’t remember when or why. It’s not that she suddenly wanted to open an abortion clinic or host a gay wedding, but she was starting to sound a little too much like something I knew we were not: Democrats.

Meeting with an environmental wacko didn’t jibe with who we were—whatever that was. But I figured that after five minutes with this Schermbeck character, Julie would see him for the liberal goofball he really was.

We met Jim Schermbeck at the Olive Garden in Duncanville—on Julie’s birthday. I’ve never had much luck doing things just the right way on sentimental days like birthdays and anniversaries. But she seemed perfectly content to spend her birthday dining with the hair-trigger wild man we had seen in action a few weeks earlier in Austin.

Schermbeck was a few minutes late and apologetic. But he wasn’t a wild man; he seemed tired. He ordered a salad and picked at it. I wondered as I watched him nibble at lettuce and onions and breadsticks whether all environmentalists were vegetarians. Schermbeck answered every question we had. He tutored us on the cement-making process, its fuels, and its resulting emissions and dust. He explained how toxic particulate matter lodges deep in children’s lungs. I took notes on a yellow legal pad. Julie had stopped eating.

Schermbeck was believable and sincere. He was respectful of our doubts. I thought he would rant about George W. Bush, Iraq, and all the things liberals rant about, and then demand that we start saving whales or at least chain ourselves to smokestacks. I wanted him to be a lunatic. He wasn’t. I wanted not to like him. I did.

Later, he e-mailed us, saying we would be smart not to get involved. We should slap ourselves, he said, and get the hell out of town.

MAN ON A MISSION: Jim Schermbeck has battled the cement plants for 17 years.

In Austin, Julie and I had dipped our toes in the roily pool of environmental issues. With Schermbeck, we would find ourselves in the deep end. I decided he was either insane or he was right. I asked to see his files. I hoped I could debunk most of the environmentalists’ “research” as misguided leftist propaganda, which would bring my wife—and me—back to the conservative fold where we belonged. Over a weekend and several evenings after work, I studied the files on the floor of our living room. Before long, the rug between our couch and piano was littered with piles of papers garnished with yellow stickies and, on them, my scribbled notes. The documents—clipped and worn with time—included state and federal reports, court filings, chemistry and metals analyses, news clippings, scientific studies, and a library of other papers.

I read about a cesium accident at TXI’s steel plant and about four rail carloads of contaminated radioactive dirt buried onsite. I read about a crop of hay contaminated so badly that it was unfit for animals. I read about a cluster of Down syndrome babies. I read about hundreds of thousands of pounds of cement-kiln dust, the residue of the fiery cement-making process, laced with arsenic, lead, chromium, and other heavy metals. The toxic dust was being dumped by the ton in open-air, unlined quarries near Midlothian neighborhoods.

I intended to expose the environmentalists as dunderheads. But I exposed only my own ignorance and the folly of my degree from the Limbaugh Institute for Advanced Conservative Studies. Without so much as a whisper from the environmental wackos, an archive of yellowed papers proved their case beyond a reasonable doubt.

Julie’s imaginary friends at the News and Jim Schermbeck were right. And despite my deep conservative roots, I knew it.

Last spring, battle lines were drawn in and around Ellis County over federal air-quality standards. Julie and I were part of that fight. In the end, Ellis County was designated a nonattainment area, and, as a result, its cement industry would have to adhere to stricter pollution standards. But the victory was short-lived. TXI sued the EPA, and in March 2005, the TCEQ would all but grant requests by Holcim and TXI for more lax pollution controls.

When the state Senate Natural Resources Committee held a hearing in Plano last August to address air-pollution problems in North Texas, I went and told them about TXI and Holcim’s efforts to avoid proper pollution controls. But the senators at that hearing did not consider Midlothian’s cement plants a problem for North Texas. They suggested I write state Sen. Kip Averitt if I had any concerns. I did. He never responded.

After telling O’Leary and Frisinger about the hearing, I wrote an op-ed piece in the News. The column was titled “Hearing or Farce?” and it prompted a call from state Sen. Craig Estes. After first asking me if I was recording the conversation (I wasn’t), he expressed displeasure with what I’d written. He then asked me to join him on a tour of TXI’s new cement kiln, telling me it had state-of-the-art pollution controls. But I had been associating with radical environmentalists and the liberal media. I knew these were the same pollution controls TXI was fighting to remove. I sent Estes a letter accepting his invitation to tour the plant. I never heard back.

Non-responsive politicians whom we voted into office were getting on our nerves. We wanted them to pay attention to these problems. But they ignored us. Julie was fed up and launched a homemade, technically inept web site called the Midlothian Family Network ( Early on, I insisted on editing some of her more charged commentary, but as time went on, I gave up. People wrote in, telling their own stories about illnesses they thought were caused by the cement kilns: asthma, respiratory illnesses, sinus problems, skin disorders, birth defects, Down syndrome, and cancer.

When the Arlington City Council was considering a tax to finance the new Dallas Cowboys stadium, Julie showed up. With hands trembling as she clutched her typed comments, she asked the City Council not to buy cement from Midlothian, telling them that until our local cement plants clean up, they don’t deserve public money. She followed up with a column in the Star-Telegram challenging Jerry Jones and the Cowboys to use only “kid friendly” cement in the new stadium. She suggested that if America’s Team uses Midlothian cement, the stadium should be called Asthma Arena.

We had come a long way. That evening, as I sat in the plush red seats of Arlington’s City Council chamber, I watched my trembling but intrepid wife walk to the podium and call for a Midlothian cement boycott. I realized then that what would have been unthinkable for us just a few months earlier, had become entirely natural.

Midlothian has become home. We’ve sunk roots in its unyielding limestone. I think of the dedicated, exhausted parents in Band Booster shirts at football games flipping burgers just because they love their kids. But I believe those kids and their families are at risk. I believe my family is at risk. And we talk about leaving.

Perhaps our concerns for this community are irrational. Some have said as much. But some compromises should not be made. If I must err, I’ll err on the side of my children.

People get cancer. It happens. But like rattlesnakes on a playground, some things increase risk. And during six weeks in February and March, while the TCEQ was making it easier for TXI and Holcim to pollute the air, five people died of cancer in our small town. All were far too young. One was an eighth-grader, the age of our son Ryan.

Then we learned that a recent Midlothian High School graduate and former band student was gravely ill with leukemia. Julie and I went to address the school board about public health in Midlothian. Julie told the board that too many Midlothian kids were getting sick. Her voice cracked when she mentioned Ryan, our 14-year-old, who in 2002 attended a school across U.S. Highway 67 from Holcim. That year, Holcim discharged 68,000 pounds of benzene, long known to cause leukemia, and paid a fine for violating its permit. Paying the fine was cheaper than installing proper pollution controls for ozone emissions.

I reminded the school board trustees that they have power they are not using. Midlothian ISD—the property-rich district pretending to be poor—gives a cement plant public education money that schoolchildren in Midlothian or Laredo or Plano need. Lawmakers demand accountability of schools. That night, I demanded accountability of those who take from them.

While we addressed the trustees, the room was as heavy and silent as a 40-pound bag of ready mix. I doubted anyone cared. Three years ago, I, too, would have tuned out.

Afterward, we didn’t have much fight left. It was another lonely stab at making a difference. As we retreated from the boardroom, we saw Carrie Kiesling, a young mother we had met through Julie’s web site. She came to hear us speak and brought her beautiful, blond 4-year-old daughter wearing a pink jacket. Since moving to Midlothian, Carrie and her husband Kevin had both been diagnosed with cancer.

She caught up to us outside. “You were so good!” she said. And with a defiant tone, she added: “You made me want to get up there and say something, too!”

Five sets of handprints in concrete might be the only lasting testament to our family’s time in the “Cement Capitol of Texas.” But something important happened that night in Midlothian. It wasn’t that Julie and I had spoken out in public—we had done that before. And it wasn’t the rumble of huge machines ripping limestone from its primordial resting place. It wasn’t the roar of 4000-degree cauldrons or the rhythmic clickety-clack of rail cars, loaded with hazardous wastes, headed for a neighborhood smokestack. It wasn’t the quiet purr of computers calculating cement revenues for the next quarterly report.

What was important was that a feisty young mother, a cancer survivor determined to protect her children, had decided to speak out, too.
Four days later, Julie got an e-mail from Carrie. “I finally did it!” she proclaimed. Carrie said that after she’d left the meeting that night, she’d painted a sign on the window of her Suburban:

     Cement plant wants to turn off
     air pollution controls in Midlothian, TX
     Do we breathe clean air in Midlothian?

Carrie said that a woman had seen the sign and followed her into a gas station parking lot. Carrie wrote, “I could see her running up to my truck. I thought, This is going to be good or it’s going to be bad. Bring it on!” The woman, it turned out, was a Midlothian mother whose children had become sick since she’d moved to town. She wanted to talk about pollution.

Jim Schermbeck was right. He’d told us that years ago he’d come to the conclusion that change in Midlothian would come slowly. One family at a time.

On October 27, 2004, the News laid off 65 newsroom staffers. Julie’s imaginary friends, Jim Frisinger and Timothy O’Leary, lost their jobs. She cried. But after months of being afraid to meet them in person, several days after the layoffs, she accepted an invitation to meet for a lemonade. They would both later find work, Frisinger with the Star-Telegram, O’Leary with the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland.

Julie is convinced their layoffs were related to their coverage of Ellis County and Smokey Joe. In early 2004, after the battle to rein in Ellis’ polluters, Barton met with News brass to discuss the paper’s clean-air stance. Barton also chairs the powerful House Energy and Commerce Committee and has legislative oversight of the EPA and the FCC. The News’ parent company, Belo, wanted Barton’s help regarding digital TV transition. Julie’s theory is that there was a quid pro quo. Go soft on Barton, and maybe Belo would get what it wanted.

Some say she’s crazy. But they don’t know Julie like I do.

No Canaries In the Coal Mine

Think TXI is Midlothian’s problem and not yours? Take a deep breath and read on. 

By Brent Flynn
“One thing we should note right off: what you see coming out of the stack is steam, not smoke.” So begins Texas Industries’ Maurice Osborn during a tour of the company’s sprawling 3,000-acre cement plant and limestone quarry in Midlothian.

It’s an assertion that defies logic. The company’s own publicly available emissions reports show that a toxic mix of sulfuric acid, benzene, toluene, nitrous oxide, and carbon monoxide, among others, is pumped into the air at the end of the cement production process. The Environmental Protection Agency determined last year that Ellis County contributes to the air pollution in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, to a large degree, because of the emissions from three Midlothian cement plants, of which TXI is the largest—and the only one burning hazardous waste to fuel its cement kilns.

But TXI’s environmental manager, Rex Coffman, backs up Osborn’s claim, saying the plumes are “by and large” just water. And plant manager Jim Owens, who wasn’t present during Coffman and Osborn’s comments, also explains that the white clouds coming out of the stacks are water vapor.
Richard Greene disagrees—albeit carefully. As the regional administrator of the EPA in Texas, he takes pains to remain objective. “The emissions are not just limited to what you see and are not just steam,” he says. “Maybe what TXI is saying is the billowing white smoke is not what we’re concerned about.”

That semantic game has some local residents, environmental groups, and officials in nearby counties convinced that they smell something besides just ozone spewing from those cement plants in Midlothian.

How to Make Cement—More Cheaply
TXI produces Portland cement, which was invented in the early 1800s. But in 1987, TXI added a new twist to the production process: burning waste.

Traditionally, Austin Chalk limestone is mined from nearby quarries, ground up, combined with sand and steel slag, and cooked in kilns at temperatures of 2200 to 4000 degrees Fahrenheit. Those kilns are fueled with coal or natural gas. The result is clinker, a black porous rock that is the precursor of cement. The clinker is combined with gypsum and ground into a fine cement powder.

But in 1987, TXI began fueling its kilns with refinery oils, household and industrial solvents, paints, organic chemicals, pesticides, herbicides, and sludges. The practice is made possible by a loophole in the 1976 Federal Resource and Recovery Act, and it is wildly profitable. The waste-derived fuel is better than free. Dozens of cement plants across the country get paid to take it off the hands of chemical plants, oil refineries, and hazardous waste “blenders,” companies that collect mixed wastes from several sources and transport them to disposal sites. And because the cement plants are “recycling” the waste, they are not subject to the same regulations as licensed waste incinerators.

TXI got its permit to burn hazardous waste after a single limited-access public hearing. The general public didn’t find out what the plant was doing until 1989, when a public notice appeared in a local paper publicizing a TXI permit application to increase the amount of hazardous waste it could burn. When Midlothian residents finally learned of the practice, they became curious—not just about TXI’s emissions but about all of the industrial plants in the area.

The Holcim and Ash Grove cement plants, along with TXI-owned Chaparral Steel, found themselves the subjects of public scrutiny. What the concerned citizens found is that Holcim and Ash Grove (formerly North Texas Cement Company) were burning tires and roofing material, and all of the sites were emitting thousands of tons of known and suspected carcinogens, respiratory toxicants, reproductive toxicants, and neuro-toxicants. Of course, by then, nearby ranchers and animal breeders were already noticing birth defects, infertility, and skin diseases in their animals.

Animals that Can’t Breed

Sue Pope and her husband Ralph had been raising horses in Midlothian since 1970 without incident. But in 1989, their mares began having hormone problems and experiencing irregular heat cycles, and their foals were stillborn or malformed. And the reproductive disorders weren’t limited to their ranch.

After 10 horses, belonging to five different owners, were afflicted with reproductive problems, Cedar Hill veterinarian Dr. Mikel Athon wrote to the EPA in 1994 that the cluster represented an “abnormally high incidence … for such a small area and population of horses.”

The Popes finally quit breeding horses in 1994. Their prized stallion, born the same year the toxic waste burning began, has only sired one offspring. It, too, has reproductive disorders. “It just became so sad,” Sue says. “We decided we shouldn’t create more problems, and we were both ill at the time.”

Both Sue and Ralph have had medical problems since the late ’80s. Sue suffered from endometriosis, auto-immune syndrome, severe sinusitis, and upper respiratory problems. At one point Ralph had a hair analysis done that showed high levels of cadmium—one of the chemicals released by the plants and a known carcinogen. He developed prostate cancer in 1997 and is still battling the disease today.

Debbie Markwardt tells a similar story about her Doberman pinschers. She and her husband Cecil  Booth raised them for eight years in Wisconsin, Weatherford, and Mansfield before moving to a ranch about half a mile northwest of TXI and Chaparral Steel in 1988. They weren’t concerned about the plumes coming out of the plants because their real estate agent told them it was just steam.

“In about 1992, we started seeing puppies being born without legs, without tails,” Debbie says. “We saw a lot of deformities in the puppies. Since then we’ve lost 75 dogs to cancer and other deformities.”

A test of the pond water on her property showed high levels of lead, arsenic, and mercury, elements linked to cancer and the reproductive disorders she was seeing in her dogs. According to the EPA’s toxic release inventory, those substances are coming directly out of TXI or Chaparral Steel. Debbie says the illnesses she has seen in her Dobermans over the years are starting to show up in the human population.

Human Health Risks
From the Park Place subdivision, you can see the white plumes roll out of the Holcim smokestacks. On this particular day in March, the wind out of the northwest is sending the white clouds toward T.E. Baxter Elementary, which is just southeast of a stretch of farmland separating the school and the cement plant.

When Christi White moved to the subdivision in 1996, she was less concerned about the strange dust that covered everything in her house than she was about the number of kids with Down syndrome at the local schools. That year, in fact, the Texas Department of Health had investigated and found 12 cases—nearly three times the expected number for the population. White knew none of this when she moved to town. But when her second son was born with a rare genetic skin disease, and then her daughter was born with Down syndrome in 2003, she began looking into what was coming out of the Holcim stacks.

“The summer I was pregnant with my daughter,” she says, “Holcim was fined for putting out two times the legal limit of emissions from their plant.” She finds it more than coincidental that her two children—both conceived in Midlothian—have chromosome disorders. She finds it even more troubling that a child down the street was born with another chromosome disorder. “Where I came from, you don’t go down one street and have three chromosome abnormalities. It’s just not normal. We’re not staying here. We’re moving.”

Tom Baynes and his family did just that after only two and a half years at his Midlothian home in the Overlook Estates subdivision, which is smack dab in the middle of all three cement plants. He spent two years on antibiotics, saw three doctors, had six sinus surgeries, and was forced to file bankruptcy because of medical bills. When his son developed a similar sinus infection, that clinched it.

Baynes moved his family to Burleson in January of this year. He says their health improved immediately. After only six weeks, he and his son were off antibiotics for good. “I think if the plants are putting out crap and know about it, they should tell people,” he says. “They should be looking out for people.”

Dallas: Downwind and At Risk
All of the above, of course, are mere anecdotes; it’s impossible to prove that the Baynes’ sinus infections or Christi White’s child with Down syndrome or the Popes’ stillborn foals have anything to do with the cement plants. And TXI’s Coffman, Owens, and Osborn each say they wouldn’t knowingly pollute the community where their friends, family, and co-workers live. Osborn says, “Our emissions here are either at or below the levels required on our permits. As far as I know, Midlothian still retains the status of being the most tested city in the state of Texas, and they have found nothing.”

Again, this seems to be at least a game of semantics. A study commissioned by the Texas Environmental Resource Consortium did find something. It found that pollution coming from Ellis County industrial plants has a significant impact on the quality of air in Dallas, Tarrant, Collin, and Denton counties. According to the report, plumes of ozone from “large industrial combustion sources in Ellis County” made it the largest ozone contributor of the 12 counties surrounding the four core DFW counties.

This four-county region is designated as a serious one-hour ozone nonattainment area. This means that once a day, ozone levels are measured for a one-hour period. Often, those ozone levels are too high. By 2010, the standard will become even more strict, when ozone levels will be measured for an eight-hour period. If these standards are not met, the region faces losing federal highway funds as well as other sanctions.

Ozone is formed when nitrous oxide, or NOx, is combined with sunlight and heated with volatile organic compounds (VOCs). Asthma, respiratory illness, and cardiovascular disease are all affected by ozone in the air. Meeting the ozone standard requires decreasing emissions of those two ozone components. But that is something U.S. Rep. Joe Barton doesn’t seem eager to do.

Barton, who attended Texas A&M on a four-year Gifford-Hill cement company scholarship, tried to scuttle a previous attempt to include Ellis County in the nonattainment zone by extending the clean-air deadlines in a rider on the 2003 Energy Bill, HR6. According to the Federal Election Commission, when the bill was passed, Barton had received $33,000 from Ellis County industrial sources, $45,000 from the cement industry, and more than $700,000 from industries that stood to benefit from extending the clean-air deadlines.

Last year during the nonattainment fight, Barton was a tireless defender of his constituents. In an op-ed for the Star-Telegram titled “Ellis Is Not the Real Problem,” he wrote, “Ellis is guilty only of having done the right thing and come out ahead, to the anguish of environmentalists.”

Dallas County Judge Margaret Keliher says she had no preconceived notions about whether Ellis County should be included in the nonattainment area and even thought that it would be easier not to include other counties if their ozone contributions were negligible. But then she read the TERC report.

“I could not see us getting to the eight-hour standard without having Ellis County included in the nonattainment area, based on the scientific data that we had,” she says. “Based on that, I did go to Washington and argue that Ellis County should be included in the nonattainment area. If Joe Barton doesn’t believe the science, I just have to say that’s all I have to go on.”

After repeated requests for an interview, Barton’s aide told D Magazine that the congressman “wouldn’t be able to discuss your concerns anytime soon.”

At the last minute, Gov. Rick Perry tried to spare part of Ellis County, suggesting only the northern part be included in the nonattainment zone. But on April 15, 2004, the EPA agreed with Keliher and made all of Ellis part of the Dallas-Fort Worth nonattainment area.

“Poor” Midlothian

With state lawmakers scrambling to find more money for public schools in Texas, it’s interesting to note that the specific part of Ellis County that Perry tried to spare has managed to avoid paying millions of dollars to the school finance system. Immediately to the southwest of Perry’s proposed nonattainment boundary sits a business park called RailPort. It is owned by TXI, and it gets a special tax break.

RailPort includes an expansion of the TXI cement production facility immediately to the northeast, a 1,100-megawatt gas-fired power plant owned by American National Power Company, and distribution facilities for Target and Toys ‘R’ Us. It is all part of a 2,223-acre Tax Increment Reinvestment Zone, or TIRZ. It was established by the City of Midlothian, Ellis County, and the Midlothian Independent School District in 1998 under the guidelines of the Tax Increment Financing Act.

Here’s how it works: according to the proposed Midlothian ISD 2004-05 budget, the combined property value of RailPort is $458 million. Under the TIRZ, the $6.8 million in property taxes that would normally go to the school district instead goes to the Midlothian Development Authority, which uses the money mainly for “public improvements” to the area around the RailPort development.

If Midlothian property doesn’t decrease in value over the next 30 years, the RailPort development will see more than $200 million in tax breaks from the school district alone.

In addition to taking money from Midlothian schools, the TIRZ also takes money out of the state’s school finance system. Midlothian would be considered a Chapter 41 district, or property wealthy district, but because the appraised property value inside the TIRZ is not calculated by the state, Midlothian ISD escapes that designation and avoids paying any money to Robin Hood. In fact, thanks to the TIRZ, Midlothian ISD is considered a Chapter 42 district, or property poor district, and receives about $4 million a year in state aid.

According to the state comptroller’s office, the statewide loss to the public school finance system from districts participating in tax zones like Midlothian’s TIRZ was $99.8 million in 2004. Even worse, the state actually paid those districts $97.8 million in reimbursements because their tax arrangements kept the districts’ true property values off the state’s books.

In 1999, the Legislature cut off the state’s reimbursements to school districts wishing to participate in future tax zones, but Midlothian ISD will still get its reimbursement checks under a grandfather clause.

The Fight Continues

Ellis County’s inclusion in the Dallas-Fort Worth nonattainment area has not stopped TXI and Holcim from trying to increase emissions from their stacks. Both companies have permits pending before the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.

Holcim is seeking a permit to adjust the allowable levels of emissions from the plant resulting from the addition of a second kiln in 1999. Instead of the 30 percent reduction in NOx emissions the company promised, the actual emissions were twice the levels allowed by the state’s air-quality plan. The company was fined $223,000 in 2002, but after it agreed to donate a hazardous waste truck to the Midlothian Fire Department, Holcim’s fine was cut in half.

TXI is requesting a permit to turn off an emissions control technology called a regenerative thermal oxidizer, or RTO. The RTO limits and captures emissions of carbon monoxide, volatile organic compounds, and particulate matter coming out of its No. 5 kiln—the only one that does not burn hazardous waste. The permit seeks to turn off the RTOs during the winter months, when ozone creation is not a problem.

TXI’s Coffman says the RTOs don’t work as efficiently as they are supposed to and that they burn a lot of natural gas. And because the volatile organic compounds released during the winter months would not be contributing to the formation of ozone, running the RTOs doesn’t make sense.

“There’s just no compelling scientific reason to use them at all,” he says. “Our feeling is obviously we don’t want to spend money on it.”

A lawsuit filed against the EPA by several environmental groups seeks, in part, to force an independent study that will finally settle the debate over what impact the plant’s emissions have on human health.

The EPA’s Richard Greene says, “The cement plants might believe we don’t need the study, but they are the only ones.”


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