Monday, January 19, 2009

This Land Is Up For Grabs

Many of us have been involved in environmental work, and knowing our goals are beneficial to all. It's easy to forget that the protection of our common heritage threatens some commercial interests. In enabling physically damaging and polluting industries, the EPA over the past eight years has been deeply involved in pushing for voluntary compliance, a.k.a. noncompliance.

A microcosm of the dangers of that push against protection of our environment is visited in today's Dallas Morning News article in the series "State of Neglect". Midlothian has a degree of infamy in this state, as it houses a cement business and several related chemical production centers.

...political muscle has served the industry well. Year after year in the Legislature, bills favoring the industry have tended to become law, while those the industry opposed usually died quietly.

If some of those failed bills had become law, the Midlothian air study might never have been necessary. Pollution could have been drastically reduced years ago, far below today's levels.

"Our industry is one that people have taken some shots at, as far as quarrying activity or concrete plants or cement kilns," said Michael Stewart, executive director of the Texas Aggregates and Concrete Association. "By and large, we've been successful in fending off those efforts."

Seeking answers

When wondering who might untangle the conflicting claims over local pollution, Mier thought of his former employer, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention – specifically its environmental arm, the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. So he contacted the agency.

"I thought that there would be a team coming out from Atlanta [headquarters]," Mier said.

Instead, the ATSDR did what it frequently does: It farmed the job out to locals, in this case the Texas Department of State Health Services, which had already declared Midlothian industries safe as far back as 1993.

For critics of Austin's support for the industry, state involvement was bad news. "It's a conflict of interest," said Pope. "Have you seen what the highways are made of?"

In charge of the new review was Dr. Richard Beauchamp, the health department's senior medical toxicologist. He had issued the earlier all-clear in the 1990s.

"I had concluded previously that [Midlothian emissions] didn't appear to be a problem except for a few limited things, I think for sulfur dioxide and particulates or something like that," Beauchamp said in a interview.

That was based on summaries environmental regulators provided. This time, the health department asked the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality for the raw data so the department could reach its own conclusion. The health department gathered no new information, a common but controversial approach that saves time and money but often leaves key questions unanswered.

The draft report, issued in December 2007, refused to endorse the previous blanket assurances. Neither, however, did it say there was a problem. Not enough data, the health department said.

The main data gap concerned chromium. The TCEQ believed that virtually all in the local air was trivalent chromium, a low-toxicity type, but had no measurements to back that up.

"They were basing that on their experience at other sites in the state and assuming that the same thing applies to Midlothian," Beauchamp said. "I can't assume that the ratios are going to be the same in Midlothian. I can't really make that conclusion until I see some hard data."

Until proved otherwise, the health department said, it had to assume that people were breathing hexavalent chromium, the most toxic, cancer-causing type. (Emphasis added.)

As environmentalists, I guess we've helped build up an industry, ourselves, the lobbiests committed to destruction of health concerns. Often seen as enemical to pro-business groups, our striding to protect the earth is an effective attractant for the Animal House product. The element that has targeted earth tones and breathable air just naturally stalks the other sort. We happen to be the other sort. It's an ingrained quality that makes what we called AMV (Air Made Visible) from the 50th floor in Dallas unattractive, while it looks like an achievement to the anti-environment sort.

We can't be anything other than positive and oriented toward public interests, so I guess we're doomed to be the object of malcontents who excuse their attitude by claiming it's promoting public prosperity. For the past about twelve years of accumulated proof that public prosperity suffers, rather than prospers, under destruction of environment, as well as of public welfare, I suppose I should be grateful. Sorry, I'm just not inclined that way.

One more day.

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