The Miracle of Our Perpetually-Projected Lady of the Public Hearing

by jim on August 21, 2012

In 2009, when there was an EPA national hearing in DFW on the then-proposed cement plant air pollution rules, the mood was festive.  There was a brand new administration. There was a campaign for a brand new EPA regional chief from our own ranks gearing up. The brand new air pollution rules at the center of the hearing were capping a two-decade old fight to enforce the law. They were symbolic of a shift in momentum. Citizens had won. The event was held in a large hotel ballroom, and indeed, for citizens who had been a part of that fight, it felt like a day-long celebration.

Three years later, the party was over. The newness had worn off. A once "indefensible" Bush-era ozone standard that was going to be replaced, was instead adopted by the new administration. Dr. Al had won appointment, only to pummeled into resignation by a political mugging that left even the most cynical shaking their heads. Grim persistence was the most common trait shared among the citizens who faithfully trooped to Arlington City Hall for last Thursday's national EPA hearing, where those same rules were now under attack by the Agency itself. It may have only been three calendar years, but that ballroom scene seemed sepia-toned distant now.

Which makes the attendance at Thursday's hearing more remarkable in some ways than the large crowd that gathered in 2009. Then, clean air advocates occupied 88 out of around 93 or so speaker slots available for the all-day hearing. Last week, they occupied 83 out of 86 slots. The faithful were coming, but they weren't happy about it. Isn't that always the case in these stories? Right before the faithful are rewarded with a sign?

The first speaker of the day was young Andy O'Hare of the Portland Cement Association, who, despite being on what appears to be the winning side of this battle, didn't look like he was having a good time. He dutifully and stiffly read a prepared statement that took a pro-delay stance and applauded EPA for being reasonable, i.e. agreeing with the PCA. Justification for the delay was evidenced with the help of a laminated multi-colored poster of a seven-step explanation/timeline that he held up himself without aid of easel or stand. "This timeline," he said as his unsteady grasp floated the graphic on a sea of nervous energy, "reflected the fact that the industry had concluded without a doubt that it would need exactly two years to adapt to the rules. You just had to add up the steps." It looked enough like a high school science fair project at this point for you to wonder why this industry can't invest in better PR help. We're losing to these guys?

Except from some of the same kind of praise by the Texas Cement Council, and the obligatory "We don't even agree tighter standards are necessary" rhetoric from the Texas Association of Business representative, that was the extent of testimony in favor of EPA's last-minute rollback. No individual cement manufacturers spoke. Not even TXI, headquartered only about 20 miles away in Dallas. They must think they have it in the bag.

Following O'Hare, Downwinders Director Jim Schermbeck testified in the place of Downwinders' matriarch and founder Sue Pope. News came on Friday that doctors told the 72-year old Midlothian rancher that she needed a heart transplant. Everyone thought it was a good idea for her to sit the hearing out.

But Schermbeck didn't let that happen. Not exactly. Even before any testimony began, he projected a picture of Pope on a screen above the proceedings. She was staring down at Andy when he testified. Maybe that's what made him nervous.

"These are not industry's rules. These are not EPA's rules. They are Sue Pope's rules, and you shouldn't be messing with them," said Schermbeck. Tracing Pope's 25-year fight to reduce pollution in her hometown, he told the EPA panel she and a handful of others were actually responsible for the rules and it was now destroying them. "EPA has shat on everything Sue Pope has worked for with these proposed revisions, and it should be deeply, deeply, ashamed." He concluded his five minutes by feeding a letter-size version of the same picture of Pope that was being projected larger than life into the desk-size shredder that had been donated for the purpose of telling EPA what they were destroying with their rollback. Schermbeck said the proposed delay and revision was now destroying the woman herself.

Schermbeck wanted to leave that larger-than-life image of Sue up on the screen for as long as anyone in charge would allow. He wanted it to hang like a spectre over the entire day's proceedings. But he knew the screen saver feature on his computer powering the projection would eventually kick-in and make everything go dark. It always does. He's been doing presentations with this combination of equipment for years now and it always goes dark after 10-15 minutes. He'd forgotten to turn it off for this hearing, and now it was going to kick in any minute.

Only it didn't. He kept waiting and waiting. The screen saver never came on. A five-foot Sue Pope head remained there, hovering over the Council Chamber, with eyes as large as dinner plates looking down and directly at the EPA officials taking testimony (Howdy Keith Barnett!), all day long, all 10 hours. Sue Pope was the Alpha and Omega of the hearing.

It wasn't a piece of toast or a tree trunk. But through some unexplainable mix-up of electrons, a real true life saint did make an appearance at the EPA hearing. The official minutes won't reflect it, but for the faithful, the sign was clear: Never, never, never, never, never, never, never ever give up.

Under Ms.Pope's gaze, there was a long parade of poignant and moving testimonials, most finding different ways to say "hell no" five minutes at a time.

Clint Forsvall talked about the thousands of tons of Mercury the EPA's proposed delay would dump into the air, and why, as a parent of an autistic child, that was abhorrent to him. Midlothian resident Alexandra Allred spoke about how often she's had to take her son to the emergency room for middle-of-the-night asthma attacks.

The Galemore family from Chanute, Kansas came and educated everyone on what it's like to live in an isolated cement company town where hazardous waste is still being burned and where there's no independent media, or effective government oversight. Susan Falzone from Hudson, New York came and talked about the 100-year old history of cement plant pollution in that precious river valley. Kemp Burdette from Riverkeepers in North Carolina took on the proposed giant Titan plant. Stephanie Maddin from EarthJustice in DC spoke on behalf of those that couldn't make it to Arlington due to the ridiculous 11-day notice.

Local COPD victim Harriet Irby testified why every little big of air pollution reduction helps her in the daily chore of breathing. Arlington regular thorn-in-the-side-of industry Kim Feil was there with Ben Zene. Retired physician Dr. Robert Portman gave a primer on Particulate Matter pollution. Someone showed up at the last minute after hearing about it only that day to plead for less poisons in the air. It was, she said, important to her.

Most impressive was how so many people that had come to praise EPA in 2009 now came trudging back to try and do their part to keep the rules intact. These are people who know the power of persistence, even when it's in the cause of a rearguard action that shouldn't even be taking place.

Given EPA's transparent intent to steamroll the revisions into law, did we do any good at all? We don't know. But we did our job. EPA tried to make it impossible to get people to come and show their outrage. People, lots of people, came anyway. EPA may still go through with these senseless revisions, but they'll have to do it without a scintilla of public support. We robbed them of that fig leaf.

And we don't know about you, but we're taking the miracle of Our Perpetually-Projected Lady of the Public Hearing as a sign that, although it's highly unlikely that a woman with no technical training, no money, and no political support can, with the help of other similarly-deranged citizens, eventually bring an entire national industry kicking and screaming into the 21st Century… can happen.

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