CO2-Cement conversionCement plants are among the world's largest sources of CO2. In order to reduce their carbon footprints, either voluntarily or to comply with new environmental regulations, as well as make a buck, owners are trying out different strategies to turn their Greenhouse Gases into just plain green cash. 

As far as we can tell, the "SkyMine" pilot-project announced for San Antonio's Capital Aggregates Cement Plant is still on schedule  for operation later this year. Employing 50 people, the first-of-its-kind facility will convert the cement plant's carbon dioxide into baking soda and hydrochloric acid that's aimed at oil and gas field use.

Now comes word that a LaFarge Cement Plant in Canada is hooking up with a fuel cell company to make a slightly more progressive product from its GHGs:

"Mantra Energy Alternatives has struck a deal with Lafarge Canada to deploy an electrochemical reduction technology at Lafarge’s No. 9 Road cement plant.

“This will be the first pilot plant of its kind in the world,” said Mantra’s vice-president Patrick Dodd in a press release.

On paper, the technology would convert carbon dioxide, considered the most prolific greenhouse gas, into useful chemicals like formic acid and formate salts. The pilot plant would convert 100 kilograms per day of carbon dioxide emitted from the local cement plant into concentrated formate salts, which sell for about $1,500 per tonne.

Mantra is eying the formic acid for use in its patented fuel cells, which it bills as a significantly less expensive fuel cell with greater power density."

Granted, the manufacturing of oil and gas chemicals sounds more likely for one of the three huge Midlothian cement plants to attempt than diving into the alternative energy business, but at least it's something. The end products can change and adapt but these projects begin to put the infrastructure of a supply and demand system in place while seeing potentially large decreases in CO2 output. In 2014 America, the fastest way to get reductions in GHGs is to make it profitable to do so. These experiments pave the way for that to happen.

There's no question that the TX/ Martin-Marietta, Holcim and Ash Grove cement plants are the largest stationary sources of CO2 in North Texas, or that together, they form a huge GHG hotspot. All the old coal-fired power plants that would have challenged them have been shuddered or converted to gas.

While (forced) modernization at all three plants like the conversion from wet to dry kiln technology has brought all emission totals down, particularly CO2, the fact remains that the huge scale of operations in Midlothian means there's no other facilities that churn it out as much. And yet not one creative idea for how to reduce those huge local emissions has been announced from any of those companies. You can't just use the Texas excuse because the San Antonio experiment is happening despite no immediate government mandate, especially on existing facilities. And you might think that the first company to do so would receive some needed good PR. But nope.

This has been another chapter of "Why Don't We See This in Midlothian?"

Downwinders' INHALER FIST 1 copySometimes it takes a perspective above the grind of trench warfare to give you a better sense of what the entire battlefield looks like. That's what UT Law Professor Rachel Rawlins has done for Barnett Shale activists with the recent publication of her article "Planning for Fracking on the Barnett Shale: Urban Air Pollution, Improving Health Based Regulation, and the Role of Local Governments" in the new Virginia Environmental Law Review. 

Don't let the academic title fool you. This is a call for a radically new approach to how communities in Texas regulate the risks of fracking, and every other type of heavy industry. We put the link up for the piece on our Facebook page on Saturday based on a quick reading of its commentary on the Flower Mound cancer cluster, but it's more, so much more than that. Among other things, it's a comprehensive rebuttal of every claim of safety and well-being ever issued by the industry or state authorities about the health of residents living in the Barnett Shale, of which the Flower Mound case is only one example. Rawlins has produced a one-stop catalog of each major air pollution health controversy in the Barnett since concerns began to grow in the last decade, with an almost 30-page review of why no industry or government-sponsored study of fracking pollution and its health effects is a satisfactory response to those concerns. Want to convince your local officials that fracking isn't as safe as it's touted? Here's the staggering blow-by-blow commentary to do it.

But all of that documentation is presented in service to making the point that current state and federal regulation of fracking is failing to protect public health, both in design and in practice.  Professor Rawlins' solution to this problem is not to give the state and federal government more power to regulate the gas industry. No, it's to turn the current regulatory framework upside down and give more power to local governments to do the things that the state and federal government should be doing.

In making this recommendation, she echoes the strategy that's been driving Downwinders since it was founded – that the best way to regulate pollution problems is at the local level where the most harm is being done, and it should be directed by the people being harmed. This is what drove our Green Cement campaign that closed the last obsolete wet cement kiln in Texas. This is what fueled our campaign to close down the trailer park-come-lead smelter in Frisco. And it's what was behind the recent Dallas fights over drilling. In each case, it wasn't Austin or Washington DC that was the instrument of change – it was local governments, pressed by their constituents, flexing their regulatory powers. The same thing is driving activists in Denton who are organizing the ban fracking petition drive and vote.

This strategy avoids battles where industry is strongest – in the halls of the state capitol and in DC, where citizens are outspent millions to one. Instead, it takes the fight to neighborhoods where the harm is being done or proposed, where people have the most to lose, where the heat that can be applied to elected officials is more intense. Citizens will still get outspent, but the money doesn't seem to buy corporations as much influence among those actually breathing the fumes of the drilling site, or smokestack.

Particularly now, with corporate-friendly faux-Tea Party types in control of state government and the House of Representatives in DC, there is little room for grassroots campaigns to make a difference by passing new legislation.  Even if by some miracle a few bills did pass, their enforcement would be up to the same state or federal agencies that are currently failing citizens. Local is more direct, and more accountable. Professor Rawlins agrees, and spends most of the rest of her 81-page journal article citing the ways in which local control of fracking in the Barnett Shale is hampered by the out-dated top-down approach to regulation, and what should be done to fix that.

Included in her recommendations are two long-term Downwinders projects: Allowing local governments to close the "off-sets" loophole for the gas industry that exempts them from having to compensate for their smog-forming pollution in already smoggy areas like DFW, and creating California-like local air pollution control districts that could set their own health based exposure standards and pollution control measures without having to go through Austin or DC. 

If there's a single major fault in Rawlins's analysis, it's that she believes more local control of pollution risks is itself dependent on action by an unwilling state government. But Downwinders and others have shown that isn't true. Our most significant and far-reaching victories – from the closing of the Midlothian wet kilns to the new Dallas drilling ordinance – have all taken place while Rick Perry was Governor and the state legislature was in the hands of our opponents. We did these things despite Austin, not because we had its permission. Local zoning laws, local permitting rules, local nuisance acts, and other local powers are under-utilized by both residents and their elected officials when it comes to pollution hazards.

The same is true now of Downwinders' off-sets campaign aimed at the gas industry. We think we've found a way to avoid the "preemption" argument that would keep local governments from acting on smog pollution from gas sources by aiming the off-sets at Greenhouse gases – an area of regulation Texas is loathe to enter. By targeting GHG reduction, we also reduce a lot of toxic and smog-forming air pollution. It's a back door way, but it accomplishes the same goal. It's going to be up to Texas activists to sew similar small threads of change through an otherwise hostile political environment.

Even given that flaw, Professor Rawlins' introduction to her article is the most concise summary of the air pollution problems caused by gas mining and production in the Barnett, as well as the most credible call to action for a new way of doing business there. Here it is reprinted in full for your consideration:

In the last decade hydraulic fracturing for natural gas has exploded on the Barnett Shale in Texas. The region is now home to the most intensive hydraulic fracking and gas production activities ever undertaken in densely urbanized areas. Faced with minimal state and federal regulation, Texas cities are on the front line in the effort to figure out how best to balance industry, land use, and environmental concerns. Local governments in Texas, however, do not currently have the regulatory authority, capacity, or the information required to closet he regulatory gap. Using the community experience on the Barnett Shale as a case study, this article focuses on the legal and regulatory framework governing air emissions and proposes changes to the current regulatory structure.

Under both the state and federal programs, the regulation of hazardous air emissions from gas operations is based largely on questions of cost and available technology. There is no comprehensive cumulative risk assessment to consider the potential impact to public health in urban areas. Drilling operations are being conducted in residential areas. Residents living in close proximity to gas operations on the Barnett Shale have voiced serious concerns for their health, which have yet to be comprehensively evaluated. Given the complexityof the science, and the dearth of clear, transparent, and enforceable standards, inadequate studies and limited statistical analysis have been allowed to provide potentially false assurances. The politically expedient bottom line dominates with little attention paid to the quality of the science or the adequacy of the standards.

Determining and applying comprehensive health-based standards for hazardous air pollutants has been largely abandoned at the federal level given uncertainties in the science, difficulties of determining and
measuring “safe” levels of toxic pollutants, and the potential for economic disruption. Neither the state nor the federal government has set enforceable ambient standards for hazardous air pollutants.

Identifying cumulative air pollution problems that may occur in urban areas, the State of California has called upon local governments to identify “hot spots” and to consider air quality issues in their planning and zoning actions. In Texas, however, preemption discussions dominate the analysis. Any local government regulation that might provide protection from toxic air emissions otherwise regulated by the State must be justified by some other public purpose.

Texas should consider authorizing and encouraging local level air quality planning for industrial activities, similar to what California has done. Care should be taken to separate these facilities from sensitive receptors and “hot spots” that may already be burdened with excessive hazardous air emissions. Given the difficulty of the task, there is also an important role for the state and federal governments in working to establish ambient standards for hazardous air pollutants, as well as standards for health based assessment and public communication. The uncertainty inherent in any of these standards should be made clear and accessible to local governments so that it may be considered in making appropriate and protective land use decisions. Texas should consider allowing local governments to have the power to establish ambient air quality standards, emissions limitations, monitoring, reporting, and offsets for hazardous air pollutants, following the model applied to conventional air pollutants pursuant to the federal program.

Professor Rawlins' article provides Barnett Shale activists with a new map to guide them toward more effective action. We'd all do well to study it and pick local battles that promise to contribute toward its realization.

Smoggy-FWThis is why it's important for citizens to have real scientific horsepower.

DFW has a smog problem. It's not as bad as it used to be, but it's still at unsafe and illegal levels. And for the last four or five years, the air quality progress that should have been made has been stymied. Despite almost all large sources of smog-producing pollution being reduced in volume, our running average for ozone is actually a part per billion higher than it was in 2009.

Many local activists believe this lack of progress is due to the huge volumes of smog-producing air pollution being generated by the thousands of individual natural gas sites throughout the DFW region itself, as well as upwind gas and oil plays. In 2012, a Houston-based think tank released a report showing how a single gas flare or compressor could significantly impact downwind smog levels for up to 5 mile or more.  Industry and the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality say no, gas sources are not significant contributors to DFW smog. In fact, during this current round of planning, the state has gone out of its way to downplay the impact of gas pollution, including rolling back previous emission inventories and inventing new ways to estimates emissions from large facilities like compressor stations.

Into this debate steps a UNT graduate student offering a simple and eloquent scientific analysis that uses the state's own data on smog to indict the gas industry for its chronic persistence in DFW – especially in the western part of he Metromess, where Barnett Shale production is concentrated.

On Monday night Denton Record-Chronicle reporter Peggy Heinkel-Wolfe gave a summary of a presentation on local air quality she'd sat through that day at UNT:

"Graduate student Mahdi Ahmadi, working with his advisor, Dr. Kuruvilla John, downloaded the ozone air monitoring data from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality back to 1997, a total of more than 6.5 million data points, he said, and has been studying it for the past four months.

Ahmadi wanted to explore a basic question underlying a graphic frequently distributed by the TCEQ that shows gas wells going up in DFW as ozone goes down, which suggests in a not-very-scientific-at-all way, that the increasing number of gas wells is having no effect on the ozone.

Ahmadi adjusted for meteorological conditions to determine how much ozone DFW people are making and where. Such adjustments have been explored by others to understand better the parts of ozone-making we can control, because we can’t control the weather. He used an advanced statistical method on the data, called the Kolmogorov-Zurbenko filter, to separate the effects of atmospheric parameters from human activities.

According to the results, the air monitoring sites surrounded by oil and gas production activities, generally on the west side of DFW, show worse long-term trends in ozone reduction than those located farther from wells on the east side of DFW.

His spatial analysis of the data showed that ozone distribution has been disproportionally changed and appears linked to production activities, perhaps an explanation why residents on the western side of DFW are seeing more locally produced ozone, particularly since 2008.

Ahmadi's results are not definitive, and the paper he's writing is still a work-in-progress. But he's asking the right questions, and challenging the right unproven assumptions. He's at least put forth an hypothesis and is trying to prove or disprove it. He's using science. TCEQ's approach is all faith-based.

Anything that takes the focus off vehicle pollution is anathema to Austin and many local officials who want to pretend that industrial sources of air pollution don't impact the DFW region enough to make a difference so they don't have to regulate them. If there's a guiding principle to TCEQ's approach to this new clean air plan, due in July 2015, it's to avoid any excuse for new regulations while Rick Perry is running for President. The agency isn't interested in doing any kind of science that might challenge that perspective – no matter how persuasive. After all, you're talking about a group that doesn't believe smog is bad for you. TCEQ doesn't want to know the truth. It can't handle the truth. It's got an ideology and it's stickin' to it.

So it's up to young lowly graduate students from state universities armed only with a healthy sense of scientific curiosity to step up and start suggesting that the Emperor's computer model has no clothes, and offering up alternative scenarios to explain why DFW air quality is stuck in neutral. It turns out, just doing straight-up classroom science is enough to threaten the fragile House of Computer Cards with which the state's air plan is being built.

Perhaps equally as ominous for the success fo any new clean air plan is Ahmadi's discovery that ozone levels in DFW have been during the winter time, or "off-ozone-season." There could be a new normal, higher background level of smog affecting public health almost year round.

Mahdi Ahmadi's study is just one of the many that need to be done to construct an honest clean air plan for DFW, but it shows you what a curious mind and some computing power can do. Citizens can't trust the state to do the basic science necessary as long as the current cast of characters is running the show in Austin. EPA won't step in and stop the farce as long as TCEQ can make things work out on paper. If the scientific method is going to get used to build a better DFW clean air plan, it's going to have to be citizens who apply it.

ANGF facility in Topock, ArizonaIf you're already hosting the three or four largest single sources of air pollution in the entire region you need new large industrial sources of crap like a hole in the head. Likewise, if you've already violated the Clean Air Act for decades the last thing you need are new large sources of smog-producing pollution.  But that's exactly what's happening with the announcement last week that a new Liquified Natural Gas (LNG) plant is being proposed for Midlothian's Railport Industrial Park, located between Midlothian and Venus on Highway 67, directly below, and upwind, of the Dallas-Tarrant County line.

Applied Natural Gas Fuels (ANGF) put out a press release on March 21st that touted the purchase of 31 acres for a facility that would house "five liquefaction units, each able to produce 86,000 gallons of fuel daily, and total onsite storage of 1.5 million LNG gallons."


"In preparation of building the facility, which was announced last September, ANGF has purchase orders for all long-lead time items, such as storage tanks, production skids and electric motors and compressors, the company said.

The plant seeks to supply both road transportation and other off-road high-horsepower applications, such as rail, marine, mining, remote power generation and oilfield exploration/production (E&P) operations."

LNG plants take natural gas and cool it to minus 260 degrees F, at which point it becomes a liquid. This allows the industry to be able to store and move it compactly. It's been described as reducing the air out of a beach ball to shrink it to the size of a ping pong ball.  But it also greatly increases the chances of accidents. If there's a leak or spill from a tank or pipeline the LNG would convert back to a gas. As it diluted with air, the natural gas/air mixture could become potentially explosive if the concentration of natural gas in air reached between 4% and 17%. In this range, any source of ignition (cell phone, cigarette lighter, attic fan, light switch, auto or boat engine spark plug, carpet spark, etc.) could ignite a vapor cloud and impact a large area.


ANGF already operates an LNG plant in Topock, Arizona, only three miles on the other side of California's border – and tougher regulations. At the same time it's building its new facility in Texas, the company is also doubling the capacity of the Arizona plant. According to an online document about the company's current operations from the Southern California Air Pollution Control District,


"…the gas must be stripped of impurities until it's over 98% methane. Co2, H2S, other sulfur components, moisture, mercury, and particles are stripped via acid gas removal and disposal, gas dehydration, mercury removal, and particle filtration…. The emissions associated with these processes include CO, VOC, SOx, NOx, H2S, particulates, and many toxic organic compounds."

That's Carbon Monoxide, a poison everyone's familiar with, Volatile Organic Compounds, a smog-producing class of chemicals like Benzene and Toluene, many of which are also carcinogenic, Sulfur Dioxide, a respiratory irritant which also causes acid rain, Nitrogen Oxide, a smog-producing respiratory irritant, PM pollution that's been linked to everything from heart attacks to Parkinson's, Mercury, a notorious neurotoxin, and oh yes, Hydrogen Sulfide, or "sour gas," a highly toxic and flammable poison that causes pulmonary edema at low concentrations and death at high ones.


We don't have specific annual volumes of those pollutants for the Midlothian plant yet, and may never get them if the facility receives a standard permit with only an upper ceiling of emissions, but LNG plants use a lot of energy, and therefore have the potential to emit a lot of air pollution. It appears that the Midlothian plant will be burning natural gas for its power, including huge gas turbine compressors. At much larger LNG export plants proposed for the coasts, these compressors have been the subject of a lot of concern.  Last November, a Canadian wildlife conservation group released a report on a string of proposed LNG plants for British Columbia that estimated the facilities would be burning most of the gas used in the Province,


"The report, Air Advisory: The Air Quality Impacts of Liquefied Natural Gas Operations Proposed for Kitimat, B.C., concluded LNG plants permitted to operate primarily with natural gas will collectively burn 60 per cent of all the natural gas burned annually in B.C.

The report concluded nitrogen oxide emissions from the LNG plants would increase 500 per cent above existing levels. Nitrogen oxide emissions create acid rain, which harms waterways and fish and creates smog, which causes respiratory problems for children and the elderly, the report states.

The report also concluded natural gas driven LNG plants will increase emissions in the Kitimat area of volatile organic compounds, carbon monoxide and sulphur dioxide."

As a result of these kinds of concerns, the Canadian government committed to spending over a half million dollars on a study of how the gas industry will affect air quality in this part of British Columbia.

The Midlothian plant will be much smaller, put its impact on local and regional air quality could still be substantial depending on the design and technology. Industrial Hydrogen Sulfide and VOCs are not something you want wafting into your backyard, and anything that makes more smog is bad news for the entire DFW region.

Locating in Railport – itself a piece of heavy-metal contaminated ranch property bought and developed by TXI to prevent further liability issues – the LNG plant adds to the inventory of polluters that call Midlothian home. Three large cement plants, a steel mill, a gas power plant, and other smaller entities have made sure the city is the closest thing to a DFW Ship Channel that we have. Collectively, these facilities emit a kind of super plume of air pollution that spews north into the middle of the Metromess during most of the year. If you live anywhere from SW Dallas to NW Tarrant County, you're already breathing the pollution from Midlothian industry. How much the ANGF facility will add to that plume is not yet known, but any increase is going in the wrong direction. Stay tuned.

traffic jam_EQAfter a review of over 30 years of studies, the Centers for Disease Control concluded that children living near high-volume roads and highways were 50% more likely to suffer from childhood leukemia. The cancer risk is linked to postnatal exposure.

In the April issue of the American Journal of Preventative Medicine, researchers for the CDC explain how they examined all the published studies concerning traffic air pollution risks from 1980 to July of 201. Out of nine relevant studies, seven, covering approximately 8,000 children, reveled a correlation between exposure and leukemia.

"The review found that children diagnosed with leukemia were "50% more likely to live near busy roads than children without leukemia," said Vickie Boothe, a CDC health scientist and lead author of the Journal article. "While the study found a link, it does not prove that living near a busy road causes leukemia."

Previous studies have linked proximity to road traffic with higher childhood asthma and autism rates.

PlanningOver the last couple of months, the victory by residents to impose a "de facto ban" on fracking in Dallas has been invoked as a rallying cry by citizens in a number of different places. From Denton, to Mansfield, to Los Angeles, to Move On, the fact that JR's hometown has made it difficult to drill with impunity is seen as a significant blow to the relentless rolling wave of rigs, tanks and pipes that's transformed DFW into an urban gas field over the past decade. It's given aid and comfort to those trying to face down the gas industry elsewhere, and provided a more progressive model of regulation.

That isn't a happy accident of a local NIMBY fight. It's by design. Four years ago, it was the intent of Dallas organizers to make it so, and it was absolutely essential to Downwinders that the Dallas fight be a strategic one, that it have reverberations far beyond the city's limits.

In 2010, Downwinders had to justify why it wanted to take on fracking in Dallas. The group had just transformed itself from one concerned mostly with local cement plant air pollution to one taking up the cause of the entire DFW airshed. If we were jumping into the fracking controversy for the first time, where would we land? Why Dallas and not someplace else? How could we be sure our investment of scarce organizational resources would benefit clean air and environmental health more in this fight than others?

The Timing: Dallas was the last city in the Barnett to actually process gas well permits. It still hadn't done so in 2010 when the City Plan Commission was gearing up for its first "Special Use Permit" hearings. Despite most of the western side of the Metromess already being inundated by industry, fracking was a fresh fight over a new kind of industrial activity that Dallas hadn't hosted. Any one who's done this before will tell you it's always easier to stop something new than after it already starts.  They'll also tell you that when you have a choice, don't engage the opposition on their own turf. Try to play on your own field or at least a neutral one. Dallas offered the last and best chance in the Barnett to fight fracking as a new thing on a neutral field.

The Issue: Because the exemptions fracking needed to operate in urban areas only became reality in the 2005 Energy Bill, examination of its external environmental costs took a while to, er, surface. But research was finally beginning to catch up to the facts. In 2009, Downwinders' consultant, SMU Professor, and future EPA Regional Administrator Al Armendariz's landmark report for EDF on smog pollution from the gas industry was the information that made many of us sit up and take notice of fracking as a threat to regional air quality. Through its leadership in the cement plant wars, Downwinders had worked its way into the DFW air quality planning process. We knew smog. We didn't know gas mining made smog much worse – and neither did anyone else  – until Al's report. His work demonstrated why drilling in North Texas would make it harder for the area to quit violating the Clean Air Act. As a group that had just changed its mission to protect North Texas air quality, this was information hard to ignore. Suddenly the fight against urban fracking in Dallas was a new front in an old war.

The Politics: Dallas had been an ally of Downwinders in the cement wars, passing the first "green cement" procurement ordinance in the nation in 2007. Mayor Laura Miller lead the fight against Rick Perry's rush to permit over a dozen new dirty coal plants. It was a leader among local municipalities in addressing climate change and actually had an annual goal of reducing its carbon footprint as a city. It paid lip service to the language of "sustainability."  Dallas was traditionally more progressive than other city governments on environmental issues (don't laugh). We could use all of this past action and rhetoric – especially on smog – to press our case in Big D in a way that no other local government allowed, because it had the record of concern. Always use your opponent's language against them if you can. From an environmental point of view, if you couldn't get green-friendly Dallas to pass a better, more modern drilling policy, you were going to have a hard time doing it any place else in the Barnett.

At the same time, the then-current city council was seeing the rise of a new generation of Dallas political leadership through Angela Hunt sparring with the old establishment. One of her issues was gas drilling in Dallas. Organizers already had a friend on the horseshoe.

The Stage: Much to the chagrin of Fort Worth, Arlington and other North Texas cities, Dallas is the flagship for the region. It's still the region's largest municipality. It's still the region's media center. It's home to the Cowboys, and JR, and the Triple Underpass. Things that happen in Dallas tend to get more coverage than they would if they were taking place in, say, Mesquite, or Burleson. Politics is under more of a microscope. There are still reporters assigned to cover nothing but City Hall goins-on. There were plenty of gas permit fights in play in 2010. But only those in Dallas promised to provide the kind of oversized stage with the potential for blow-by-blow reporting of the battle that would transform the permit fights into the Dallas Gas Wars.

The Definition of Winning: You don't hear anybody going around boasting about how hard residents fought before they lost the fight to completely ban fracking in Dallas out right. But that would have been the result had residents listened to the most strident voices among their ranks. There were calls for a direct up or down vote on fracking in Dallas, and for residents to settle for nothing less than a complete ban. That result was politically impossible with the City Council in office in 2010. It was still impossible in December of 2013 when the council cast its 9-6 vote for the "de facto ban" ordinance (and after a majority voted in favor of the Trinity East permits in August).

Believe it or not, there are still those hardy resisters who think the December ordinance vote is a huge defeat and allows for rampant drilling in Dallas . Fortunately, most everyone else, including and the industry itself, sees the new ordinance for what it is – a very high bar for the pursuit of fracking in Dallas that's unlikely to be met any time soon, if ever, given the nature of operators to seek the path of least resistance.

For Downwinders, and most of the residents involved, it was better to win the war on the ground and lose the semantics battle, rather than fight the good fight with the politically-correct language and lose the war.

You have to pick your battles carefully.

Not many people know the story of Claudette Colvin. Nine months before Rosa Parks made headlines and began the Birmingham Bus Boycott that would initiate the modern civil rights movement, Ms. Colvin was arrested for violating the same segregationist law against black folk riding in the front of a Birmingham city bus. It was a righteous battle, but she was a high school student and an unwed mother. She wasn't considered the right test case for a national fight all the way to the Supreme Court, where public opinion would be crucial to winning. Instead, the NAACP picked one of its own. The matronly Parks was the chapter's local secretary and considered a more sympathetic figure. They were right.

Would the Court have ruled the same for a Claudette Colvin? Nobody knows, but the strategic thinking of segregation's opponents made sure the best circumstances were in place for significant change to happen. That's all an organizer can do. But it's something that must get done in order for victories like the Dallas ordinance to have the kind of disproportional reverberations it's having now.

Magnabelend fireOnce you read the damning testimony of Magnablend's own employees in the Waxahachie Daily Light coverage of the trial, you only wondered how long it would take for the company to settle with James Barron, who claimed the October 3rd explosion and fire at the chemical blending facility had resulted in permanent neurological damage.

The answer was: one week.

There was one important footnote to pause and ponder. If one reads between the lines of testimony, the implication is the company's new expansion into supplying the fracking industry's chemical needs was behind the 2011 accident, which sent smoke wafting all the way into downtown Dallas.

In cross-examination of company supervisors, it came out that despite Magnablend beginning to manufacture "new blends of chemicals" it was unfamiliar with, the company's on-site chemist wasn't reading the product information that came with the new chemicals. Ventilation in the facility might have been adequate for the kind of chemicals it had historically blended, but it was unable to cope with the build-up of hydrogen that formed when the new batch of chemicals were blended. It's that hydrogen cloud that caused the explosion and fire.

So is Magnablend still blending chemicals for the fracking industry? Is there still a potential for the same kind of accident to occur? if they aren't doing this kind of blending anymore, who is? What facilities are dealing with the same chemicals Magnablend was mixing, and where are they located? Nobody had ever heard of Magnablend before it blew up. Is there another heretofore unknown manufacturer who's taking the same risks without their neighbors knowing it? You can count on it. 

Terms of the settlement with Barron were not made public. Magnablend still faces 21 other civil cases arising from the 2011 accident.

Cover-upRemember how the gas and oil industry was going to police itself by voluntarily disclosing all those nasty chemicals they put in "fracking fluids" in one easy-to-access-online database? Frac Focus was the 21st Century template for a new level of government-industry cooperation, hailed by Reasonable People everywhere as the answer to getting the truth about what chemicals were really being injected and regurgitated during a frack job. Finally, there would be much needed industry transparency.

Turns out. Not so much.

"Oil companies are shielding too much information from public view in an industry-backed database for disclosing chemicals used in oil and gas wells, engineers, environmentalists and energy experts told the Obama administration on Thursday.

The FracFocus registry also contains errors that undermine its role as the leading mechanism for tracking hydraulic fracturing chemicals used in unconventional oil and gas production, said an Energy Department advisory board."

This was no tree-huggers' group making that criticism. It's an advisory board that includes Texas A&M University’s Stephen Holditch, Ram Shenoy with ConocoPhillips, and former Assistant Secretary of Energy Susan Tierney.

As predicted by citizens, the major problem is that companies still want to hide behind the "trade secrets" exemptions and not fully disclose what's in the witches' brew of chemicals they're using.

According to the advisory board, 84 percent of the wells registered in FracFocus invoked a trade secret exemption for at least one chemical since June 1, 2013. In Texas alone, 5,509 of the 6,406 disclosures made in the same time frame invoked a trade secret exception.

So much for transparency. This is exactly why municipalities and states must insist on real full disclosure in their own local ordinances and laws instead of relying on an industry-financed website.

divorceAfter a brief honeymoon, is it Splitsville for the 2012 clean-up agreement between Exide and the City of Frisco? And if their shotgun marriage is breaking apart, what are the implications for Frisco residents and the surrounding area, including Lake Lewisville, a source of drinking water for Dallas that sits directly downstream of what now may become a Superfund site?

On February 25th, Channel 11 broke the story that, after almost two years of assuming the settlement would guide clean-up efforts, the City of Frisco doesn't "know if the company will stick with the deal or walk away from it until the company files a reorganization plan by the end of May."

That's a big deal. Having declared bankruptcy last year, Exide is now dealing with thousands of creditors with competing claims. Frisco is only one of them, and only one of a half dozen closed or operating lead smelter sites that are also suffering from contamination. If the City's deal with the company can't survive the bankruptcy process, all the current planning for clean-up and redevelopment of the outer ring of Exide will be derailed. And that's important because the settlement has been the Frisco City Council's justification for not opening up the fate of the property to more public discussion, like whether residents would prefer building a toxic landfill and keeping Exide's waste in town, or cleaning up the entire sire and hauling off all contamination to allow for normal development. 

It's also important because without the city's deal in place, and Exide in bankruptcy court, there is no Plan B to prevent the entire site from becoming an EPA federal Superfund site, exactly the same way the still languishing RSR lead smelter site in West Dallas ended up as as Superfund site in the early 1990's after that company went belly up. It's a designation that Frisco officials are known to dread.

There have been signs of trouble with the agreement for months now.  According to documents filed by the City of Frisco in federal bankruptcy court last December, Exide is in default on its agreement with the City, and risks further claims of breaches, as well as “fraud in the negotiation, execution, and performance” of the settlement.

The historic 2012 settlement arranged for a swap of 179 acres of Exide-owned land in Frisco in return for $45 million from the Frisco Economic Development Corporation and the Frisco Community Development Corporation. Passed unanimously by the Frisco City Council with only a week’s public notice and no public hearings, the agreement closed the smelter earlier than expected but is based on an elaborate series of conditions and clean-up standards.  

It’s at least one of those conditions, the required demolition of “all above-ground structures” in a section of the smelter site the city is purchasing called the “Bowtie Parcel,” which appears to be the center of the default claim by Frisco. Specifically, it’s the continued presence of a specialized building involved in the treatment of the smelter’s wastewater known as “The Crystallizer,” that prompted the legal tension.

Last August, Mack Borchardt, the City’s Special Assistant in charge of monitoring the Exide clean-up, wrote a letter to the company disputing the Agreement’s demolition provision had been fulfilled as long as the Crystallizer remained standing:

“Frisco disagrees with your assessment that the demolition activities on the Bowtie Property have been completed and demand that you retract Exide’s notice immediately. For example, the Master Settlement Agreement requires (A)ll above ground facilities on the Bowtie Parcel…” to be removed from the Bowtie Parcel as part of  Demolition Activities.” The above ground facilities include the Crystallizer which has not been removed and it has not been approved in writing by Frisco to remain standing. If you fail to immediately withdraw Exide’s notice, Frisco reserves the right to pursue all available remedies.”

By December 9th, when a Bankruptcy Court deadline required the City to file its claims against Exide, Frisco City Hall was adamant that “Exide has not demolished and removed all above ground facilities…. As a result, Exide is in default on its performance obligations under the Master Settlement Agreement.” But along with that outstanding claim, City lawyers also added a new list of possible Exide violations, both civil and criminal:

“Finally, Frisco may also have additional contract and/or tort based claims against Exide, including,without limitation, breaches of the Master Settlement Agreement, nuisance, quantum meruit, money had and received, breach of fiduciary duty, negligence and gross negligence, conspiracy, and claims based on fraud and fraud in the inducement and/or negligent misrepresentations relating to the negotiation, execution, and performance of the Master Settlement Agreement.”

If the deal between Frisco and Exide comes apart, there’s nothing to guarantee that any of the smelter property gets cleaned-up or redeveloped the way the City’s been promising.

Although the entire Exide smelter site and surrounding property is full of toxic hot spots, the facility at the center of the latest legal dispute, “the Crystallizer,” has been a source of particular regulatory concern. As part of the final processing of contaminated waste water at the smelter, it condensed filtered liquids into sodium sulfate solids.

In a December 2009 report, EPA inspectors at Exide observed, “Uncontrolled salt laden runoff from the Crystallizer plant was observed as salt deposition on the concrete aprons around this process area at the plant. The ‘frac’ tank used for holding purge water from the crystallizer plant was leaking at the time of viewing.” This crystallized substance tested high for toxic metals content and testing of the contents of the frac tank showed toxic levels of selenium and cadmium.

In September 2010 inspectors again found  “uncontrolled salt laden runoff from the Crystallizer plant and also that the frac tank was leaking.”

In July of last year the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality reported that “the levels of sulfate in soils surrounding the Crystallizer unit are much higher than in other areas” and “drums of PCBs were noted in the Crystallizer area.” PCBs, or Polychlorinated biphenyls, were once widely used as cooling fluids, but have been banned in the US since 1979 because of their persistent toxicity.

Because of its use of chlorine in treatment of waste, the Crystallizer could also be one of the major reasons Exide became one of Texas’ largest Dioxin polluters. In 2009, the Frisco facility was ranked as the 9th largest source for Dioxin pollution in Texas, surpassing all other North Texas facilities, including the Midlothian cement plants.  Dioxin is one of the most potent toxins ever tested by EPA, and is measured in grams, not pounds. 

Despite this history, no testing for Dioxin contamination has ever taken place at the former Exide smelter site by any regulatory agency, and that’s a point of contention for critics of the smelter clean-up.

Exide’s choice to risk an agreement that could give it $45 million in much-needed cash over the demolition of one remaining structure is curious. And it’s one that poses a challenge to the entire future the City of Frisco has laid out for the smelter site. If the City doesn’t buy the 179 acres of Exide property surrounding the smelter, it’s fate will be tied to the company’s and it might either become part of a future Superfund site or languish in a kind of real estate purgatory for a very long time.

That would more than double the size of the economic black hole the core plant site already poses for central Frisco. Frisco City Hall has come out in favor of locating a permanent toxic dump for Exide waste on that core property, but residents who are members of the local group Frisco Unleaded says there’s no reason to believe an Exide landfill would be run any better than an Exide smelter.

There's already been documentation of extensive lead contamination up and down Stewart Creek from the Exide property, through Grand Park and all the way to Lake Lewisville. Although the City of Dallas Water Utilities Department says that's not a threat to the city's drinking water because of its treatment facilities, the presence of a large landfill and/or Superfund site poses a danger of catastrophic releases that an operating smelter doesn't. And of course, recreational users of the Lake are being routinely exposed.

On February 26th, the Dallas Morning News identified competing plans for the clean-up of Stewart Creek as another source of tension between Frisco and Exide.

The only good news from this great unraveling is that it provides a chance to restart the public debate about what to do with the Exide site – a debate that was short-circuited by the council's settlement agreement that made everything seem like a done deal, even though its obvious now there were a lot of unanswered questions. There continues to be a need for a bottom-up, community wide discussion of what Frisco residents want to see happen with the site. Events in May might make that a more pressing priority.