You Can Try to Catch the Wind
Jul 06, 2012 11:43AM
● By Jessi Sally
Downwinders at Risk, the clean air group associated with the long battle over burning hazardous waste in the Midlothian cement plants and a recent successful campaign to close the Exide lead smelter, in Frisco, does not limit its focus to getting things stopped. They like to get things going, too.
Their handiwork also includes air-conditioned rides on the McKinney Avenue Trolley, Fort Worth ISD hybrid delivery trucks and solar power projects in South Dallas. The persistence of founding member Sue Pope, a Midlothian rancher, deserves a lot of credit, and now Downwinders at Risk has become the trustee of the largest private clean air fund in Texas history.
It all started with a simple act of common sense. In 1999, Holcim Cement’s Midlothian plan—one of three in the town—sought a permit amendment that would double production by adding a second kiln, while promising to cut overall air pollution in half. Pope was skeptical of the claim because the plant wasn’t adding any new pollution controls. It made sense that doubling production could create a lot more pollution. Also, she and her husband lived so close to the plant that their foundation shook from the limestone mining in the company’s quarry.
By then, Pope was already a 10-year veteran of trying to reduce cement plant pollution in her hometown. Despite assurances by the company and regulatory agencies, she had a hunch and applied for a contested case hearing to subject Holcim’s permit to an administrative review. She was turned down, because after all, the agencies said, the plant was going to reduce air pollution.
Instead, the kiln came on line, production doubled, and so did the pollution. Because of her hearing request, Pope and Downwinders now had the leverage to demand change. But instead of pursuing a lawsuit or seeking record fines, she and the group entered into negotiations with Holcim and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to write the most successful industrial “good neighbor” agreement that Texas had ever seen.
Monitoring was increased around the plant and new pollution controls were added. Holcim paid for an independent scientist to make unannounced inspections on behalf of Downwinders at Risk and the company set aside $2.3 million for the financing of new smog-reducing projects in the DFW area. At the insistence of the Downwinders board, this became the Sue Pope Fund for Pollution Reduction.
Besides the unique way it was established, the Pope Fund is different for another reason. It’s the only clean air grant-making process in DFW that actually lets local residents decide how to spend the money. The Downwinders board is in charge of selecting which projects to fund, and although it often consults technical experts, Pope Fund grant evaluations are all driven by people that breathe the air in North Texas.
Since 2007, the fund has made grants for a variety of clean air projects around North Texas, including energy conservation measures in the Jubilee Park development, near Fair Park; photovoltaic solar panels for a South Dallas neighborhood looking to sell its excess renewable energy over the grid; hybrid delivery trucks for the Forth Worth Independent School District; subsidized lawnmower exchanges in Dallas and Plano that allow residents to trade in their dirty gas-powered lawnmowers for deep discounts on new electric-powered models; air conditioning on the McKinney Avenue Trolley to boost ridership during ozone season; the region’s first hybrid school bus, in Midlothian; supporting green landscaping start-ups with less polluting equipment; enforcement crackdown on fake inspection stickers for clunkers; and energy-efficient lighting at the Child Development Center, in Ft. Worth.
Downwinders at Risk Director Jim Schermbeck says that the Pope Fund is a perfect example of the group’s do-it-yourself approach to getting cleaner air in DFW, as well as furthering its goals of increasing the power of local citizens to affect their own clean air fate. “We’re not just about complaining. We’re about fixing, too. Sue’s stubbornness allowed us to win historic concessions from industry that increased the ability of everyday citizens to be more involved in cleaning up their air. That’s the Downwinders approach.”
For more information, visit DownwindersAtRisk.org.