Out of breath in America

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Out of breath in America
Texas rancher tries to fight back as his family chokes on the legacy of Bush's business-first pollution policies

William Walker
ROCKDALE, Texas DO HIS grandchildren have the right to breathe clean air? That question is at the core of Wayne Brinkley's high-noon showdown with Texas aluminum giant Alcoa.

Taylor, 6, Chase, 4, and Emma-Jo, 2, live with their mother, Brinkley's daughter, Wendy, in a second house on the 116-hectare ranch that's been owned by the family for more than a century. Brinkley and his wife, Bonnie, live in the main house.

About 50 years ago, Alcoa bought 2,833 hectares and built America's largest aluminum smelting facility less than three kilometres from the Brinkley ranch. Burning high-sulphur lignite, or "brown coal," the plant runs 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The Texas Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility alliance and other groups have identified it as the biggest air polluter in Texas.

Chase and Emma-Jo have developed asthma that has required visits to the emergency ward. Doctors say it's caused by the acrid air that floats from the Alcoa stacks over the ranch.

Taylor deals with it a bit better, but all the kids sometimes get severe nosebleeds and feel nauseated. Their mom often makes them play inside.

Brinkley's fight, made more difficult during George W. Bush's tenure as Texas governor from 1995 to 2000, offers a glimpse of the pollution problems Canadians could find wafting north of the border under this administration.

"When I saw Bush running for president, I knew we were in trouble. But I knew we were in trouble when he was governor here in Texas," Brinkley says matter-of-factly in the office of his Rockdale building-supplies company.

"Bush? All he cares about is keeping the economy going, and to do that he wants to allow big business to do anything they want.

"But he doesn't care about the individual people, if they get sick and what they have to put up with. He's from big oil, you know.

"He's dumb when it comes to stuff like this," Brinkley says, looking fed up. "He should be looking after the welfare of the people. Instead, he just sits on the fence and never gets off one way or the other. He's going to find out soon enough that big business isn't the way to go."

Brinkley is riled up, as they say in Texas, and for good reason. His ranch is just outside Rockdale, down two back roads and along a dirt track. Cattle graze in the field between the two houses.

The red-haired grandkids have a swing set and backyard trampoline.

It's a picturesque, rolling property, except for Alcoa's smokestacks looming on the horizon. The tart air makes the eyes water and the heavy smell can induce nausea in an empty stomach.

Those stacks, so close it seems you could reach out and touch them, pump out more than 104,000 tonnes of pollution each year, including 60,000 tonnes of sulphur dioxide, which can cause chronic lung disease.

Brinkley just wants Alcoa to obey the law. After all, his family was here first. But given Bush's environmental record as Texas governor U.S. environmentalists call him "the Toxic Texan" and his record running for president and since, the rancher is clearly in a David-and-Goliath struggle.

As a presidential candidate, Bush opposed bans on logging in national forests, lobbied to weaken the clean-air act and offered no clean-water plan. He argued for "more flexibility" in government pollution regulations and wanted liability protection for polluting companies.

Within months of taking over the White House in January, 2001, Bush ripped up his campaign promise to reduce carbon-dioxide emissions that cause global warming (reductions opposed by the oil industry), announced that the United States had abandoned the Kyoto accord to limit greenhouse gases, thwarted a tighter limit on arsenic in drinking water and promoted a plan to drill for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

Critics like Brinkley say such actions are consistent with Bush's performance as governor. A former oil man himself, Bush favoured coal and oil development in the state over clean air, to the point that, in 1999, Houston overtook Los Angeles as America's most polluted city. Texas has twice as many industrial polluters about 100 violating clean-air rules than any other U.S. state.

The North American Commission on Environmental Co-operation recently cited Texas as having America's highest level of air and water pollution.

Every major city in Texas including Houston, Dallas, El Paso, San Antonio and Austin, together home to 65 per cent of the state's residents has been declared in "non-attainment" of federal Environmental Protection Act standards for the minimum air quality required to protect public health.

But the worst offender is Rockdale's giant Alcoa plant.

In the 1950s, the company discovered an abundant supply of combustible lignite on the site that could be mined to provide cheap power for a giant aluminum smelter, adding to profits that topped $1 billion (all figures U.S.) last year.

In 1971, state legislators passed a clean-air law, but already established plants, like the Rockford smelter, were exempted.

Then, with Bush in the Austin governor's mansion, a new generation of Texas legislators tried to close those old loopholes. But Bush decided to maintain the "grandfather" exemption for the Alcoa facility, along with dozens of other industrial plants.

He told the New York Times that the more stringent rules were "bad for business."

The exempted polluters had been heavy cash contributors to his gubernatorial and presidential campaigns.

In fact, records show that the so-called political action committees (PACs) and lobbyists for the top 100 grandfathered companies donated more than $670,000 to Bush's gubernatorial campaigns.

Those companies include some of the state's largest industrial polluters Texas Utilities, Dow Chemical, Lyondell Petrochemical and Exxon, as well as Alcoa.

Grandfathered polluters contributed as much as $10 million over six years to Bush, his successor, Governor Rick Perry and state legislators in both houses, according to the Public Research Works environmental lobby.

The companies were so pleased with Bush that, when he was preparing to run for president in 1999, they lined up to fork over more cash.

Bush's presidential campaign received $169,400 from officers, or their spouses, of companies operating grandfathered plants. Two Texas law firms, representing Alcoa and Texas Utilities, anted up another $146,900, as Bush's Republican presidential campaign raised vastly more funds than all his nearest competitors.

Then, shortly after assuming the presidency, Bush named Alcoa chief executive officer Paul O'Neill as his treasury secretary.

"When I saw O'Neill get named to the cabinet...." Brinkley shrugs and is at a loss for words, which is saying something for this plain-talking Texan.

His main health concerns stem from the lignite, a yellowish-brown combustible fuel that falls between coal and peat and burns around the clock at the Alcoa plant.

Although about 45 per cent of the world's coal supplies are lignite, most of it hasn't been mined because it is considered inferior to conventional coal for the purpose generating electricity.

But Alcoa discovered it isn't inferior for the purpose of smelting aluminum. And it's cheap.

Lignite requires drying before it can be burned. As the Brinkleys have discovered, the heating process releases the strong odours of sulphur dioxide.

When burned, lignite also releases a particularly smoky plume that reeks of sulphur and drives Brinkley's grandchildren from their play.

"I don't like it when mom makes us come inside," Taylor says. "But it smells bad."

Several times, Wendy Brinkley has taken Chase and Emma-Jo to the emergency ward of the local hospital after their breathing became laboured. They were suffering from respiratory infections.

One morning, Brinkley says, the family's two vehicles, one maroon and the other black, looked like "there'd been a snowfall on them, except it was so fine we couldn't even grab it in our hands."

It was ash from the burned lignite.

The biggest problem is sulphur dioxide.

Health Canada describes it as a substance that becomes "problematic at higher concentrations," usually after being produced by industry, and says it causes breathing problems, headaches and nausea. The agency warns there is some evidence that elevated sulphur dioxide levels may increase hospital admissions and premature deaths.

Brinkley's grandkids regularly experience nausea, headaches and breathing difficulties. Doctors advised the family to get a nebulizer, a small device commonly used by asthmatics, for the two younger children. Taylor calls it "the breathing machine."

When Alcoa's sulphur-dioxide emissions trigger particularly bad breathing bouts, Chase and Emma-Jo have to be brought inside and put on the nebulizer to have their normal breathing restored.

"Emma screams. She hates it," Taylor says.

Alcoa officials deny any wrongdoing. Spokesman Jim Hodson says he doesn't understand the Brinkleys' complaints. "Our monitoring equipment near the site showed that emissions were below state and federal health standards," he says.

Frustrated with Alcoa's repeated denials, the Brinkleys recently tried a new strategy, filing official complaints with the Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission (TNRCC), an environmental watchdog agency.

Late last year, TNRCC investigators Jack Chaneyworth and Jess Kelly responded to one of the Brinkleys' complaints about the bad smell.

They visited the ranch and reported that "the sulphur odours were very strong.... We both noticed that we had slight headaches and Jess Kelly indicated he felt slightly nauseous." The report judged Alcoa guilty of "nuisance levels of sulphur dioxide-type odours."

Investigator Ross Mitchell investigated another complaint and noted "a sulphur odour sufficient to constitute a nuisance condition." Mitchell then visited the plant and encountered Alcoa official Randy Waclawczyk, who told him the company was in compliance.

"I expressed my concern," Mitchell writes in his report, "and his response was that it (the facility) was grand- fathered."

It gets worse.

Alcoa finally decided the best way to deal with the Brinkleys was to offer a land "swap" that would move them away from the prevailing northeast winds that blow the pollution onto their property.

The contract Wayne and Wendy Brinkley were asked to sign included this clause: "That the Brinkley family agrees to withdraw from any complaints to all regulatory agencies against Alcoa upon the closing of the actual land transfer transaction. The Brinkley family also agrees not to initiate complaints against Alcoa pertaining to the Brinkley family property after execution of the real estate contract."

Brinkley wonders, if Alcoa has nothing to worry about, why it also included this clause: "The Brinkley family agrees to amicably exist with Alcoa. The Brinkley family agrees not to initiate any new legal complaints as a condition of this property transaction. This shall remain in force for 35 years from the closing date."

"They want us to sign something that says we will never complain, we will never sue if one of my children develops an illness down the road," Wendy says, her eyes wide with incredulity.

"They want us to keep our mouths shut and never complain again. If something happens to my children, I want to do what's right."

Adds her father: "We have completely turned it down. The negotiations are over and we're going on with our lives. We were there first. This is my family's land. We won't sign anything that gives our rights away if something happens to one of our grandchildren."

A local group called Neighbors For Neighbors with which the Brinkleys are not affiliated has launched a multi-million-dollar lawsuit against Alcoa, saying the company violated its right to be grandfathered by Bush when it spent millions in the 1980s to upgrade the Rockdale plant and increase its output.

The federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and state TNRCC notified Alcoa on Jan. 9 that it was violating both state and federal clean-air laws with those equipment upgrades.

Alcoa's response was that it would spend some more money, by 2007, to lower emissions. Company officials are confident that approach will be approved. In Bush's Texas, they're probably right.

After all, the EPA's frustrated chief enforcement officer resigned in March, saying the Bush administration is undermining anti-pollution efforts at plants that violate clean-air laws.

Now comes word that Bush's new action on the environment would actually allow dirtier air, setting a higher target for pollution levels by 2018 than the target for 2012 under current federal regulations. Oddly, the policy is named the "Clean Skies Initiative."

And just last week, the EPA announced it will allow older coal-burning power plants to escape pollution-control regulations a move that's a mirror image of Alcoa's treatment in Rockdale.

The Bush White House says the move is designed to keep electric utility bills in check for consumers. The EPA would not predict how the environment will be affected, although pollution control activists say the move will worsen asthma and other respiratory ailments.

That could be bad news for Chase and Emma-Jo.

"You wouldn't believe the number of people in our county who've died of cancer, of heart problems and lung problems," says Wayne Brinkley.

"It's just worse than it's ever been."

-- Cherri (whatever@who.cares), June 20, 2002

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