Mixing It Up
Margie Schneider was driving near her home in November 1999 when she noticed that an overgrown field at the corner of Barker Cypress and Keith Harrow Boulevard was being cleared for new development. Once a rice farm, the sprawling plot lay nestled between three leafy subdivisions with more than 3,000 houses. She assumed more homes were on the way.
Then the chipper housewife remembered a write-up in the neighborhood association newsletter about a concrete batch plant seeking land in the area. These facilities turn cement, sand and other aggregates into concrete that ready-mix trucks whisk away to construction sites. She knew that one of these operations would instantly change the character of her bucolic enclave.
Suspicious, Schneider called the precinct office of Harris County Commissioner Steve Radack. A staff person told her that indeed Frontier Materials Concrete was moving in and it was probably too late to stop it.
The prospect of the plant spewing unhealthy dust onto her world and cluttering the streets with hordes of noisy trucks awakened the spunky mom. Residents mobilized like a village under siege. Schneider's campaign came to encompass similarly embattled communities such as Sunnyside in southeast Houston.
Those residents want to stop a concrete company from moving in but do not have the resources of their well-heeled counterparts to the west. The predominantly African-American neighborhood, which housed the city's main trash dump for decades, is armed with nothing more than the "cries of the citizenry," says Homer Williams, the pastor of Blueridge United Methodist Church.
Neither Schneider nor the people in Sunnyside want concrete banned. They just don't want mixing facilities in their backyards. To prevent that, she has traded her carpools and cookie sheets to lead a crusade that has reverberated around the state. It's a life change that no one, least of all Margie Schneider, could have foreseen.
"I have become an activist of sorts," she says with a hearty laugh.
Schneider also had to become a grim realist, once she found out they were up against an industry that enjoys kid-glove treatment from the Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission, the agency in charge of regulating the plants. Concrete companies basically can locate wherever they want in this zoning-phobic part of the world.
She also discovered the impact of the huge contributions the industry pumps into lawmakers' pockets. As the plant opponents made progress, politicians stepped in to try to block these unlikely insurgents. The crusade moved from the neighborhood to a new front: the statehouse in Austin.
The news about the batch plant was a blow to a woman who believed she had found a piece of suburban paradise. When Schneider and husband Scott moved with their little girl into the Deerfield Village subdivision in 1994, they found exactly what they were looking for: an affordable home a half-hour from downtown and even closer to Scott's software engineering office.
Their spacious two-story brick house matched others in the $150,000 to $200,000 range on the peaceful block of green lawns shaded here and there by oak and pecan trees. Daughter Alex could skate with other children down streets with names like Partridge Green and Walnut Cove and attend schools that performed enviably on state tests. They were particularly fond of their pool.
Margie Schneider had worked in sales for different telecommunications companies in her native Dallas, and then in the D.C. area and Seattle after marrying Scott. In Houston she dedicated herself to her family, volunteering more than 200 hours a year at Alex's school and keeping her home spiffy.
Mother and daughter would spend after-school hours walking their dalmatian in the neighborhood's greenbelts or riding bikes along Bear Creek.
The Schneiders were hardly alone in seeking the suburban good life. Subdivisions have mushroomed in this unincorporated area. Cypress-Fairbanks ISD saw record growth last fall -- 3,160 new students -- to become the fifth-largest district in the state. As more families seek to move in, the demand for houses, roads and other infrastructure has surged, along with the need for concrete.
Schneider wondered how it was possible for the TNRCC to approve a permit without the neighborhood knowing about it. She felt sure she could convince whoever needed convincing that there had been a mistake.
"I refused to believe there was nothing we could do if it wasn't up and running yet," recalls Schneider, an athletic-looking 41-year-old whose dark eyes and strong features bear traces of her Mexican and Greek descent.
As with other industries, a concrete batch plant must meet public notice and hearing requirements before it can be constructed. Notice must be published in a general circulation newspaper in the affected area.
Schneider and her neighbors knew nothing about this facility because Frontier Materials Concrete ran its announcement in The Westside Sun, a free weekly with no home delivery in the Deerfield Village vicinity.
When she learned about the plans, Schneider envisioned a mishmash of silos, stockpiles and conveyors. In short, an eyesore. It would also be an anomaly -- the only industrial facility in an otherwise residential neighborhood.
"This is just a crazy place for a concrete batch plant," she says.
Homer Williams sits in his office at Blueridge United Methodist Church on a weekday morning that finds him out of his vestment and comfortably attired in a white polo shirt and baseball cap. A gentle tower of a man, he speaks in a minister's sonorous baritone, eyes glistening as he recalls the past.
"This has been a dumping site for over 50 years," he says.
Williams is referring to the Holmes Road dump, the city's principal landfill from the 1940s through the mid-1960s. Amid protests over the awful smells, frenetic truck traffic, rats and swarms of flies, the dump was closed only to be replaced, in 1967, by a $4.3 million incinerator, which was expected to burn half the city's garbage. That scheme turned sour when water from the facility tested high in toxic metals. The city closed the incinerator after seven years.
Those pungent memories of days when city officials dumped trash on an African-American community persist.
"The scars of this whole area being a dump site for the city are still there," Williams concedes.
But there are signs that the area is pulling itself out of the heap. Houses are going up on Reed Road. Houston Community College wants to open a campus nearby. And there are designs for a Juneteenth monument and recreational center.
These plans make the community's latest struggle that much more galling.
In 1999 the city began negotiating with Houston-based Southern Crushed Concrete to lease part of the old incinerator site on Bellfort Road just off Texas 288 for a concrete crushing plant. These facilities grind down slabs of old concrete for reuse. In addition to keeping mountains of unsightly concrete, they also spread plumes of dust onto surrounding areas.
"I know you wouldn't see [a crusher] in River Oaks," says state Representative Al Edwards. "It very well could be environmental racism."
The TNRCC approved the company's permit request, but furor in the community prompted the city to rethink the deal. The issue never came before City Council, says Kimberly Nichols, communications director for Councilmember Jew Don Boney, who represents Sunnyside.
Unfazed, the company purchased land from Exxon on East Almeda Road, just across 288 from the original site.
The switcheroo left Sunnyside residents even angrier than before.
"We get tired of being dumped on," Williams says, echoing a sentiment widely held in the community.
The concrete industry in Texas sold more than 12 million tons of the material in 2000 for roads, bridges, runways, sidewalks, driveways, house and building slabs, and other structures. The booming economy and the demand for new homes, offices and major roadways have increased the Houston area's concrete consumption by an estimated 20 percent over the past five years, says Buck Weatherby, the president of the Texas Aggregates and Concrete Association.
Wherever there's growth, there's a concrete mixing facility to deliver the perishable product on command. Over the past two decades the TNRCC has started the permitting process for more than 1,150 batch plants statewide, though some of those operations never got running and others have closed.
In recent years the agency has registered roughly 400 concrete batch plants each year. A quarter of those are new permanent facilities like the one proposed by FMC on Barker Cypress; the rest are portable and must re-register each time they move. The TNRCC was unable to provide figures for Houston, but Neil Carman of the Sierra Club says the city has the highest concentration of batch plants in Texas.
Do concrete-mixing operations pose heath risks? The concrete industry and the TNRCC argue that batch plants are benign when operated according to federal and state emissions standards.
But Marvin Legator, a toxicologist at the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston, says the facilities emit fly ash, silica and other fine particles that can penetrate the lungs and damage health, especially in children, the elderly and people with respiratory problems. He adds that emission levels often turn out to be higher than a company represented on its permit application. Texas batch plants go largely unmonitored.
"I think they have every reason" to be concerned, Legator says of Schneider and her neighbors.
Batch plant critics point to a litany of problems for nearby residents, including damage to the exteriors of houses and cars from abrasive dust; high volumes of truck traffic; loud noises from heavy equipment, backup beepers and diesel engines; and the facilities' heavy water consumption. Many worry about the devaluation of their property, and with reason, according to Charles Brown, an appraiser for O'Connor & Associates.
"It's something that's happening off-site, but it can affect your value," he says.
Texans fighting concrete manufacturers inevitably learn that none of these quality-of-life issues is grounds for denying a permit. The TNRCC considers only a facility's impact on air quality.
FMC, a subsidiary of a Kentucky company with three batch plants in the Houston area, plans a 24-hour facility that will cover roughly one-third of the 52 acres it bought along Barker Cypress. It will be less than a mile from an elementary school and even closer to people with heart conditions, asthma and other ailments.
FMC would mix concrete on-site and transport it with a fleet of 15 ready-mix trucks. Residents fear that those trucks on the same thoroughfare as school buses are a disaster waiting to happen.
Company CEO Jeff Beck has offered assurances that the facility's impact will be minimal. Limestone, sand and gravel will be wetted down for dust control, he says, adding that the company will employ a state-of-the-art dust collection system, will tastefully landscape the property and will use the cleanest trucks available.
"Quite honestly, I don't think folks realize how good a neighbor we'll be," he says.
Residents like Schneider and Dave Wall are determined to avoid such realizations. Wall, a retired geophysicist from England, says that if FMC goes forward it will turn their community into an industrial corridor.
"We don't want industry to get a toehold," he says. "This plant is just the first nail in the coffin."
During Schneider's initial call to Radack's office, a staffer suggested that she start a petition opposing the plant. The cheerful mom did not know her neighbors, and her activism at that point had been limited to getting her husband to do the dishes.
"I knew nothing about politics," the self-styled Republican admits. "I'm not comfortable walking up to people's homes," adds Scott, sitting in their shiny kitchen with his wife and daughter.
Sucking up their trepidation, the Schneiders pounded the pavement on a Saturday morning with their daughter and dog in tow. Any concerns they had about slamming doors quickly faded. Within days they had collected some 900 signatures and recruited a corps of citizens willing to fight.
Schneider's effort to enlist elected officials proved highly successful. Some of them, like then-state representative John Culberson, lived fairly close by and could feel the pain of constituents who turn out in droves on Election Day. It hasn't hurt that the likable Schneider is not above buttering up those in power.
"I can speak for all of us when I say you are a most gracious and generous man and one who gives honor and integrity back to our elected officials," she enthused in an e-mail to Culberson, now a congressman. "When can I tell everyone you are running for president?"
Within weeks Culberson, state Senator Jon Lindsay, Radack and the Cypress-Fairbanks ISD superintendent, among others, wrote to the TNRCC to raise objections. Harris County Commissioners Court and the Cy-Fair school board passed resolutions against the plant.
Radack provided the community with three buses to attend a meeting in Austin with the TNRCC on January 12, 2000. Acting on a request from Schneider, the agency rescinded the original FMC permit, finding that the notice in The Westside Sun was insufficient.
But the euphoria was short-lived, because the company reapplied the next day.
"So we started all over again," says Schneider.
Challenging a plant permit is a drawn-out process in which citizens first air grievances in a public meeting and with letters, and the TNRCC responds. Citizens living within 440 yards of the site can try to get the agency to grant a contested case hearing, similar to a civil trial, in which both sides present their facts before an administrative law judge. But the TNRCC calls for such hearings only when it decides there are sufficient disputed issues of fact.
With that goal in mind, Schneider and her neighbors in early 2000 founded Residents for a Better Community, a nonprofit organization co-chaired by her and Wall. The group had to learn everything there was to know about concrete batch plants and the politics of the TNRCC. RBC benefited from the fact that various scientists, engineers and other experts were among its ranks.
"You become very proficient when it's the only thing you have on your mind all day," she says.
Under the RBC banner, more than 800 people showed up to the first public hearing in March 2000 and hammered FMC's application on multiple fronts. Last May the group retained Blackburn & Carter, a leading environmental law firm. The lawyers warned that their services could cost more than $100,000. So Schneider switched into fund-raising mode.
She arranged a "concrete bash," which featured jazz and blues bands, and raised $17,000. Residents for a Better Community sold T-shirts and cheerfully exhorted neighbors to "give up your pizza and Blockbuster movies for a week."
The battle escalated when one longtime resident sent FMC's Beck a threatening letter. Mark Clifford lives and owns a welding business less than 300 yards from the proposed site. His wife, Mary, has multiple sclerosis.
"I sit down to write you this letter in an effort to try and avoid a situation which will end up in causing your life to be an ongoing Hell on Earth," Clifford wrote. "Sell the property at a reasonable profit and move to the Katy Prairie where you belong."
Beck got a restraining order against the welder.
Not everyone in Deerfield Village has joined the cause. Some, like Steve Dornak, looked on with bafflement and outright disgust at the revolution in their midst.
"For as long as anyone can remember, there have been periodic instances where a number of Deerfield residents have become 'fired up' over a single issue," Dornak wrote as community association president in a recent edition of the neighborhood newsletter. "Unfortunately, after the controversy is over, it is not uncommon for people to simply go away."
Dornak was voted out as association president in March.
As Schneider's expertise grew and her profile rose, other embattled communities like Sunnyside sought her advice. Soon she was attending meetings to support them. During this legislative session, she has been a fixture in the capital, invited in by environmental groups to testify against industry-friendly bills.
"I wonder what I ever did with my life before now. I realize how shallow my life was," she says. "It was a lot simpler."
Her crusade has come at a cost. She no longer has time to volunteer at Alex's school. The family has foregone vacations. Even Christmas was something of an afterthought the last two years.
The dalmatian, Madison, was the first casualty. The dog had been accustomed to spending most of the day with Schneider and going for regular walks. When she began to be absent, the pet grew neurotic and stopped eating. Madison started chewing her paws and tail until they were raw. Finally the family decided it would be best to give her to Schneider's brother in Dallas.
The family also has found it difficult to adjust.
"It's hard to watch her work on this from morning to night," admits Scott. He too is active in the battle, but not to the extent of his wife. "Sometimes you want to get away, but it's impossible to do that. I believe in what she's doing and support her."
Alex, the poised nine-year-old with a ponytail, doesn't hesitate when asked what she wants:
"To have FMC go away and [my mother] have her old life back when she was with me most of the time."
"I could have said that, too," Scott chimes in.
Sitting between them at the table, the usually ebullient Margie tears up. "It really hurts to hear a little kid say that," she says.
Residents for a Better Community hit the TNRCC with unusual force. After a second spirited meeting last July, the agency had 60 days to respond to issues raised in public comments and in the 588 letters it received. Because of the sheer magnitude of the residents' resistance, the agency took four months to respond.
When executive director Jeff Saitas did reply in December, he revealed just how unmoved the TNRCC was by the concerns. The first line of the 138-page document was enough to deflate hopes: "The executive director has made a decision that the above-referenced permit application meets the requirements of applicable law."
The agency argued it could consider only air emissions and that FMC would meet applicable standards.
"The Executive Director does not expect that the emissions from the proposed plant will adversely impact people or air quality," the document reads.
This kind of reasoning had the group's elected officials fuming. Culberson trumpeted his predilection for limited government but asserted that no one has the right to endanger his neighbors' health or property.
"This is simply a completely inappropriate location for such a facility," he wrote the agency. " I have never encountered a more compelling example where the letter of the law may be complied with by granting a permit, but the spirit of the law and the public welfare would be damaged severely, even destroyed, if the permit is granted."
For his part, Radack groused about "bad public policy."
The TNRCC remained unimpressed.
"The Executive Director understands there is a large amount of opposition from the area residents as well as from elected officials .However, public opposition alone, regardless of the number of comments, may not be the sole basis to determine that the registration does not meet the legal requirements ," the TNRCC wrote.
While the agency tuned out the community pleas, it accepted at face value every promise made by the company. Even where the agency conceded there were flaws in the company's application, it said that they were irrelevant because FMC promised that all permit requirements would be met. "A Frontier representative has stated that the facts contained in the registration request are true and correct to the best of his knowledge," the TNRCC wrote.
The agency admits it does not have the resources to personally monitor batch plants. In fact, the TNRCC visits a site only when a citizen lodges a complaint, and then by proxy through Harris County Pollution Control.
Representative Edwards wonders whose side the environmental agency is on.
"It appears as if industry and lobbyists control our TNRCC. They don't seem to be working in favor of the people," he complains. "The TNRCC has got it all backwards."
Giant mounds of recycled concrete now dominate Southern Crushed's windswept site beside an Exxon terminal and other industrial properties on East Almeda.
All the company needs is for the TNRCC to give it the green light, and the crushing will begin. Sunnyside residents refuse to back down. They blasted the company for publishing its intent to relocate in the Houston Press, arguing that the publication does not have wide circulation in their area.
Pushing for a contested case hearing, hundreds of people crammed into Worthing High School for an emotional public meeting in March. Southern Crushed vice president Charles Burnett tried to pacify them with a promise to be a fine neighbor.
"Just as we have done at our other plants, we will take proven measures to control dust that is generated at the site," he said. The community was unconvinced.
Without the financial resources of Schneider's group, Sunnyside has had to rely heavily on its elected officials, most notably Edwards. He and others have introduced measures that would strengthen a community's ability to stave off unwanted crushers. One would double to a half-mile the required distance between crushers and residences, churches and schools. It passed the House as part of a sweeping bill to reform the TNRCC, and now is before the Senate.
Edwards filed a variety of bills, including one that would tighten slack public notice requirements and another that would require companies to take additional measures to control dust. He likes their chances, but with every lawmaker pushing pet measures, he's not holding his breath.
Like Southern Crushed, Frontier Materials Concrete has been busy preparing for its facility. The company paid Harris County nearly $115,000 to put in a right-turn deceleration lane leading to what presumably will be the main entrance, although it remains an overgrown field for now. The lane runs a few hundred feet beside FMC land on the southbound side of Barker Cypress before ending abruptly -- yielding to a ditch.
In January three high school girls were returning from an evening of shopping and eased into the new lane. They apparently thought it went all the way to an intersection marked by traffic lights ahead. Instead, their car careened into the ditch and collided head-on with a culvert. A 14-year-old passenger was killed.
"This tragedy only adds to my resolve to stop this plant from being built," Culberson wrote to Schneider.
On February 21 that fight found new life. At dawn, Schneider and fellow residents piled onto a county bus headed for Austin to learn whether the TNRCC would grant the contested case hearing. More that 150 anxious residents filled the agency's meeting room that morning.
"I was afraid this would be it. It would be over," Schneider recalls.
The TNRCC quelled their fears and granted the hearing. RBC is believed to be the first group to advance to that phase since the state implemented more exacting rules for the permit-review process last year.
Set for August, the proceeding will be limited to air-quality issues. RBC attorney Mary Carter gives her clients a 50-50 chance of winning.
For his part, Frontier's Beck says he has taken note of the community's vehemence against his plant but already has invested close to $1 million and intends to see the project through.
"We're committed at this point to finishing the process," he says.
The concrete industry has kept a close watch on the Frontier case, and hasn't liked what it's seen. Even as Residents for a Better Community members savored their achievement, political forces went to work for the other side.
The concrete industry contributes lavishly to Texas lawmakers. Its political action committees pumped $637,000 into politicians' coffers in the 2000 election cycle, according to Texans for Public Justice. As of March of this year, lobbyists already had reported contracts worth as much as $570,000 from concrete companies for 2001.
Such generosity has generated results in the past. During the 1999 legislative session, Senator J.E. "Buster" Brown got a bill passed that prohibited citizens from presenting data from computer air-dispersion modeling -- a method of predicting emissions -- in contested case hearings against batch plants.
The law had its genesis in a case in Bulverde, near San Antonio, where residents had used such data to get a batch plant's permit denied. The law was particularly striking given that the TNRCC and the concrete industry both rely on that modeling technology.
"The legislature, at the request of the industry in cahoots with the TNRCC, took away another right of citizens trying to protect their own health," says Stuart Henry, an Austin attorney who represented the people in Bulverde.
After the 1999 session, the Texas Aggregates and Concrete Association clucked about its success on its Web site.
"Through a well-devised and executed legislative strategy, [TACA] was able to enact every piece of legislation that we intended to pass and successfully opposed all bills and amendments that could prove to be of detriment to your business' bottom line," TACA wrote.
The concrete industry has been busy this session, and once again Brown, a Lake Jackson Republican, is its standard-bearer.
His Senate Bill 546 would limit the entire permitting process for batch plants to 45 days and would nix contested case hearings from the review process. Pampa Republican Warren Chisum, the chairman of the House Environmental Regulations Committee, introduced a corresponding measure in the House.
Schneider went to Austin in March to testify against the measure when it was still before the Senate Natural Resources Committee. Dressed in a navy-blue pantsuit, her short brown hair swept to the side, she began her testimony in the respectful fashion of a suburban homeowner addressing a panel of elder statesmen.
But the more Schneider spoke, the more emboldened she became, until at last her words acquired the heat of a controlled burn.
"By allowing Senate Bill 546 to pass you will give complete power and control to industry at the expense of the lives of we the people," she said, her voice smoldering with frustration.
Senator Lindsay says he will oppose the bill if there is a full Senate vote. But he does not discount Brown's ability to get laws passed. "He's a powerful senator .He's going to scratch and claw."
Schneider has done her best to scratch and claw right back, fully aware that many months of uphill struggle could be for nothing if the bill goes through. All FMC would have to do is reapply for a permit under the new rules, and the public essentially would be barred from the process.
"Believe me," she said, glancing up at the senators during her testimony, "don't think we will forget who voted for this bill when it's time for us to go to the voting polls. We will remember this day, we will remember the loss of our property values, we will remember the lives lost and we will remember to effectively vote you out of office."PHOTOGRAPHS BY DERON NEBLETT
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