How transnationals pollute Austin's water

By Vicki McClure, Terry Horton and Audrey Allen
December 1989; page 10; Volume 1, No. 3

Texas produces more hazardous waste - defined by federal law as waste that "may cause or contribute to death or incapacitating illness" - than any state in the nation - 13 percent of the nation's total. Much of that waste is produced right here in central Texas, at the Lafarge cement plant in New Braunfels.

The plant is of particular concern because it's located on the San Marcos River as well as on the recharge zone of the Edwards Aquifer, which serves as the main source of water in Central Texas and feeds Barton Springs.

To understand why Lafarge - and other Texas companies that create hazardous waste - is allowed to pollute these key water sources, you have to understand the laws that regulate waste disposal, and the loopholes that render regulation meaningless.

Hazardous wastes are the chemical bi-products of industries such as the petroleum industry and the paper industry. Landfill, deep-well injection and incineration are the three main methods of hazardous waste disposal and are regulated by the EPA under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA).

RCRA was enacted by Congress to protect public health and the environment from the dangers inherent in the disposal of hazardous waste. However, legislators provided RCRA with a "recycling/reuse" stipulation where facilities incorporating hazardous wastes into their production process are exempted from regulations governing facilities which merely dispose of hazardous waste.

The EPA's interpretation of the RCRA "recycle/reuse exemption" provides a loophole by allowing unregulated burning of hazardous waste as long as the facility burning the waste claims to be using it as fuel or a raw material. However, there is virtually no review process to determine whether a facility's recycling claim is legitimate.

Cement and aggregate kilns are one of the main beneficiaries of this loophole. They operate without any federally mandated standards for toxic air pollutants, insurance coverage, emissions testing, ash disposal practices, or public notification practices. Fifty billion pounds of hazardous wastes are burned in RCRA-exempt facilities each year, a quantity which greatly surpasses the amount burned in fully regulated incinerators. A Congressional Committee in 1984 did not consider "cement kilns burning hazardous wastes for energy ... to be distinguishable from a commercial hazardous waste incinerator in its potential impact on human health and environment." Despite the Committee's findings, nothing has been done to change the loophole.

Currently there are seven cement and aggregate kilns burning or planning to burn hazardous waste in Texas. By burning hazardous waste for fuel, cement, companies offer waste generators, inexpensive, liability-free waste disposal while at the same time profiting from lower fuel costs. Lafarge Coppee of France, which is now the third largest cement manufacturer in the world, operates three of these kilns in Texas, including the one in New Braunfels.

Since Lafarge is exempt from incineration regulations, the only permit required is one for storage of 60-79 million gallons of hazardous waste per year. The permit application is currently under review by the Texas Water Commission and the Texas Air Control Board.

The dangers of a hazardous waste incinerator in New Braunfels include toxic air emissions, toxic ash residues, and the inherent risks of leakage and spillage. Toxic air emissions not only affect New Braunfels but surrounding areas. Toxic ash residues contain heavy metals, toxic chemicals, and bioaccumulative substances such as dioxins and furans. These residues are usually landfilled posing serious threats to groundwater.

Remaining heavy metals are often incorporated into the cement products themselves. The most serious threat of pollution is leakage and spillage during transport, transfer, and storage. Texas is the nation's leader in rail accidents involving toxic materials. In addition, there have been 146 accidents involving trucks carrying hazardous waste in Texas in the last two years.

The position of Lafarge Cement on the Edwards Aquifer recharge zone sets the stage for imminent disaster. This porous limestone aquifer would be immediately infiltrated by any toxic waste spillage with little recourse for recovery or clean up.

Local residents have been protesting Lafarge's plan to burn hazardous waste by circulating petitions and information to concerned citizens. Lafarge, with its powerful economic presence in New Braunfels, wields considerable influence.

Several petitioners have been intimidated and a few even fired from their jobs for voicing opposition. Each person that signed the petition was issued an invitation by Lafarge to come to the plant for a "more thorough and clear understanding" of their intentions. But no explanation can justify the contamination of a community.

Hazardous waste threatens both people and the environment. That's why our government regulates its disposal. But when the same legislators create loopholes to ensure that large cement companies can buy cheap toxic fuel and that waste-producing companies can dispose their byproducts cheaply if not cleanly, they protect nobody. These loopholes, made by pro-industry government, allow citizens little legal recourse to oppose toxic contamination of their community and produces no incentive for companies to reduce toxic waste byproducts. Storage methods will never be safe and incineration techniques will merely change the form but not the content of the pollution.

The only real solution to this problem is source-reduction. If hazardous wastes are not controlled at the source and inexpensive disposal is provided through loopholes in our legislation, the resources in our own communities will not be safe. The Edwards Aquifer is a precious resource that must be protected. Lafarge pollutes an area far greater than New Braunfels alone. San Antonio and Austin have great cause for concern.