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Strength in Numbers: More Frisco residents join together to get Frisco Unleaded: Exide Out

(This is a copy of a story about the new citizens group – Frisco Unleaded: Exide Out – written by Valerie Wigglesworth in the Oct. 8, edition of the Dallas Morning News)


Frisco residents banding together to get Exide plant out of town

Staff Writer
Published: 08 October 2011 08:43 PM

The scientists and residents stepped to the microphone to make their comments part of the state’s official record on Exide Technologies’ battery recycling plant.

But one speaker turned his back on the assembled panel from Austin and made an impassioned plea to the Frisco crowd.

“The ability to turn this situation around is in this room right now,” Jim Schermbeck said after ticking off problems he saw with the plant and the regulatory process for lead. “Be the person that does something about it.”

His words hit home. In the two months since that meeting, a new residents’ group has formed. As its name suggests, Frisco Unleaded: Exide Out wants to get rid of the company that’s been a fixture near downtown since the mid-1960s.

These dozen or so residents don’t know their way around the alphabet soup of state and federal laws that protect their community. But they are digging in. And they are getting guidance from Schermbeck, director of the environmental group Downwinders at Risk.

“This is the type of thing I always thought other people would solve,” said Matt Vonderahe, who stepped up after that July meeting with the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. “I realized I could make a difference.”

Exide officials say they plan to remain a valuable corporate citizen and have no intentions of closing up shop. They’re planning $20 million worth of upgrades to reduce lead emissions in Frisco. They also plan tests to assess contamination after state and federal regulators found numerous issues on plant property.

“We are trying to move forward as quickly as possible with this process, and we do not understand why anyone would try to stop the work that we are doing to continue to improve air quality,” Exide spokeswoman Susan Jaramillo said.

Exceeding limits

Schermbeck said Frisco’s pollution problems came to his group’s attention when the Environmental Protection Agency designated an area around the plant to be in nonattainment for lead. The 1.3-square-mile area in Frisco is one of 21 areas nationwide exceeding the amount of lead allowed in the air.

It’s only the second nonattainment area in all of North Texas. The other one extends across nine counties that don’t meet the federal air-quality standard for ozone.
Frisco’s designation is significant because it involves lead, a toxic metal whose tiny particles are invisible to the naked eye. The consensus among scientists: There is no safe level of lead.

In children, it causes learning disabilities, behavior problems and lowered IQs. Lead in adults has been linked to high blood pressure, heart disease and strokes.

Two decades ago, Schermbeck worked with West Dallas residents to battle a lead smelter that eventually closed. And he’s been known for years as the head of Downwinders at Risk, which took on the cement kiln industry in Midlothian.

This is “the first time in 17 years we’ve been involved in establishing a new organization that wasn’t directed at cement plant pollution in some way,” Schermbeck said.

But he has no plans to take charge. Frisco residents have to become their own powerhouse, he said.

They are already making progress. Some group members who met with the EPA say they’ve found an error in the methods used to draw the boundary lines for Frisco’s nonattainment area.

And last month, the Frisco group heard from Dallas attorney James Schnurr. He explained amortization, a legal process that cities can use to eliminate undesirable businesses. In Frisco, only the City Council can initiate the process. So far, city officials haven’t shown interest in the idea.

Mayor Maher Maso said he won’t discuss potential legal actions, including amortization. He said the city has spent countless hours on Exide.

“But we’re going to be very cautious in how we proceed to make sure that the end result is one that protects the city and all of its citizens,” Maso said.

Requests denied

Frisco Unleaded filed public records requests with the city on Exide, but those requests were denied.

Letters from the city’s law firm state that Frisco’s relationship with the company has become adversarial: “Frisco believes that litigation is reasonably anticipated based on the severe impact Exide’s operations have had, and may continue to have, on the citizens of Frisco.”

Still, secrecy doesn’t sit well with the group.

“In a free and open democratic society, that simply should not be happening,” group member Henrik Ax said. “It’s because of the city’s attitude toward me and the residents that we formed this group.”

Exide officials deferred to the city on withholding records. But they disputed the city’s belief that the plant’s operations have had a severe impact. They pointed to the blood lead testing done in Frisco this year by the Texas Department of State Health Services.

“It is clear, based on the individuals that were sampled, this population does not have elevated levels of lead when compared to state and national averages,” Jaramillo said.

State health officials have said their testing was limited and could not be used to address any broader threat to the community.

Frisco Unleaded isn’t the first residents’ group to oppose Exide. In April, former City Council member Joy West and Val Maso, the mayor’s wife, formed Get the Lead Out of Frisco. West said their group still wants Exide to leave town.

“Things are happening — it just has to happen as a process,” said West, who fears that too much push by residents’ groups could interfere with the city’s plans. “You can’t lay out all your cards. We want more of the surprise attack.”

Vonderahe said he has a difficult time believing that residents could do anything that would hurt the city’s efforts.

“I’m just trying to be a safety net,” he said.

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