‘Don’t worry, it’s just steam’: Midlothian residents oppose cement plant’s TCEQ request to lift limits

Bill Spinks, wspinks@waxahachietx.com
A group of Midlothian residents is uniting in objection to the Holcim cement manufacturing plant's permit request with the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. The plant is asking to lift limits on carbon monoxide emissions and expand the use of petroleum coke. Members of the group Midlothian Breathe spoke at last week's City Council meeting. [Mirror file photo]

A longstanding concern among a number of Midlothian residents — going back almost three decades — has been the air quality in the city because of industries in the area.

At last week’s City Council meeting, several residents associated with the organization Midlothian Breathe made their worries known, singling out one employer in particular.

Building materials company Holcim is one of Midlothian’s largest employers and a part of one of the city’s legacy industries — after all, Midlothian at one time promoted itself as the “Cement Capital of Texas.” Its parent company, LafargeHolcim, employs approximately 75,000 employees in around 80 countries, according to its website.

Holcim is only one of three huge cement plants in Midlothian, along with TXI and Ash Grove.

In June 2019, Holcim’s Midlothian plant submitted a permit request to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. The request asked that Holcim have its cap on carbon monoxide emissions removed so that the production from each of Holcim’s kilns can be doubled. The filing also requested that Holcim be allowed to increase its use of pure petroleum coke from 60 percent of its “flexible” fuel to 100 percent.

Petroleum coke, or “petcoke,” is the final solid residue from the refining process, usually from oil sands. Because of its high energy content, petcoke releases more carbon dioxide than coal when burned.

While petcoke itself is not considered highly toxic or carcinogenic, the use of it can form a very fine dust — as small as one-thirtieth the width of a human hair — that can lodge in the lungs and cause serious health problems. According to speakers at last week’s City Council meeting, the amount of this particulate matter could triple if TCEQ approves Holcim’s request.

Depending on the petroleum source, petcoke can also contain sulfur and heavy metals such as vanadium that are toxic in small quantities.

An e-mail to Holcim Midlothian plant manager Michel Moser for comment was not immediately returned.

Midlothian citizens lined up during last week’s City Council meeting to give councilmen an earful of their concerns, with some sharing anecdotes of bad health effects from air quality and others warning about the economic consequences of dirty air.

After they spoke, Mayor Richard Reno assured the speakers that the council and staff are always very interested in the well-being of the Midlothian community and will take steps and be attentive to the processes, and be involved as appropriate.

Abigail Slye, a Midlothian resident, said her son next year will attend Baxter Elementary, which backs up to the Holcim plant. After learning of Holcim’s permit request, Slye said she and several other moms formed the group that is now Midlothian Breathe, which has gained more than 350 followers through its Facebook page.

Slye told the council that the main goal of Midlothian Breathe at the present time is to stop approval of the Holcim permit request in its current form. In the long term, its goals are to get the community more involved in learning about and caring more for the air quality in their town.

“Our purpose is to learn more about the air quality issues facing Midlothian and share our findings with the community,” Slye said. “We want to promote open, honest conversation and find the best solutions for our community. We are not anti-industry and are not trying to shut the plants down.”

Patricia Brown, a member of Midlothian Breathe, said her organization has looked at Holcim’s permit request with TCEQ and is working to understand it. Brown said the filing is over 100 pages and filled with technical detail.

“As members of Midlothian Breathe, we’ve committed to doing our best to understand (the filing) through frequent conversation with TCEQ and getting our hands on every other useful resource we can find,” Brown said. “This is because we feel strongly that people have a right to know what’s in the air they breathe and to have a say when a company like Holcim is proposing to double or even triple pollutants in the air.”

Brown added that her concern about the increased use of petroleum coke is that its effect won’t be known until after test burns are done, and yet TCEQ plans to grant the permit first and then ask for the test burn data afterward, she alleged.

“In other words, they want the citizens of Midlothian that we so greatly care about to be the guinea pigs for this moneymaking project,” Brown said. “We do not fault the company for wanting to make profit. That’s not our exact concern.“

Dr. Laura Hunt, a pediatrician at Baylor Scott & White Waxahachie who moved to Midlothian in 2015, spoke of her own daughter and how air pollution has affected her.

After the move to Midlothian, Hunt said her then-four-year-old, who was previously healthy, began to cough and would not stop, and her lung function diminished to half normal. She missed more than 30 days of school as a kindergartner, Hunt said.

“As a mom, watching your child struggle to breathe, it literally takes your own breath away,” Hunt said. “It’s even worse when there’s nothing you can do to help, especially when you’re a pediatrician yourself.”

Hunt said no one has been able to identify the cause of her daughter’s chronic cough. But although pollutants from the cement plants itself may not have had anything to do with her daughter’s illness, Hunt said there’s plenty of evidence showing health risks.

Hunt said some of the harms caused by the particulates include premature birth, low birth weight and birth defects. “It pains me to see this as helping newborns enter the world,” she said.

Hunt concluded by saying Midlothian Breathe is eager to partner with city leaders and local citizens to determine the best steps forward. The group will propose some action steps at the next Midlothian City Council meeting on Jan. 28.

“I don’t want anyone else to question whether the air in Midlothian is safe for their children to breathe,” Hunt said. “That is my take-home message today. When people see the smoke from the stacks and start having second thoughts about raising their families here, I want them to be able to turn to the city of Midlothian and know that every effort is being made to optimize air quality to protect their families’ health rather than being told ‘Don’t worry, it’s just steam.’ ”

Tonya Millet, who represented Midlothian Moms, spoke in support of increased air quality monitoring. Millet said applications for cellphones and other mobile devices are now available which are becoming more accurate as the technology improves and will one day provide readings in real time.

“At that point, the public knowledge and increased awareness of these air quality factors and quality of life rankings will have a direct impact on property values, home sales, business openings and factor into the decision-making processes of any company considering a move to Midlothian,” Millet said.

“Eventually, such air quality data will also find its way onto the major real estate web search applications such as Zillow where every town’s air quality ratings and rankings will appear to all viewers. Rankings that will be touted by those with business interests in areas with the most favorable rankings in an attempt to gain a competitive edge. Our hope is that Midlothian can be among them. But allowing a foreign company to double their pollution output in our town is a step in the wrong direction.”