Inflamed

Why Seguin’s Forrest Mims wants the state to investigate a burning issue.

JUST TO MEET FORREST Mims, you wouldn’t peg him for a troublemaker. Earnest and enthusiastic, the 55-year-old Seguin resident looks like a high school chemistry teacher. But since January the freelance science writer and NASA consultant has been making a damn nuisance of himself. He is clamoring for an investigation into a 32-vehicle accident on Interstate 10, but the government officials he’s pestering would be happier if he shut up and went away.

Mims’s crusade centers on fire and smoke, but it began with water. In October floods devastated Central Texas, creating such a mountain of waterlogged furniture and carpet, dead animals, and trash that the only way to get rid of it was to burn it. At Seguin (population: 21,674) the city-and-county-supervised incineration went on for two months, pouring thick, noxious smoke into the air. Then, on January 11, seven people were injured in a huge wreck on the interstate, just one mile from the burn site. The official police report attributed the crash to heavy fog, but several witnesses thought there was something strange about it. “It was black and really didn’t look like fog,” said Ed Woehler, Jr. He and others smelled smoke, though no vehicles caught on fire. “It was fog and smoke mixed; you could smell it,” said David Wiley. And Jim Green added: “There was a smell of something in the air that was burning.”

Suspecting that smoke from the burn operation may have contributed to the pileup, Mims notified city officials but found that they weren’t interested in exploring a matter that might result in embarrassment and litigation. The city council heard from one person who came to the scene after the wreck—police chief Gary Hopper, who did not smell smoke—and dropped the matter. Mims then proposed writing about the incident in his science column for the Seguin Gazette-Enterprise, but the story was killed by the paper’s editor-publisher, Lawrence Reynolds. “We thought it could have been potentially provocative,” Reynolds said. Mims did get some publicity—Seguin radio station KWED interviewed him and the San Antonio Express-News  ran an op-ed piece by him—but he was disappointed in his own paper. “The First Amendment is crucial; if newspapers don’t defend it, who will?” he said.

Frustrated, Mims turned to the Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission. In a ten-page report, he brought up the possible smoke-wreck connection and other violations of TNRCC regulations resulting from the burn operation. Because of the digging he started, at least thirteen people have been found who smelled smoke and two who saw smoke rising from the burn site shortly before the wreck. At the beginning of April Mims was awaiting a response. “The people who were injured in that wreck have a right to know what happened,” he said, vowing to press on. All he wants is for the matter to be investigated fairly—in the clear light of day.

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