IN OCTOBER 1991 PHYLLIS GLAZER was driving her son down Texas Highway 155 through the tiny East Texas town of Winona when she passed through a black-and-red cloud drifting over the road. Until that moment, Glazer was a self-described “unknown North Dallas housewife” whose husband worked for a prominent family-owned Dallas wine and liquor distributor. When they wanted to get away from the city, they often visited their 2,209-acre Winona ranch, about an hour and a half east of Dallas. Glazer remembers, “I thought it would be the perfect place for me to try to write a novel or a children’s book.”
Nearly six years later Glazer has become one of the state’s fiercest environmental advocates, nicknamed by NBC’s Dateline the Toxic Avenger. The cloud on the road in Winona that day came from a nearby plant called Gibraltar Chemical Resourcesa hazardous-waste disposal company that processed untreated toxic waste. Glazer has been raising a stink ever since, claiming that the sour-smelling emissions from the plant (sold by Gibraltar to American Ecology Environmental Services Corporation at the end of 1994) have been poisoning the 457 citizens of Winona, causing myriad medical problems, including birth defects. The company, in turn, has filed a federal lawsuit against Glazer, her family, and her husband’s company, Glazer Distributors, claiming they have engaged in a “conspiracy” to destroy American Ecology by publishing “patently untrue statements” and engaging in “a pattern of widespread defamation” that has “created false and adverse publicity.”
This past March the company’s owners gave in and announced that they were closing the Winona plant. Although they continued to insist that the facility posed no threat to the public or to the environment, they admitted that they were being financially drained by Phyllis Glazer’s constant legal pressure. For Winona’s mostly poor residents, many of whom had been complaining about the plant since its opening in the early eighties, Glazer’s victory was stunning. It was equally stunning to professional environmental activists who have at times found themselves unable to stop toxic-waste disposal companies from operating or expanding around the state.
How did the housewife do it? Glazer shrugs and says one word: “money.” Glazer acknowledges that she has spent “well into seven figures”at least a million dollars of her family’s moneyon lawyers and experts to fight the plant. “The reason these companies want to build their toxic-waste plants in small, rural towns is because they know there won’t be any wealthy people to fight them,” she says. “But I just decided I wasn’t going to let this town and my ranchland get raped. I’ll be honest. We have sacrificed a lot as a family. I have been threatened and shot at, and the animals on our ranch have been mutilated. My three sons no longer live with me because I am afraid for their safety, and my husband has hired a bodyguard to drive me to places like the beauty shop. But nothing will keep us from exposing what has happened here.”
In its court filings American Ecology says that Glazer has simply invented these stories to scare residents; one company official describes her activities as “environmental McCarthyism.” Glazer does tend to get carried away. For example, in one interview she said that all the people of Amigo, a small settlement near the plant, were “dead or run off” because of the plant’s emissions. Nevertheless, there are a peculiar number of unusual medical mysteries around tiny Winona, and it is hard not to wonder if those mysteries are linked to the effluvia. (The Winona facility consists of two commercial hazardous-waste injection wells, a hazardous-fuel blending operation, and a solvent-recovery facility.) In recent years a Winona girl was born with webbed feet and a boy has developed the early stages of Elephant Man’s disease even though, his parents claim, neither of them carries the gene responsible for the disease. After the same October 1991 emission that spooked Glazer, an older woman began lactating as if she were pregnant and her chickens stopped laying eggs. Glazer herself says that since she drove through that cloud in 1991, her septum has been perforated and ulcers have emerged in her mouth and nose. One EPA official reported that the Winona facility has “a terrible record of pollution and violations” and added that its operation has caused “considerable suffering over many years to the poor and mostly black residents living nearby.”
There had been previous attempts to regulate the plant. In November 1992 the Texas Attorney General’s office filed a lawsuit demanding that it comply with the Texas Clean Air Act. (The company eventually agreed to pay $1.1 million in fines.) Then, in January 1993, an accident at the plant sent a huge cloud of corrosive hydrogen bromide and possibly other dangerous chemicals into the air. “It was East Texas’ version of the Bhopal disaster,” says Glazer. With a small group of followersmostly other Winona womenshe began picketing Gibraltar’s gates every Thursday. She hired environmental lawyers from some of the biggest firms in Dallas, Austin, and Houston to ask the Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission to shut down the plant until certain environmental-protection measures were met, and she hired more lawyers to go to federal court to order the EPA to follow federal regulations. Glazer’s lawyers also filed a federal lawsuit alleging that the plant had violated provisions of the Texas Clean Air Act.
Overwhelmed by Glazer’s legal blitzkrieg, as well as by personal-injury lawsuits filed by hundreds of area residents, the facility has stopped accepting waste and the company has announced that the site will close. (The company could always reapply for a government permit to resume operations.) But one thing American Ecology shows no intention of abandoning is its federal conspiracy suit against Glazer and her family. Corporate officials seem determined to make her pay for her victory.
Glazer just laughs at the lawsuit. “The first great commandment is, Don’t let anyone scare you.’ And I find it a little amazing that they still think they can scare me. I’m always going to be there, watching, spending whatever it takes to make sure they stay closed. Forever more, I will be the housewife on the warpath.”