Downwinders at Risk director Jim Schermbeck. Courtesy of Downwinders at Risk.       

June 5, 2012

Jim Schermbeck, of renown for his efforts as head of the organization Downwinders at Risk, has fought many battles in his time as a community organizer and advocate. Some have stalled or faltered while others ended in victories which changed the environmental landscape in Texas; for the better, many would say. Yet how did he get to this point in his career as an environmental advocate? According to Jim his reasons were simple - he wanted to defend his community.

Upon graduating from Austin College in 1980, Schermbeck conducted graduate work in film at UNT and UTA. He began to volunteer and organize others in opposition of nuclear energy and in favor of alternative energy development. In 1989, he accepted a position as the North Texas Program Director for National Toxics Campaign for Texans United. These experiences lead to his current work with Downwinders At Risk where he began first as a staff organizer, before advancing to become a board member, field organizer and now director.

“As a young volunteer, I decided to try and stop the Comanche Peak Nuclear Power Plant from being built in Glen Rose,” he explains. “With a handful of other folks, including now Rep. Lon Burnam we started the Armadillo Coalition of Texas in 1977 and then later the Comanche Peak Life Force in 1979 that sponsored, what I think, are still probably the largest acts of organized civil disobedience, as opposed to Texas-OU night, between the civil rights movement and now.”

Schermbeck says, too, that his fight against nuclear power provided a great education in organizing and politics.

“The real lesson that I took away from my 11 years of working against that plant and nuclear power in general is the importance of economics and economic self-interest in any issue,” he says.

The effort against Comanche Peak faltered when the primary legal intervener settled with TXU. It was at this point that someone forwarded an ad seeking canvassers that they saw in a newspaper. In short order, Jim Schermbeck called and asked if the group was hiring organizers.

They were, and Schermbeck would spend the next four year working for Texans United. That group was the first, and so far only - statewide anti-toxics group. As part of its efforts Texans United offered assistance to grassroots organizations fighting incinerators, landfills, and other threats.

“That's how I got involved in the second wave of West Dallas organizing around the old RSR lead smelter, later declared a Superfund Site because of the efforts of local residents using our lab to do their own testing. That's also how I got involved with the cement plants in Midlothian.” When Texans United folded prematurely in 1994, he worked out an agreement with a new group organized specifically to take the fight against the cement kilns to cities that didn't get most of their tax base from them - Downwinders at Risk.
Jim Schermbeck

They did that until December 1999, when they lost that fight. But instead of
closing shop, the group continued to fight the cement plants throughout DFW via anti-smog lobbying, capitalizing on the fact that cement kilns are major sources of smog-forming pollution.

The hard work paid off, Jim says, as “the next ten years were much more successful than the first.”

Jim Schermbeck at the Green Source Environmental Leadership Awards, accepting on behalf of Downwinders.

In that time, he adds, “There are now three regional milestones that I'm proud to have been a part of.”

First, West Dallas was declared an EPA Superfund site and at least nominally cleaned-up. Then the work in Midlothian rid the area of wet kilns in a couple of years, a result that put an end hazardous waste burning. Finally, these community efforts helped to produce new national EPA kiln emission rules, which most recently contributed to the closure of the Exide lead smelter in Frisco.

Despite these gains, Schermbeck remains conscious of the failures and obstacles that remain.

“I think my biggest failure, and the group's,” he says “was not being more aggressive about researching and opposing fracking when it first began to go big in North Texas after the 2005 Energy Bill exempted it from the Safe Drinking Water Act. I'm very sad to have seen my hometown of Fort Worth get victimized by the practice to the point where I wouldn't want to move my family back there and that is something I never thought I would ever say.”

With mounting environmental pressures on our air, Schermbeck says the future will see him working on more smog issues.

“DFW is still not in compliance with the Clean Air Act for ozone pollution. In fact, last year was the worst ozone season we'd had since 2007. We still need to bring state-of-the-art controls to the cement plants in Midlothian and reign-in emissions from the oil and gas industry, which have been exempted from the same kind of ‘off-sets’ requirements all other heavy industry must abide by.”

In regard to oil and gas, he believes there should be more local options for decreasing the air pollution caused by gas and oil drilling.

“There are ways to plug the loopholes that have allowed these emissions to go basically unchecked in DFW,” he explains. “We're trying to define and develop them, most recently in Dallas as that city tries to rewrite is gas drilling ordinance.”

The problem of the industrial wastes being burned in Midlothian cement kilns also remains. While hazardous waste is no longer burned, all three kilns have permits to burn tires and other kinds of industrial wastes, including plastic garbage and car parts.

And, in Frisco, even though it looks like the Exide smelter is closing at the end of the year, a lot of contamination will remain and needs to be cleaned-up, Schermbeck believes.

“I guess that Downwinders has transformed itself over the last couple of years from being a single issue group addressing only the Midlothian cement plants into the leading defender of DFW air quality, no matter the threat. That's why we decided to help found the Frisco Unleaded group, and why we decide to get involved in the Dallas gas drilling ordinance. We're trying to cover a variety of issues on our blog, and I suppose we get the message out that way and through our work.”

Schermbeck urges everyone to get involved by supporting local groups and causes.

“You're already involved [anyway] if you're breathing air in DFW. The question is what are you going to do about breathing air that is neither legal or safe: be a passive receptor or active citizen,” he concludes.

In that regard, Jim Schermbeck has already made his decision.

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