NEW BRAUNFELS, TEX. -- Descendants of the German settlers in this central Texas town like to say that, in New Braunfels, "ist das Leben Scho n." That "beautiful life" is centered on the rushing Comal River, which bisects the town, and includes year-round recreation and tourism, several Victorian antique and specialty shops and bakeries featuring apple strudel and cherry dumplings.
Recently, however, that old saying has given way to a newer one -- "Just say nein" -- as residents turned out squarely against the application by a local cement-manufacturing plant for a state permit to burn toxic waste to fuel its kilns.
Use of toxic waste as fuel at cement plants has been increasing since 1979. About 25 U.S. cement companies have at least partly replaced coal with toxic waste, saving fuel costs and disposing of hazardous waste that otherwise would have been destroyed in a federally regulated incinerator.
Lafarge Corp., based in Reston, Va., and its subsidiary, Systech Environmental Corp., operate the manufacturing plant here.
Residents are angry about a regulatory loophole under which the company can burn toxic waste without heeding rigorous federal regulations that apply to incinerators.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency, if a toxic waste is used for fuel, it no longer is classified as waste but as a product used for recycling, freeing the company of the more costly regulations required of incinerators.
Further fueling residents' concern is the Martin Frost Amendment, named for the Democratic House member from Dallas and passed in 1984 to protect his constituents from waste-burning ovens. It requires cement companies in cities of 500,000 or more people to comply with expensive federal incinerator regulations when burning toxic waste.
"They moved the problem from urban populations to rural ones," said Jim Schermbeck, program director for Texans United, an environmental and consumer group in Dallas. "The result has been to make rural lives seem cheaper than urban lives."
Lafarge first applied for a permit in 1987, but that news did not reach the 32,500 residents of New Braunfels until last May when members of Greenpeace, the international environmental group, began knocking on doors.
David Wallace, president of the Secure a Future Environment (SAFE), said the citizens group then reviewed Lafarge's permit application. "When they talked about it in '87, they didn't mention toxic," he said. "They talked about 'recyclable material' and 'supplemental fuel.' We didn't know about toxic materials until Greenpeace came by."
The town reacted swiftly. More than 100 people crowded into Krause's Cafe in June and formed SAFE. City Council meetings had to be moved to the Civic Center when 1,000 people showed up to register protests, and state politicians in the midst of campaigns lined up to denounce the application.
"We moved here a year ago because it seemed like such a nice place to raise kids," said Cindy Bowers, reflecting the views of her neighbors in this community 30 miles northeast of San Antonio. A housewife and mother of two young children, she added, "I would never have bought a house in New Braunfels had I known about this last year."
Melvin Eifert, executive vice president of Systech, said: "We have never seen anything like this. There are fears about this raised all across the country, but the strongest opposition we've seen has been in New Braunfels."
Eifert said waste expected to be burned at the plant is from products found in every house and business: solvent-based materials such as paints and stains, ink residue from newspapers and printing and oil compounds, almost all of which will come from the region.
"We're all involved in the generation of these wastes," he said. "Our life style generates it. The best way to manage that waste is through thermal destruction. It is a sound technology.
"All we ask for is our right to be heard in the permit process. We think a lot of the emotional concern will be removed as our project is reviewed on its technical merits."
Events in town, however, make support doubtful. "Supporting this would be like coming out against motherhood and apple pie," Mayor Arno Becker said. "To my knowledge, there just isn't a core group of people supporting this."
Lafarge and Systech officials insist that concern about emissions and transporting waste to the plant are the result of fear tactics promoted by environmental groups. When one Lafarge executive suggested that opponents of the permit were "ecoterrorists," some residents, including many retired conservative Republicans, proudly sported T-shirts saying: "Ich bin ein Ecoterrorist."
The EPA plans to release new regulations next March for burning toxic waste in cement kilns, and Lafarge officials said they will be in compliance at the plant here. "Basically, the emission standards will be the same" as current incinerator regulations, according to EPA environmental engineer Dwight Hlustic.
Environmental groups remain skeptical. "Rhetorically, they're saying the regulations will be about the same," Schermbeck said. "Actually, they're not at all the same."
Schermbeck said the major difference is that ash from the cement kilns is exempt from the new regulations and will be buried in landfills not federally regulated. "The EPA is promising to bring everything up to par, but it's just not happening," he said.
The New Braunfels City Council, meanwhile, has agreed to spend $50,000 on legal representation to fight Lafarge's permit application.
"This is a no-compromise situation," Wallace said. "This permit would give away the health of our children."