Second Thought: Wednesday, April 3, 2003
Know Which Way the Wind Blows

A Southside group wishes it didn’t share quite so much air with a smelly neighbor.


Prairie Plains people are sky watchers. Weather people. Yet a lot of this is automatic and unconscious in people who’ve lived under big skies their whole lives. Many Fort Worth residents don’t stop to think that we live on the Great Plains, just barely east of the “Dry Line,” which is why the city calls itself “Where the West Begins.” Though we may be urban dwellers, ecosystem forces don’t stop at the city’s edge.

Here on the Short South Side of Fort Worth, just south of I-30 and downtown, my nonprofit organization is based in a little old inner-city neighborhood that watches the sky for a different reason. By the area flags we can see which way the wind is blowing. If it begins to shift our way from the Motheral Printing complex at 510 S. Main St., we brace ourselves against fumes coming from the plant.

The fumes are often described as “metallic” and “like the smell of a burnt radiator.” The plant has a smokestack and some kind of giant cylindrical metal drum that hums and roars.

A few hundred people live in the plant’s immediate shadow. In addition to old houses on the surrounding streets, the low-income Pennsylvania Avenue Apartments are directly adjacent. Dozens of young, mostly minority, kids live in these apartments; their colorful playground equipment is literally only feet away from the plant.

I worry about these children. Due to their smaller body size, kids are more susceptible to toxins in their environment. I have no idea what is in the fumes coming off Motheral Printing, or whether the fumes are toxic, but I do know they make me sick after a few hours’ exposure. With a strong south wind coming off the plant and blowing the fumes right in our door, I begin to get headaches. I seem to lose full ability to concentrate clearly, the back of my tongue gets an unpleasant metallic taste, and sometimes I get dizzy. On a particularly bad day, even hours after I have gone home to my house in Como (which may have bullets and drugs but at least has clean air), I still feel after-effects. And I’m an extremely healthy 180-pound vegan athlete. If the fumes affect me, I wonder what they do to the children.

There are two other printing companies in the neighborhood, but they have no smokestacks or fumes. We wonder what Motheral Printing is doing differently from the other two.

The Short South Side is mostly overlooked by Fort Worth. It’s mixed-use industrial and residential. Purple banners along Jennings Avenue and Main Street proclaim “Fort Worth’s New Urban Village,” but many of the main buildings are abandoned, some bullet-riddled and decrepit, some just vacant and silent.

Next door to me, the little Mexican-American baby is learning to walk. Sunlight glints off his freshly shaved head and the tattered red, silver, and green Christmas tinsel that survives on the scrawny front-yard trees springing again to new life. Black, Hispanic, and Middle Eastern kids coming home from school with backpacks hop over or slide under the apartment complex fence for a shortcut. The homeless line up for some hot food in front of Broadway Baptist Church.

Motheral Printing’s building is owned by the Fort Worth Independent School District. FWISD has plans to convert the property into a much-needed high school. The school board and the superintendent could have solved this problem last August by not renewing Motheral’s lease, but they chose the corporation over the community.

I’ve been unable to get any answers except hostility from Motheral Printing and the school district. It seems that on the Great Plains, polluters rule, whether it’s the hazardous waste-burning cement kilns in Ellis County or factory farms or our own localized “friends” here. It seems that people who protest are the demonized ones.

To me, fumes like those coming from Motheral Printing are a form of chemical weapons. William McPherson, reviewing the landmark book Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee years ago for the Washington Post, remarked: “One wonders ... who, indeed, were the savages.”

Some of us affected daily by corporate pollution wonder who, indeed, are the terrorists.

Jarid Ni’al Manos is executive director of the Great Plains Restoration Council.

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