In the 1990s, legal clerk Erin Brokovich (who had no formal legal training) investigated a Pacific Gas & Electric facility in Hinckley, California, which was poisoning the residents of the town, often with tragic results. Her environmental crusade was later made into an eponymous 2000 movie starring Julia Roberts.
At about the same time, Phyllis Glazer — a well-to-do, stay-at-home Jewish housewife in east Texas — launched what would turn out to be a six-year-long campaign against a Gibraltar Chemical Resources plant that was polluting the area’s huge aquifer and making the mostly poor, often black, residents in the small town of Winona seriously ill.
(During the course of Glazer’s struggle, the plant was bought out by American Ecology Environmental Services Corp.)
We recently spoke with Glazer, now 70, about her campaign, which took an enormous emotional toll on her, her husband and her children, as well as on her financial resources. Why did she persist? Part of the reason, she says, had to do with what her father taught her about the Holocaust.
Amazing Jews: One day in October 1991 — a day I’m sure you’ll never forget — you drove by the Gibraltar plant not far from the ranch you and your husband owned, near Winona. What happened?
Phyllis Glazer: I’m driving along, taking one of my sons to school, and my ranch manager came up behind me and was honking his horn. It turned out he had a box of specimens he wanted me to send off to a university. Just as I was getting back into my SUV, I felt the ground shake under me really hard. I thought there was an earthquake.
I proceeded down the road, at which point I saw a huge plume of a dark reddish-brown smoke emanating from the Gibraltar plant. The smoke was so thick I had to turn on my headlights even though it was daytime. And the plant’s employees were pouring out of the building and running for their lives.
Did you experience any symptoms right away?
I started gagging and my eyes started tearing. It felt like some sort of fluid was filling my chest. So I stepped on the accelerator as far as it would go to get out of the area as fast as possible. My son, Max, was in the car with me, but he was asleep.
What happened after that?
Within a day or two my toenails started curling up, and then they fell off. And I developed these huge, white twisted pustules in my mouth, down my throat. It looked like the upper portion of my mouth had stalactites hanging down. So I went to my doctor in Dallas, who said he’d never seen anything like it. He told me I really needed to get to an ear, nose and throat doctor. Well, I couldn’t get an appointment for months, but by then my symptoms had cleared up.
What about Max? Did he experience the same symptoms?
No, but he did develop a cough that has never completely gone away. The same thing happened to my middle son, who also still coughs.
Let’s fast forward a couple of months. There was a turning point for you when Gibraltar held a public hearing to discuss their plan to expand the plant threefold. You attended the meeting and became uncharacteristically vociferous and irate.
I’d always been a housewife; I’d never picketed anything or carried out any sort of civic action. I was never very political. In any event, the hearing was mandated by federal and state regulations…
Because what Gibraltar was running was a toxic waste dump, a commercial hazardous-waste injection well facility. They had two wells that were open-ended and went a mile deep. And all these big 18-wheeler trucks — sometimes 30 at a time — would line up in this little town and dump the most dangerous, most toxic chemicals into the wells.
In Texas you have mineral rights all the way to the center of the earth, so what these polluters were doing was considered mineral trespass. Not only that, the toxic materials they were dumping could leach into the surrounding land and into a giant aquifer — one of the largest drinking water aquifers in the country — that was in the area. As it turned out, we learned these wells already had holes and cracks in them, and they were in fact poisoning the water supply.
What happened at the meeting?
Someone shouted out to the representative from the company, “What are you going to do about poisoning our drinking water?!” The representative made some grandiose statement to the effect that Gibraltar had financial assurance to clean up anything that needed to be cleaned up.
I was up on my feet right away, and in a pretty forceful voice I replied, “What kind of fool thing did you just say?! Insurance companies don’t have the kind of money to clean this up; I don’t think even the government does. I don’t think it can be cleaned up!”
That marked the beginning of what turned out to be the lengthy campaign Glazer initiated and waged — with the help of local citizen volunteers and a number of prominent, high-powered individuals — to shut down the plant.
The woman who had never picketed anything in her life soon was picketing the plant — together with local citizens — on a weekly basis. It was quite a sight. From an article in the Dallas Observer: “In this flamboyant woman, with her multi-colored cowboy boots, gaudy silver jewelry and floor-sweeping skirts she calls ‘cowboy drag’… the town of Winona found an unlikely ally.”
The campaign engendered numerous death threats against Glazer and her family; she eventually moved her children out of the area, then out of state, for their safety. Members of MOSES (Mothers Organized to Stop Environmental Sins), the citizens’ organization Glazer created to fight Gibraltar, were also threatened.
In one particularly disturbing incident, some of her ranch animals were killed, mutilated and strung up on a fence outside her home. There were also gunshots aimed at her house.
Glazer was sued by the owners of the plant; she, in turn, sued the plant and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Financially, she spent millions of dollars of her own funds — money she inherited when her father died — to keep the fight going.
It truly was a David-and-Goliath story. In the end, David — Phyllis Glazer — was victorious, just as in the Torah. The owners of the plant shut down the facility in 1997.
Although Glazer no longer lives near Winona, she does return from time to time — sadly, to attend the funerals of people, many of them young, she knew whose lives have been prematurely cut short because of the toxic waste dumped by the plant.
And she has continued her environmental activism ever since.
Most people would have given up, yet you refused to abandon the fight. You’ve stated that even though your father was already deceased by that time, he had a major impact on your resolve to keep going. In what way did he influence you?
When my father was 19 years old and living in Latvia, where he was from, he managed to escape the country just two days before the Nazis came in. He was quite a philosopher: He used to tell me the winds of a holocaust never cease. They come down in different places to different people but they continue to blow.
When I was a young child, he would say the reason six million Jews — including his family — were murdered was because people did not open their doors to protect their neighbors. And he said that I would know when I heard the knock on my door. He always told me that as if he was sure this was going to happen to me one day. In Winona, I heard the knock on my door and I opened it.
So for you there was a connection between the poison coming out of showerheads in the Nazi gas chambers and the poison coming from the chemical plant in Winona.
There was a definite connection. It doesn’t matter what kind of chemical poison is involved. What matters is that we’re not apathetic to what’s going on in the world around us. That we’re there for people who have no voice, people who can’t fight back and can’t protect their children.
How did your campaign affect your own children?
Unfortunately, my youngest son, Max, was the sacrificial lamb. I had to send him away from me for his safety, and he was a child who really needed to be with me. Some children are just needier than others. He had a very difficult youth, and that was my fault.
But there was nothing I could do. I couldn’t leave these people to their fate, when my family history and the history of the Jewish People demanded more of me than to walk away.
What did you say to Max about what you were doing?
When it all started, Max told me, “Mom, Dad says the lawyers and everybody think we should get out. We should leave this place, leave our land and go somewhere safe.” I asked him, “Where is safe? Where is safe today may not be safe tomorrow.”
Then I told him, “Max, you’re going to see something in your mother that neither of us knew was there. Sometimes in life you need to stand up and fight for something bigger than yourself. You cannot be deterred and you cannot be dismayed; you have to fight for what is right and good. Or this world will never be right and good.”
Although Hollywood did not make a full-length movie about your fight, you did garner considerable coverage in the media — both locally and nationally. An episode of NBC’S “Dateline” program, for example, called you the Toxic Avenger; the article in the Dallas Observer labeled you a Chemical Warrior. Do you view the campaign you fought and the publicity that resulted as your legacy?
No, no. My children are my legacy. My grandchildren are my legacy. Of course, I do hope I contributed to reducing the cruelty and meanness that is all around us. Not caring about people, especially poor people, just worrying about yourself — that’s all around us. Especially when the lives of poor people are considered to be worth less than the lives of the wealthy. That attitude really goes against what our country is supposed to stand for.
Before we finish, I must ask about the silk flowers you wear in your hair. Is there a story behind that?
Robert, my late husband, came down with Alzheimer’s approximately 12 years ago. For years I sat next to him in his study, only leaving the house to get my hair done and buy groceries. As he lost more and more of his memory — he didn’t know who his grandchildren were, for example — I called up my mother and said to her, “What can I do? Pretty soon he’ll forget me!”
She told me she had an idea. When I drove to her house, she was waiting at the door with a grocery bag filled with silk flowers with hair clips attached. She said that if I put them in my hair, it would help Robert remember me. And it worked: He did remember me till the day in 2009 when he had a fatal heart attack in a restaurant.
I gave him mouth-to-mouth resuscitation while another woman gave him CPR, but it was too late. He let out his last breath into me. That’s why I wear the silk flowers in my hair: in memory of Robert.