BY HER OWN ACCOUNT, PHYLLIS Glazer was once a pampered society matron who spent I her days cruising antique I stores and enjoying long lunches with her rich Dallas friends. Her only real care in the world seemed to be keeping her big hair in perfect order. Sporting a wedding ring with a pistachio-size, marquise-cut diamond and favoring the gaudy Western clothes she calls "cowboy drag," Glazer, 49, didn't so much risk caricature as embrace it. As for her interest in the world beyond the boutiques, well, don't ask. "I was lucky to know who was President," she says. Above all, as a well-bred Sun Belt princess, Glazer observed the time-honored dictum that a lady should never raise her voice in public.

But for the past several years a bullhorn has become Glazer's most conspicuous fashion accessory. After learning that poor people living near her sprawling country estate were suffering from severe medical problems they attributed to pollution from a nearby chemical plant, Glazer went to war with the company. "I'm their worst nightmare," she says of her battles with the plant, including the filing of three lawsuits, "and darn proud of it."

Glazer admits she can't quite fathom her conversion to toxic avenger. Raised in Tucson, the daughter of wealthy ceiling-grate manufacturer Leo Krueger and his wife, Mildred, she led a life of unquestioned privilege. But she never graduated from high school (although she later earned a GED), and, at 17, in accord with the then-common practice in her Orthodox Jewish community, she accepted an arranged marriage which produced two sons, David, now 30, and Steven, 27. The marriage ended in divorce after eight years, and in 1977 she married R.L. Glazer, whose Dallas family runs one of the largest wine-and-liquor distributorships in the country. Using part of her own inheritance, Phyllis in 1988 bought the magnificent 2,200-acre Blazing Saddles Ranch in Winona, 90 miles east of Dallas, a spread that had once belonged to famed oil baron H.L. Hunt.

At first the Glazers, who had a son of their own, Max, now 17, were unaware there was a toxic-waste-disposal plant in their neighborhood. Then, on Oct. 18, 1991, as Phyllis was driving Max to school, they passed the chemical plant, then known as Gibraltar Chemical Resources Inc. Thick reddish-brown clouds were belching into the air-and, more alarmingly, scores of workers were fleeing the plant. The fumes caused a burning sensation in Glazer's nose and throat, and within a few days she was shocked to see a large hole developing in her nasal septum, the soft tissue that separates the nostrils. "When I opened my mouth, it looked like everything inside had just melted," says Glazer. "The skin was hanging in shreds." It turned out that there had been an explosion at the plant when two chemicals had been accidentally mixed.

At a town meeting with company officials two months after the explosion, Glazer had her epiphany. She sat listening as executives downplayed concerns about the foul odors that routinely emanated from the plant and about the hundreds of tons of chemicals that were being pumped down a mile-long shaft in the ground to a supposedly secure rock formation. At one point a company official remarked that even if the facility had leaked pollutants into the groundwater, the aquifer could be easily cleaned up. In an instant Glazer was on her feet, shouting, "That's the most ridiculous thing I've ever heard!" Even in retrospect she is surprised by her outburst. "I was very intimidated all my life," she says. "[But at the meeting] I became a different person. I felt I had to do something, and I felt I was born to this fight."

Other people in Winona had been complaining about the plant for years, to little effect. Apart from the foul odors, they pointed to a disturbing pattern of health problems and birth defects, especially among people living close by the Gibraltar plant in the town's Wallace Bluff section, an area inhabited mostly by descendants of slaves freed after the Civil War. "There are 30 to 40 homes in my community," says Rachel Prince, a tutoring coordinator in the nearby Tyler school district who lives in Wallace Bluff, "and very few of them have not been hit by either cancer or birth defects." One of those afflicted elsewhere in the town is 10-year-old Michael Williams, who suffers from the genetic ailment called neurofibromatosis, which involves multiple aggressive tumors. "Michael's disease is not inherited from his father or myself," says his mother, Marti Williams, a registered nurse who specializes in oncology and chemotherapy. "I am convinced it is environmental."

Within months, Glazer had helped organize an offensive against the company. At her own expense she hired environmental engineers, who found pollution in a local private water well, and epidemiologists to assess the extent of the birth defects. Perhaps most importantly, she hired top-notch lawyers to take on the company, then rode herd on them to make sure they pursued the action aggressively. "She'll drive you nuts," sighs Houston environmental litigator Jim Blackburn, one of several attorneys who have worked with Glazer. "But so many people are unwilling to take a risk for others, and she is willing to take that risk." Glazer's legal expenses alone have totaled more than $1 million. "I've gone through my mother's money, my money, and now I'm going through my husband's to save children," she says.

To turn up the pressure even more, Glazer chartered buses to take neighbors to the state capital in Austin and to Washington to lobby congressmen and regulators to shut down the waste plant. "We had been worn down to the point where we didn't have much fight left in us," says Rev. Sylvester Curry, pastor of Winona's New Zion Baptist Church. "It was a blessing Phyllis came along. Everybody got fired up."

Or in some cases just hot under the collar. For the truth is that Glazer's activism didn't win her universal popularity in Winona. Critics point out that in the past the plant had donated thousands of dollars to the school district and had underwritten much of the cost of the local Little League. "She's got the community all stirred up, and a lot of it is just with false accusations," says Craig Attaway, principal of nearby Union Grove Elementary School. "If she could prove it with facts, that's one thing. But she can't prove it." Glazer says resentment against her ran so high that she received numerous death threats and took to sleeping with a pistol beside her pillow.

For its part, the company dismisses Glazer and her allies as so many fear-mongers. "We are a falsely created villain," says Larry Levine, a lawyer for American Ecology Corporation, which now owns the plant. "We dispose of waste in an extremely tightly regulated manner. We are part of the solution, not part of the problem." But the facility did have a lengthy history of air-purity and hazardous-waste violations-an Environmental Protection Agency enforcement officer called it a "horror to its neighbors"-and last March, American Ecology announced it would shut the plant down. Before pulling the plug, however, the company slapped Glazer and her family with a multimillion-dollar lawsuit, claiming they had wrongfully interfered with its business.

Glazer, apparently unfazed, professes more concern about the suits she and her neighbors have pending against American Ecology. The most important is a class action brought by 652 plaintiffs in Winona seeking more than $200 million in damages, a case that may take years to come to trial. In the meantime she worries about the continuing health problems of townsfolk, which she blames on the effects of pollution. "I've got numbness in my feet, and my toenails have fallen off," she says. "I've got short-term memory loss that drives me crazy." Yet Glazer is confident that she will one day see the company pay for the problems she believes it has caused. "I don't get heart attacks," she says with a smile. "I give them."

BILL HEWITT
LAUREL BRUBAKER CALKINS in Winona

  • Contributors:
  • Laurel Brubaker Calkins.