Dallas Honored for Housing Poor People on Former Superfund Site

Another affordable housing complex in West Dallas sits not far from where a Trinity Groves cement plant will relocate.
Another affordable housing complex in West Dallas sits not far from where a Trinity Groves cement plant will relocate.
Amy Martyn

Dallas, a city that has repeatedly gotten in trouble for concentrating its affordable housing in poor, blighted areas, safely away from white people, is now being praised for housing poor people on a site that used to be contaminated with lead. So, hey, we're finally doing something right. 

The Environmental Protection Agency announced last week that the Dallas Housing Authority is being recognized for "excellence in site reuse in West Dallas." The site in question is a 13.6-square-mile swath that used to be a designated superfund site, thanks to a heavy dose of lead contamination. In the '90s, the Dallas Housing Authority cleaned out the contaminated soil, and the area is now home to a mixed-income neighborhood that the DHA built with the help of private developers and Habitat for Humanity. A YMCA and a Goodwill Industries also occupy the space. “...our cleanups have helped communities across the country return over 850 of the nation's worst hazardous waste sites to safe and productive uses,” says EPA assistant administrator Mathy Stanislaus in a statement. “There is no stronger testament to the power of redevelopment at a former hazardous waste site than what has occurred in west Dallas at the RSR site.”

That's nice, but let's review the history before we let the EPA pat itself and Dallas so hard on the back. 

Beginning in the 1930s, West Dallas was home to a plant that recycled lead, primarily old car batteries. Two decades later, with the lead plant already there, the Dallas Housing Authority built 3,500 public housing units across the street. Cheap houses and schools sprung up nearby around the same time, and by the 1970s West Dallas residents and some politicians began protesting the plant. Slowly, they gained traction. In the 1980s, a congressional investigation revealed that a high-level EPA official had blocked a proposed cleanup of the soil where the West Dallas housing project sat.  ''Of all the revelations that have come out in the recent months at the EPA, this is the worst example,'' then-Representative Elliott H. Levitas told The New York Times in 1983. ''The decision was made to expose human beings to health risks."

That same year, the city of Dallas finally denied a zoning application to allow the plant to continue operating, and the smelter shut down in 1984. But it took lawsuits and another decade until the Dallas Housing Authority finally cleaned the contaminated soil out of its public housing. In 1995, the Dallas Housing Authority settled a landmark housing discrimination lawsuit filed by Debra Walker, who alleged DHA and the federal government concentrated affordable housing in poor areas. As part of the settlement, the DHA was required to demolish and replace 2,600 units in the contaminated West Dallas project. "DHA only cleaned up the lead on its own property," civil rights and housing attorney Mike Daniel says in an email. The settlement left the surrounding neighborhood contaminated for years later. "The lead smelter and EPA took a long time to clean up the lead smelter and surrounding facilities ... The settlement also left a lot of contamination on the ground and on the buildings."

Rayella Delley grew up nearby on Kraft Avenue, in a house her parents bought when she was 4 years old. She went to the local schools and remembers the protests against the lead plant. No one tested her own property, though, until 2002.  At that time she read a news article about the long-shuttered lead smelter that provided a telephone number for residents to call if they wanted their yards tested for lead. After she called, an EPA worker took a sample and told her she qualified to get a total lead cleanup. In May 2002, the EPA took truckloads of soil out of the back and side of her yard. "The cleanup actions were conducted on specific areas of your property based upon previous sampling results," the EPA's on-scene coordinator wrote to her, somewhat vaguely describing the reasons why her soil was being taken away and replaced. 

Now, she reflects on her family history of cancer and wonders if it has any relation to the soil that was apparently contaminated with lead. The skin on her upper arms is covered with bizarre dark spots. Even with the new soil, "Grass don't live in the yard. It's hard to grow. There's always weeds coming up," she says. Last week, she received a letter from the EPA inviting her to the event that formally recognized the Dallas Housing Authority for its lead cleanup. Feeling that the local regulators acted too slowly in the past, she says she organized a small protest outside the building instead.


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