In the shade of towering trees on a warm April afternoon, the tiny Joppa community in southern Dallas seems like a sleepy country town. Thick greenery surrounds the small homes in quiet despite the buzz of traffic on Interstate 45 and Loop 12 a mile away. About 500 people live on this half of a square mile of land only a short walk away from the Trinity River bluffs.
On this windless spring day, only a whiff of the pungent fumes of an asphalt plant a few blocks away taints the air.
The neighborhood, a freedmen's town founded by former slaves, is a mix of new homes built with help from Habitat for Humanity, nicely kept older homes and older, worn-out houses. Joppa’s residents are mostly black and Hispanic. They are also mostly poor.
The Trinity River Audubon Center and the city-owned horse park are nearby. There are also a Union Pacific rail freight yard called Miller Yard, the asphalt plant, a building products factory, a gas cylinder manufacturer and seven other small industrial operations.
When residents learned that Union Pacific wanted Martin Marietta, a building materials manufacturer, to build two plants for mixing concrete inside the rail yard, some were worried about what that would mean for Joppa's air. Others desperately wanted the benefits promised in return for their support for Dallas City Council approval of the concrete batch operation.
On this Monday in April, friends and community association leaders Temeckia Derrough and Jabrille McDuffie are sitting on Derrough’s front porch, mulling over the controversy that roiled the neighborhood for 18 months. They had gone on tours of local concrete plants managed by Martin Marietta. They had joined community meetings at Joppa’s churches.
Concerned about health consequences, they found themselves arguing with neighbors who maintained it was best to allow the permits in return for job training, a community center, and rail yard improvements such as a safety crossing and barrier plantings. On March 28, at the end of a contentious City Council hearing at which both women and some 30 others spoke, council members denied the special use permit without prejudice in a 9-to-5 vote.
“Without prejudice” means the applicant can reapply immediately, starting a typically three- or four-month process to get to a new council hearing, instead of waiting two years.
How did Derrough and McDuffie feel about the decision?
“Oh, my God!” Derrough says.
“Relieved,” McDuffie chimes in.
But the question of whether and where to build more concrete operations isn't closed — not for Joppa or for the rest of southern Dallas. Whether near Joppa or elsewhere, concrete plants are headed for the area. The city’s Grow South development campaign and $53 million in bond-funded road building are moving forward. Every structure and every foot of road will need concrete.
Emissions and air quality information were the surprises in the public City Council hearing. The batch plant permit had gone through city staff review, Plan Commission approval and four previous City Council hearings without environmental challenges, which weren't part of the process.
“Staff’s review is more about meeting development code,” says council member Sandy Greyson. “Most zoning cases don’t involve environmental issues. The Office of Environmental Quality generally doesn’t weigh in on zoning.”
In the four previous council hearings, Greyson says, the concerns were about jobs.
Neighbors had long suspected pollution from nearby industry was contributing to health problems in Joppa. In their council testimony and in interviews, several cited respiratory diseases they did not experience before moving there, abnormally high incidences of cancer and family members whose asthma symptoms lessened after they moved away but recur when they come home to visit.
With a longed-for juggernaut of growth on the horizon, other southern Dallas residents could find themselves in the same fix as their neighbor: hungry for jobs and worried about environmental risks.
This isn’t just a southern Dallas issue, either. Whatever goes into the air down south streams northwest on the prevailing winds.
What made the case of Joppa so contentious was Dallas’ failure to address decades-old environmental discrimination that puts polluting industry near the neediest people.
“I moved here from Michigan,” McDuffie says. “I grew up knowing about the civil rights movement. I told my friends, hey, I’m living in a freedmen’s town. How cool. Then I started looking around and saw the neglect here. It’s not over.”
What made Joppa worse for Martin Marietta is that the company trekked through the city's bureaucracy, winning approval from staff along the way, only to have the environmental issue stop its plans at the last minute.
A wake-up call to communities zoned for concrete plants unrolled before the City Council audience where McDuffie, Derrough and other Joppa residents and supporters testified in March. The news was both alarming and hopeful.
Mixing and moving concrete unleashes fine particles of dust, called particulate matter, that float through the air and can enter the lungs of anyone who breathes them. The finer the dust, the bigger the threat to health, witnesses said at the council meeting. But tighter standards for concrete production can make the process cleaner.
Both the alarming data and the clean production standards came from Neil Carman, the Texas Sierra Club clean air director, based on nearly 40 years of experience regulating industrial emissions and consulting with industry and government. His written testimony was circulated around the council horseshoe and summarized by David Griggs, political chair the Sierra Club's state and local chapters.
The gist: Dust can be deadly. Concrete batch plants are dust mills, and their transporters are rolling dust machines.
Particulate matter comes from every ingredient used in concrete: sand, Portland cement powder, aggregate (rocks and gravel), potash and highly toxic “fly ash” from coal-fired power electrical plants. More particulate matter comes from the diesel exhaust of trains and from trucks that haul the concrete and kick up more dust from roads.
Many other industrial operations emit some form of particulate matter. In Joppa, it wafts from the asphalt batch plant in Union Pacific’s Miller Yard. Across Lindell Road, the enormous Tamko building products factory runs day and night.
The tiniest particles measure 2.5 or fewer micrometers in diameter. About 1/30 the width of a human hair, the tiny "soot particles are exceptionally toxic and can easily reach into the deepest, most vulnerable tissues … where toxins have direct access to the bloodstream,” Carman wrote.
They can affect the heart, lungs, brain, hormones and nervous system. The smallest particles are commonly associated with cardiac and respiratory disease. They're also related to more than a dozen other types of diseases and disorders, as physics professor David Lary of the University of Texas at Dallas detailed in a report to Joppa council member Kevin Felder.
Piles of sand line the Union Pacific rail yard near Joppa. The sand blows around on windy days, less benign than it looks. White dust mixed with emissions from smokestacks coats trees and grass. Water in an open bottle left on a front porch turns dark hours later.
“They’re surrounded. … There’s a roofing plant with over 100 tons of air pollution from this one plant alone,” testified Jim Schermbeck, director of clean air advocacy group Downwinders at Risk. “That includes 30 tons of sulfur dioxide.”
Combined with microscopic particles of dust and pollutants, it’s deadly, he says. “You can wipe it off the tree leaves here.”
The asphalt plant’s smokestack puts out “a heavy asphalt odor stronger than you’d smell from a newly paved street,” said a Sierra Club volunteer who’d visited Joppa. “That smell reminded us of airborne particles and volatile compounds in asphalt that are harmful to human health.”
Even with the Martin Marietta plan denied, Union Pacific estimates that Joppa's rail yard will receive 3.5 million tons a year of rock and gravel aggregate, says Dallas Cothrum, the lobbyist who represented Union Pacific in dealings with the city.
“It will take 30,000 rail cars to deliver it,” he says.
“That rock is going to come, and it’s going to get loaded on trucks to go to other batch plants in other locations, many of which are allowed by [zoning] right. … The amount of emissions produced by the extra 278 big truck trips a day is far greater than the amount of emissions that would have been made at Miller Yard [by batching concrete],” Cothrum argues.
Requiring rock haulers to transport rock to batch plants elsewhere would create an additional 42,000 tons of emissions annually, he stated in presentations to city staff, the Plan Commission and the City Council.
“That’s the problem, so that’s why staff recommended approval, and the Plan Commission recommended approval. You’re saving, at full [production] capacity, 278 big truck trips a day,” Cothrum says.
The difference is that the higher emissions from rock hauling will be released mostly along the truck routes, not entirely in Joppa, as would be the case with a concrete plant.
“The rock is going to come in at Miller Yard regardless of where the batch plants are. That’s the rail depot,” the only one in southern Dallas that takes raw materials, Cothrum says.
That hasn’t changed with the permit denial. Dallas needs concrete. Concrete plants are still coming, somewhere.
Properties zoned by Dallas for industrial manufacturing allow batch plants, Cothrum says.
“There is IM zoning elsewhere in the Joppa neighborhood. … I don’t know if batch plant companies are looking there. I expect they are.”
Richard Guldi, a materials scientist and Sierra Club conservation co-chair, questioned Martin Marietta's emissions study at the council hearing. Guldi faulted it for failing to show the weather assumptions on which it was based. The Sierra Club's Griggs criticized the study for not including all the emissions sources related to plant operations, such as truck traffic. No ambient air quality study of the site was provided until five days before the council hearing.
Did city staff or anyone at the Plan Commission meetings or four council hearings before the vote raise similar science questions?
“No one asked us to do further study,” Cothrum says. “City staff had it for nine months with no questions. Nobody at the Plan Commission questioned it.
"We were happy to agree to let the city regulate the numbers of emissions. … We agreed to put in $100,000 on public drainage improvements because storm water drains toward Joppa from [Interstate] 45.”
Will Union Pacific reapply?
“I couldn’t say,” Cothrum says. “Look how long that zoning case took ... two years and thousands and thousands of dollars. I can go to a site in Wilmer Hutchins or out in Dallas County and not have to do that.
“In my mind, based on doing this for a living, I’d say it’s unlikely that a new case will get filed for Joppa anytime soon.”
What's in the air
Joppa’s air quality in key pollutant categories is worse than in most of the U.S., according to information prepared by consumer advocacy group Public Citizen. Public Citizen used the Environmental Protection Agency’s environmental justice screening tool, known as EJScreen, to give a snapshot of Joppa’s environmental conditions. With government data on 11 pollutant categories and traffic levels nearby, combined with demographic data, the screening tool identifies low-income and vulnerable communities and estimates their burden of pollutants.
“The report shows a map of Joppa with high concentrations of particulate matter, ozone, toxic cancer risk,” Griggs said at the March 28 hearing. “It also rates respiratory hazards at 73 percent, which means only 27 percent of the state of Texas is in worse condition than Joppa for asthma.” The screening also rated Joppa at elevated levels for diesel particulates and air toxins.
North Texas has not met federal Clean Air Act standards in 27 years. So it was no surprise that Joppa, ranking poorly in a polluted region, compares even worse to the U. S. as a whole — about as badly as the worst 20 percent of U.S. sites.
Air monitors in Joppa would give accurate on-the-ground, real-time readings, but there is only one particulate matter monitor for all of Dallas County, on Hinton Street. The EPA has only three ozone monitors in Dallas County. The closest of those to Joppa is 9.5 miles away.
Downwinders at Risk, UT Dallas and the University of North Texas are collaborating on a citizens’ air monitoring system. Their recent trial in Joppa was too brief for verifiable results.
“The question is what kind of system determines the fate of a community before finding out what’s in the air?” Schermbeck of Downwinders asked at the council meeting. “Why didn’t Martin Marietta do this? Why isn’t the city doing this?”
As the contentious council session neared its close, Mayor Mike Rawlings turned to City Manager T.C. Broadnax.
“It’s imperative as we go forward on this issue, as we write economic development plans, that we deal with this issue throughout the city,” he said.
“It comes up time and time again. We’ve got to build this city. How are we going to do it in a safe, efficient way?" Rawlings asked.
Applause broke out across the chamber. Judging by who was clapping, the issue Rawlings meant was environmental health and safety.
Council members Sandy Greyson and Scott Griggs understood him to mean concrete batch plants.
“This came up before, in September 2012, at a hearing on a concrete plant by the Elm Fork soccer fields,” Scott Griggs says. “He gave a big speech at the end. The issue is where do you put them?”
In the Joppa case, the city appeared to have no system in place to evaluate the environmental hazards, consider batch plant sites away from neighborhoods and identify strategies to limit the effects of the intrinsic pollution of concrete making. It didn’t show that it has a process to evaluate and address the effects of projects in timely fashion — before a business has spent two years and thousands of dollars to be considered.
Environmentalists enlisted late by council member Felder attempted to fill the gap with a raft of serious questions and alarming data that no one had an answer for or time to address. It was a short, sharp shock that spelled out the hazards of concrete production and hauling and offered a helpful standard to control pollutants no one should have to breathe.
That’s what happened in March. It derailed the development train, at least temporarily, for good or ill.
Keep the Dallas Observer Free... Since we started the Dallas Observer, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Dallas, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Dallas with no paywalls.