To put it plainly, the local environmental advocacy group Downwinders at Risk is not happy with the current City Council and staff.
“Our positioning is that no incumbent deserves any endorsement on the grounds of environmental justice issues,” said Evelyn Mayo, chair of Downwinders.
The group spelled out all their criticisms of this administration in a recent post on their website. “This is the most nonprogressive council in terms of deeds since 2002,” Jim Schermbeck, Downwinders’ director, said.
They remember a different time in Dallas, when, for about two decades, “residents had a string of thoughtful, sincere and righteously angry advocates who served on their City Council.”
Former Mayor Laura Miller stopped over a dozen coal plants from being built during the administration of Gov. Rick Perry and implemented the first green procurement ordinance in the region. Former City Council member Angela Hunt hunted down waste, corruption and “staff shenanigans.”
Then, there were former City Council members Scott Griggs, Philip Kingston and Mark Clayton who helped defeat the Trinity Toll Road and gas drilling prospects in Dallas.
“Sometimes they fought their council opponents directly. Sometimes they made sure documents that were never supposed to see the light of day got their own spotlight,” the post read. “You knew these partisans would find a way to advance the cause. Because that cause was why they wanted to serve.”
When Griggs lost the mayoral election to Mayor Eric Johnson and Kingston lost his council seat, no one was left to advance that cause.
“As a result, the current Dallas City Council is the least progressive in deed, if not in rhetoric, since 2002,” the group wrote.
They say there were two historic crises in Dallas in the last year, Shingle Mountain and the police response to the George Floyd protests, and that every elected official failed to step up to the plate when it really mattered.
Despite a few grillings at council meetings, the group said former police Chief U. Reneé Hall didn’t face any consequences for her officers' response to the protests. And although protesters marched in the streets demanding cuts to the Dallas Police Department budget, no council member answered their calls.
They say the entire council turned its back on Marsha Jackson and others in South Dallas’ Floral Farms neighborhood suffering health problems caused by a mountain of shingles in the area.
“They all had the opportunity to do something about Shingle Mountain, even say anything, visit Marsha, give their condolences, accept responsibility, anything and none of them did,” Mayo said. Jackson is on the Downwinders at Risk board.
Additionally, 10 current City Council members said during their 2019 election campaigns they would work to reestablish the Environmental Health Commission if they got elected.
Formed in the '80s, the commission was discontinued in 2010, around the same time the gas drilling controversy was beginning to heat up in Dallas. Its 15 members would meet about once a month to take on Dallas’ environmental ailments. You can catch a glimpse of what the commission was like going to the old website for the city.
The commission’s agendas, minutes and presentations from as far back as 2007 are all still available. The links for 2005 and 2006 are broken. Schermbeck said residents would be living in a different Dallas if the commission stuck around and that it could have prevented Shingle Mountain.
“Not a single City Council member made a motion to [reestablish the commission] when Jackson and her allies asked them to follow through on their commitments last April,” the group wrote. “Jackson could not count on a single current City Council member to be her advocate.”
They also specifically came down on City Council member Omar Narvaez, chair of the council’s environment and sustainability committee. Narvaez will often point out that he never knew much about the environment and was actually more interested in focusing on housing. But he got stuck with the environmental committee.
As chair, Schermbeck said, Narvaez paid too much attention to shepherding the city’s climate plan instead of dealing with environmental concerns of Dallas residents. Despite pleas from Jackson and other residents, Narvaez didn’t add the reestablishment of the Environmental Health Commission to the climate plan ordinance. The plan does nothing to address problems like Shingle Mountain. Instead, it’s heavily focused on storm water management and tree cover.
“[Narvaez] kept using the old ‘it’s in litigation’ dodge in public to avoid answering any questions about Shingle Mountain even though city officials routinely discussed it when it suited their PR agenda,” the group wrote.
Narvaez never discussed the environmental justice connection to majority people of color neighborhoods in Dallas. Narvaez acted more swiftly in organizing a task force after Oncor cut down five acres of trees near White Rock Lake.
“Replacing trees in North Dallas, not reducing human suffering in Southern Dallas, was the priority of a council member representing an overwhelmingly POC district, which also happens to the the birthplace of the modern environmental justice movement in Dallas,” the group wrote.
They said Narvaez was a good soldier for the mayor and city staff, which made him an awful chair of the environmental committee for southern Dallas residents “during the most serious environmental justice controversy in the last 25 years.”
“[Narvaez] doesn’t know a damn thing about the environment,” Schermbeck said. As far as advocates are concerned, that would be fine if he didn’t also give District 8 Council member Tennell Atkins all the credit as the facilitator for the clean up of Shingle Mountain. In a recent PSA shared on social media, Downwinders at Risk called Atkins the best council member North Dallas can buy.
Narvaez also bragged about Joppa getting its own air monitor from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, even though the monitor is actually located in Bonton, 3 miles north of Joppa.
Bonton doesn’t have all the industry Joppa does, but Narvaez said the monitors there would more accurately represent the air Joppa residents are breathing.
“Narvaez should have been the chair of housing, not the environmental committee. As the latter, he’s set the cause of environmental justice back years,” they wrote. "Despite being an over-the-top Star Wars geek, when the time came to make his own choice in his own movie, he went over to the Dark Side.”
Council member Adam Bazaldua has also disappointed the advocacy group. His District 7 is home to Joppa, Dallas’ most polluted neighborhood per capita.
Another large asphalt shingle factory called TAMKO sits there. The smell of asphalt cooking fills the air all day long.
The shingles dumped in Floral Farms most often came from the West Dallas GAF factory or TAMKO in Joppa. Bazaldua followed along when Narvaez said Bonton was the best place for the Joppa air monitor. Additionally, he’s seemingly neglected environmental issues while on council, according to Downwinders.
For example, Bazaldua didn’t join Joppa residents in their fight against an Austin Asphalt batch plant permit renewal, even though the plant’s air modeling hadn’t been revised from its original, sparsely-populated West Texas location to reflect its new, much denser urban Dallas spot.
Bazaldua said they are still interested in reestablishing the environmental health commission. However, he said he'd rather continue these efforts when the city charter is under review and the commission can be added in and protected from future councils that may want to get rid of it. He says he's always made himself available to hear residents' environmental concerns. Additionally, along with environmental justice, Bazaldua said there are a bunch of issues the city could take a harder stand on, but bureaucracy and a lack of resources often get in the way.
Narvaez said he's proud of what they've been able to accomplish since he became chair of the environmental and sustainability committee. He said this includes the clean up of Shingle Mountain, reviewing city practices that lead to such environmental threats, the passage of the Comprehensive Environmental and Climate Action Plan and more.
"Jim Schermbeck needs to spend less time attacking the people on his side and spend more time helping us build a coalition to pass pro environmental policy," Narvaez said. "It takes eight votes to get anything done."
While Atkins takes a lot of credit for the clean up of the site, he said Shingle Mountain and environmental justice are two different issues. “Shingle Mountain was an issue that I brought to the forefront,” Atkins said. “I was the one who brought everything up to council.” They are working to make sure the city doesn’t see another Shingle Mountain, he added.
He cites the Shingle Mountain clean up, the mayor’s creation of the environment and sustainability committee and their efforts to clean up pollution from a 90-year-old electroplating factory as examples of their focus on environmental justice. “That is a No. 1 priority,” he said. Atkins also said they are still looking into reestablishing an environmental health commission.
But still, Schermbeck said elected officials’ attitude toward environmental issues has trickled down to their staff. “Philosophically, it’s a staff thing, I believe, that no one on the council and the mayor bothers to correct,” he said. “Nobody on the council gives a damn about environmentalism or about environmental health, and so they let the staff do what they want.”
So far, Downwinders has endorsed three candidates: Gioviani Valderas for District 1, leader of the Dallas Community Police Oversight Coalition Walter "Changa" Higgins for District 7, and former city plan commissioner Paul Ridley for District 14.
Valderas, running against City Council member Chad West, grew up in Oak Cliff. He taught at Dallas College’s Mountain View campus and has served on the council’s Cultural Affairs Commission.
Higgins, challenging Bazuldua for the District 7 seat, is a familiar face at police reform protests in Dallas. He’s led the Dallas Community Police Oversight Coalition and been a close ally to Downwinders over the years.
Ridley is council member David Blewett’s challenger. He served on the plan commission and the landmark commission. He’s also been on the board of the Greater Dallas Planning Council for the last 12 years.
But Schermbeck said whoever’s onboard after the May 1 elections can learn a lot from how Houston has been tackling environmental justice. “There is a real difference in philosophy about how you deal with these issues on the city level between Houston and Dallas,” he said. “They’re exactly opposite of each other and I don’t think that serves the city of Dallas' residents very well.
"While Houston residents may complain the city doesn’t do enough, they at least have a toxicologist on staff, someone who will come out to their neighborhoods and say, ‘Yes, you should be opposing this. This is a bad idea. This is bad for your lungs.’”
Not everyone was affected by these shortfalls, they wrote. “But maybe next week, next month, or next year you will be in a similar situation,” they write. “Through no fault of your own you’ll need a Council Member to intervene on your behalf. But if it conflicts with the Staff’s agenda, or makes the Council Member go out on limb, you might be disappointed.
"If the Council won’t take on the police when they put out eyes, or polluters when they dump illegally by the truckload, what are the odds your cause will rate action?”
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.