Decades back, when Raul Reyes Jr. would go to football practice in high school in West Dallas, the air outside was filled with a burning stench. The harsh smell came from the GAF asphalt shingle factory not far from the school. Now 47 years old, Reyes said a whole lot hasn’t changed since then.
“That’s every morning,” Reyes told the Observer. “That’s not just during football season. That’s every freakin’ morning.” Reyes is also the president of West Dallas 1, a coalition of neighborhoods in the area, which was created to amplify the voice of the community. One of its main focuses is environmental justice.
GAF is the lead roofing manufacturer in North America. The plant in West Dallas is the largest industrial sulfur dioxide polluter in the whole county, according to the state of Texas 2019 official emissions inventory. It’s also the fourth largest source of industrial particulate matter pollution and the ninth largest source of industrial carbon monoxide. It’s been operating in West Dallas for decades.
The environmental advocacy group Downwinders At Risk and Paul Quinn College partnered to create a study called "Poisoned by ZIP Code." According to the study, the city's worst air pollution is in the West Dallas ZIP code 75212.
Now, residents have the chance to end GAF’s reign in their community.
Critics of the plant have long sounded the alarm over the pollution, Reyes said. But the plant's permit is up for renewal, and West Dallasites are ready to fight its renewal.
GAF’s federal permit must be renewed every five years under the Clean Air Act. There’s a small window of time for public comment, and the neighborhoods wanted to take advantage of it.
Downwinders at Risk and Southern Sector Rising helped create a template for people to submit their concerns. Legal Aid of NorthWest Texas, assisted by the Texas Law Environmental Clinic and the Environmental Integrity Project, also submitted official public comments on behalf of West Dallas 1 and its affected members to TCEQ.
“As a West Dallas resident, this pollution is a threat to my own health, the heath of my family, the enjoyment of my home and the value of my property,” the template read in part. “The surrounding residential neighborhoods are routinely invaded by the noxious smells produced by the factory’s pollution.”
Through their advocacy, they persuaded the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality to grant a hearing for the renewal of GAF’s permit.
They’ve also been working with Southern Sector Rising and Downwinders at Risk to install air monitors in the area. “We’re gonna have to utilize all the tools in the bag, but at the end of the day our complaint is pretty simple,” he said. “‘You’re not safe for the community, and it’s time that we correct that.’”
Reyes said GAF and other developments have been allowed in West Dallas because of zoning decisions made decades ago.
But they’re also trying to be understanding. “We’re not saying it’s your fault because, again, you’re there because someone else granted you the space to be there,” Reyes said. “That’s obviously the city. That’s obviously the powers that be at that time, other politicians.”
He said some people in the community wanted it at the time too because of the jobs it would provide.
“At this point in 2021, we’re not the same community,” he said. “We’ve evolved. We’re smarter. We’re more alert to what’s going on.”
They’re pursuing this not only for themselves, but for future generations. “I believe, being a father of three, that I owe it to my children to speak up,” Reyes said.
If it weren’t for the West Dallas 1 coalition, Reyes said they wouldn’t have been able to act so quickly. “Back in the day, everything was very slow,” he said. “So, we were always caught off guard."
If they didn’t seize this opportunity, they may have been able to take it up with the city plan commission when the zoning had to be renewed. But Reyes doesn’t think they’d be able to do much at the city level because the land use conditions allow the plant to be there. “If that area is zoned for industrial land use, then there’s not much you can do about that,” he said.
Other than that, there’s not much infrastructure in the city for taking up an issue like this. That's why West Dallas is working with the Neighborhood Self Defense Project to create a West Dallas land use plan they hope the city will adopt. The Floral Farms neighborhood, where Shingle Mountain was erected, is also trying to get a land use plan adopted by Dallas to prevent another environmental disaster.
For its part, GAF insists that everything is "safely manufactured" at their plant. "As an employer, we take great pride in our West Dallas operation, including our 120 colleagues working good union and non-union jobs, the quality products we manufacture, our track record of safety and environmental compliance, and our involvement in the local community," a spokesperson told the Observer.
"This permit is a standard, pro-forma renewal to which we are not seeking any changes," GAF added.
Meanwhile, West Dallas 1 has also called for a permanent environmental commission in Dallas.
The city used to have such a thing. It was called the environmental health commission. Formed in the '80s, the commission was discontinued in 2010. 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 this 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.
During their November meeting in 2007, for example, they discussed a program intended to revitalize parts of West Dallas where properties may have not been redeveloped because of groundwater contamination.
The following year, the commission heard a presentation about the air quality in Dallas. It labeled smog, particulate matter, nitrogen dioxide, sulfur dioxide, carbon dioxide and lead as six focus pollutants. The last two commission meetings were canceled. From 2009 to 2011, around the time the commission was discontinued, Reyes said developments moved swiftly through West Dallas.
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