It’s time for one of the largest polluters in Dallas to renew its operating permit and its neighbors have had enough. On Thursday night, more than 42 West Dallas community members and advocates spoke out against GAF, the asphalt shingle manufacturer on Singleton that has spewed chemicals into the neighborhood since the 1940s.
With the help of state Rep. Jasmine Crockett, D-Dallas, West Dallas 1—a coalition of community organizers—successfully requested a hearing with the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) to challenge GAF’s permit renewal, which happens once every five years.
At the beginning of the hearing’s informal discussion period, GAF spokesman Tommy Richardson announced that the plant’s Title V permit would be identical to its current one. Under the federal 1990 Clean Air Act, major industrial operators must obtain a Title V permit in order to operate. Among other things, it dictates the amount of emissions a plant can produce.
“We’re here today renewing the Title V permit with no changes; it’s a standard renewal. And it’s required every five years,” he said.
For many West Dallas residents, a “standard renewal” is unacceptable. Despite the constraints of the EPA’s permit, they argue that GAF is still polluting the neighborhood. The plant has yet to install a sulfur dioxide scrubber, which would filter out much of the putrid gas. Stephanie Champion, an attorney with Legal Aid of Northwest Texas who is representing West Dallas 1, believes the permit violates both the Clean Air Act and the Civil Rights Act of 1964. In her prepared remarks, Champion argued that the neighborhood is disproportionately populated by people of color and that allowing the plant to operate there is discriminatory. Legal Aid is asking the TCEQ to deny the permit.
Located on Singleton Boulevard about four miles west of downtown, GAF’s plant is within a quarter mile of community centers, churches, daycares, schools, and both public and private housing. Neighbor Esther Villarreal’s family has “changed the way [they] run about town and enjoy the public facilities such as the Dallas West Branch Library,” she says. “We no longer attend programs in the morning, when I have heard from my neighbors and experienced myself the strong noxious odors coming from the plant. We now attend the library quickly, in and out. Short trips. We do not linger.”
GAF disputes being a bad neighbor. “With the renewal of this air permit, we intend to uphold our track record of safety and environmental compliance and look forward to continuing to invest and serve the West Dallas community,” Richardson said.
Noxious odors are not the only disruptors coming from GAF’s plant. GAF is the largest sulfur dioxide emitter in Dallas, churning out over 125 tons of the gas per year, according to data from the environmental justice nonprofit Downwinders at Risk. Sulfur dioxide exposure can lead to choking, coughing, and irritation of the eyes, nose, and throat. These issues are only compounded after a year and a half of fighting the pandemic of a respiratory virus.
For most of its time in West Dallas, residents had to rely on emission reports from GAF itself to fight against the toxic pollution it emitted into the community.
The past several years of GAF’s emission reporting display particulate matter to the same 10,000th decimal point each year, says Kathryn Bazan of the Dallas Sierra Club, who formerly worked for the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. Today, third-party technology allows community members to monitor the numbers themselves. Just last Sunday, Villarreal and her daughter used “Lisa,” a portable air monitor, to measure the particulate matter and sulfur dioxide spewing from Singleton.
“This is one of the most highly industrialized parts of the city. And we have to ask why the TCEQ hasn’t taken proactive steps to enforce emissions limits or implement control technologies that would begin to address that disproportionate burden of air pollution,” Bazan said. “This community has been made to endure this adverse and disparate impact is not justified in the TCEQ should require less discriminatory permit conditions of the applicant.”
Hyper-local data may be the best means of illustrating the environmental impact of GAF’s operation. In her statement, Champion cited “dark sticky substances covering automobiles” along with a sworn declaration of another resident who “suffers from a persistent cough and sinus problems that she developed only after moving to Kingbridge Crossing five years ago.” (Kingbridge Crossing is a nearby housing development.) These are the kinds of anecdotes that won’t be found on an official emissions report.
West Dallas 1 is propelling the charge with clear support from several city and state leaders. Members of the school board, city council, and state representatives voiced their support both directly and indirectly through written statements presented during the hearing. In his statement, Congressman Marc Veasey, D-Fort Worth, wrote, “As a representative for Texas congressional District 33, which includes most of West Dallas, I stand with the community in opposition to a renewal of the permit. Under the current circumstances, I urge you to take the concerns of the community seriously and ensure that you’re giving full consideration to the health effects that facility of this type might have on nearby residents.”
The TCEQ has already completed its review of the plant. It will now respond to each of Thursday’s public comments, which could trigger amendments to GAF’s permit review. Bazan said the community is asking for additional monitoring in that area “so they can be assured that GAF is not violating the permit’s emission limits.”
This process will not result in forcing the plant to stop operating. The TCEQ’s authorization does not affect municipal zoning or land use decisions, and changing those would require many hearings and potentially a court ruling.
“What I overwhelmingly heard from the community last night was they want GAF out of the neighborhood,” Bazan said in an interview after the meeting. “The industrial and residential adjacency are not compatible.”
Thanks to Thursday’s hearing, TCEQ now has official testimony of GAF’s presence in West Dallas to consider in its permit renewal process. It will likely take months to complete, as the agency is still working remotely.
To stay updated, West Dallas 1 is active on Instagram, @West_Dallas1.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misattributed a quote to Champion when it should have been to Bazan.