Tuesday, May 24, 2022 May 24, 2022
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The City’s New Environmental Commission Will Not Be Working Quietly

The city’s new environmental commission gives residents a voice as Dallas engages in a climate action plan and seeks to further block concrete batch plants from operating near residential neighborhoods.
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Latino’s Ready Mix, one of 20 concrete batch plants located in West Dallas’ District 6. Kathryn Bazan

Kathryn Bazan recently noticed a sign from the city announcing roadway repairs near her home in East Dallas. A company called Heritage Materials would be providing concrete for the job.

Bazan—a former Texas Commission of Environmental Quality staffer, organizer, and Sierra Club member—knew that Heritage planned to operate a concrete batch plant near the Dixon Circle neighborhood in southeast Dallas. This is also near Parkdale Lake, which Oncor recently donated to the city of Dallas so it could develop a 110-acre park and a connection to the 50-mile Loop Trail. And because this area is zoned as an Industrial Manufacturing district, the batch plant was permitted to operate there without so much as a public hearing.

“I don’t want street repairs if it comes at the price of health and well-being of my neighbors and their families,” Bazan told me last week.

Bazan on Friday was named the chair of the city’s brand-new environmental commission, a body made up of volunteer residents and advisory experts charged with making sure the city is implementing its climate action plan, which was approved by the City Council in 2020. It also funnels complaints from the public to city staff.

During Friday’s meeting, the city presented the commission a solution: amend the zoning code to require batch plants in these areas to acquire a Specific Use Permit, or SUP, which would open the operation to vetting by the city’s planners and Council.  

Batch plants are not new, but the fight against them has become louder and more organized in the past year. These operations can be enormously disruptive to nearby residents. One recent proposal from an operator asked the city for permission to run 18 to 20 trucks up to 75 times each day. Batching towers, called silos, can spew chemicals and particulate matter. Wind whips up piles of sand and aggregate. They often work into the night, blasting the property with high-wattage LED bulbs.

You can see how you might not want to live near one of these. And yet, West Dallas’ District 6 is home to 20 such batch plants.

“There is power in data,” said West Dallas resident Janie Cisneros during public comment. “I have an air quality monitor connected to my house. These monitors provide empirical evidence that our air is far from clean.”

The public now has a place to take those complaints. The city dissolved its previous Environmental Health Commission in 2011, eliminating an important mechanism for residents to follow policy and call for accountability. Environmental issues were scattered elsewhere, funneled through a committee of council members, the city’s planning and zoning mechanisms, and other adjacent public bodies.

The Comprehensive Environmental and Climate Action Plan, called CECAP, ordered the city to bring this back: a body focused just on environmental issues and following the implementation of the new climate plan. Without it, it’s easy for problems to go unnoticed until it’s too late.

Like a temporary batch plant setting up shop near a residential neighborhood. That word “temporary” is important. The law defines “temporary” as 180 days in operation or until the project it is producing concrete for is complete. It does not require a public hearing. That means, if a community doesn’t speak up in time, the batch plant goes in. This also creates a frustrating game of Whac-a-Mole for activists who are seeking to block these from setting up near homes and schools and churches.

City staff on Friday—the commission’s second meeting—said that it was pursuing a policy that would require all batch plants acquire that SUP, which would allow the city to actually analyze each project to determine whether the location and the operation are appropriate.

Longer term, there are zoning changes and other more holistic approaches to addressing the issue that will need research and consideration. (Environmental activists are calling for a 1,500-foot buffer between homes and a batch plant, which would effectively push them out of residential neighborhoods.)

But in the immediate future, this seems like a quick win for this new body. It got staff to research what it could do, the city found something it should have been doing for many years, and it has announced plans to do it. It won’t affect the plants already operating, but it will impact the plants to come—and there are always more to come.

“I’ve said this before—we need concrete,” Bazan told me. “We absolutely need concrete to meet our infrastructure goals, our regional mobility goals, but they don’t have to be located in our residential neighborhoods.”

The commission has plenty work to do: an initial review of the city’s racial equity plan appears to be lacking in exploring how industrial uses have long been concentrated in Black and Latino communities and how to change that, for instance. After being briefed on the work, commission member Charles Dankert asked about an environmental equity checklist. Lindsay Wilson, the city’s chief equity officer, said she would look into it and “provide feedback.”

In a way, that’s a win, too. The public can demand action on these items, from incorporating further research into broad plans to more direct changes, like helping train 311 call takers to understand that environmental problems are fluid, that trucks disappear for the day, emissions vary, and it’s incumbent upon the city to respond quickly to catch these complaints and respond to them.

“If I call in the morning at 8’o clock about the dust storm in Joppa, which there was today, the person who comes out won’t come out until tomorrow or the day after that,” said commission member Temeckia Durrough, who lives in Joppa and represents District 7 in southeast Dallas. “We need to implement this ordinance about working with 311 and educate 311 on how to input environmental calls.”

It’s not just Joppa. Commissioner Renee Roberson gave a detailed explanation of the path concrete trucks take through southern Dallas: It’s not too bad at Ledbetter, she said, but drive up Bonnie View from I-20 and “that’s where it’s really concentrated.” In Friday’s meeting, these specifics tumbled out as if there had been no place for them to go.

CECAP, the climate action plan, has a goal to reduce greenhouse emissions in Dallas by the year 2030. It calls for all new construction to be net-zero, which means buildings generate as much energy as they use, and encourages density in some parts of town. Staff is still focusing on the blank slate of Hensley Field near Grand Prairie and the concrete-covered Valley View area as opportunities; hopefully the commission will push the city to improve zoning and transportation infrastructure in neighborhoods that would allow residents to work and live without using a car as often. The politics will likely be more difficult there.

As noted by Susan Alvarez, the assistant director for the office of Environmental Quality and Sustainability, “transportation accounts for the highest share of our emissions.”

“The goal here is to have access that’s across the community for sustainable, affordable transportation options,” she said.

The commission seemed eager to take on these bigger-picture issues, particularly as the city finalizes the update to its land use policy. But some problems can be dealt with quicker.

“Batch plants will choose to locate within marginalized communities because land is cheaper,” Cisneros said on Friday during public comment.

And now, with the environmental commission, the city has to face up to that reality—and do something about it.

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Matt Goodman

Matt Goodman

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Matt Goodman is the online editorial director for D Magazine. He's written about a surgeon who killed, a man who…

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