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Is the City of Dallas Actually Getting Serious About Environmental Justice?

Environmental activists have spent years raising awareness of how industry has been allowed to exist near homes in southern and West Dallas. One recent Saturday, they got to ask top city officials a question: How are you going to fix it?
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shingle-mountain-sign
A sign on Shingle Mountain, placed there to get the city's attention. (Courtesy: Jim Schermbeck)

A few Saturdays ago, something monumental happened in a small room at the Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center. A longtime activist told me it was “probably the most significant development on environmental justice issues since Shingle Mountain was cleaned up,” in 2021.

The top of the org chart at City Hall sat on a stage with the community leaders who have spent years organizing to prevent and eliminate environmental disasters plaguing their neighborhoods. It was the first time the public got to hear them all speak to one another.

City Manager T.C. Broadnax was there; as was Julia Ryan, the city’s director of planning; and Carlos Evans, Dallas’ director of environmental quality and sustainability. They shared the stage with Marsha Jackson, the homeowner troubled for years by Shingle Mountain; Evelyn Mayo, Paul Quinn’s urban research fellow; and Janie Cisneros, the founder of the neighborhood advocacy group Singleton United/Unidos, who has for months protested the GAF shingle manufacturer near her home in West Dallas.

That roster is important. Jackson, Mayo, and Cisneros have spent the past few years trying to get City Hall to pay attention to them. Jackson and Cisneros live in communities surrounded by heavy industry, the result of decades of land-use planning that has disproportionately subjected Black and Latino residents to pollutants, dust, and disturbances. (Cisneros’ organization on Friday called for the city to force GAF to move, listing a host of federal and state emission concerns dating back to 1979 as evidence that it needs to be nowhere near where humans live.)

The people in control were giving an audience to the people who are affected by their decisions, the people who are loudly critical and frustrated with a lack of action from policymakers.

“It was critical that the city see what was actually happening in their neighborhoods,” said Jim Schermbeck, the director of the environmental justice nonprofit Downwinders at Risk. (He’s also responsible for the quote at the top of this story.)

The event was organized by Paul Quinn College as part of the Dallas-based global environmental forum known as EarthX, which has historically focused more on worldwide threats like rising sea levels than on how particulate matter from concrete batch plants destroys the quality of life for residents on windy days.

The Broadnax panel capped a day of events that focused on neighborhoods: how highways tore through the 10th Street Historic District, how Love Field cut into Elm Thicket/North Park, how residents are measuring particulate matter from industrial plants in Joppa, how the city has used federal funding to concentrate subsidizing housing in southern Dallas, how the GAF shingle manufacturer spews odors and chemicals that force families to keep their kids inside.

City staffers milled about for much of the day, bouncing between sessions. That meant they heard some difficult truths. Caleb Roberts, a senior associate with Buda-based consulting firm Gap Strategies, argued in a morning panel that African American communities often exist “in conflict” with the cities in which they exist. “They treat your community kind of like a stain,” he said. “Why is there heavy industry around it?”

Here’s what he means: zoning decisions have stuffed these neighborhoods with the types of industrial uses that would never fly in Whiter, more affluent areas. Much of Mayo’s work is exploring this reality in Dallas, an extension of her research into how Shingle Mountain came to be. Paul Quinn’s report titled “Poisoned by ZIP Code” mapped how the city zoned industrial land largely in southern and western Dallas, often adjacent to homes and neighborhoods. In doing so, Dallas devalued the land and made it difficult for these communities to build generational wealth compared to other neighborhoods in the same city.

“That means your grandma’s house that could have been worth $200,000 or $300,000 is only worth $75,000,” Roberts said. “Not because of the structure or closeness to resources—just because of who she is.”

The day seemed structured to get a message across: Dallas needs to reform its zoning code. The city is currently engaged in updating a comprehensive land use plan, called ForwardDallas, which, in layman’s terms, will dictate what can be built and where. Ryan, the chief planner, admitted that the city has no land-use plan to inform strategic decisions.

“And we know people were left out of previous land-use decisions,” Evans said.

That’s why this was important for everyone to be in the same room: the folks organizing on the ground, the residents who have to live among industry, the policymakers who have the power to change how this city develops in the future. It’s why UTD professor Dr. David Lary explained his particulate matter (PM) mapping project, the first of its kind, which lets Dallasites see the amount of PM in the air at any given point in the day. SharedAirDFW tracks emissions in neighborhoods that are “supposed to be the front window for the Great Trinity Forest,” as Schermbeck put it.

The city only recently approved its own set of 24 air monitors that will use pollution to inform land-use decisions. Broadnax admitted something stunning: someone in his office once suggested the city not research this matter because it might present a legal problem for the city. Here’s the full quote:

“I remember a conversation with someone who used to work for me that questioned the value of putting those [monitors] there and the risk that the city might have in knowing what’s actually in the air. I said, ‘Why wouldn’t we want to know? As a fellow asthmatic, I want to know what I’m breathing in.’”

That’s the sort of admission Mayo had hoped to get from the programming of the event. She believes language matters, that accountability begins with admission. “What I’m hoping will come out of this is some level of direct communication between frontline groups and T.C., Julia, and Carlos,” she said. “I’m surprised they all agreed to participate. It’s hopefully a testament to them being willing to own up to their failures and do things differently.”

There has been recent progress in the city of Dallas. There is a new Environmental Commission, which tracks the progress of the city’s climate plan. It also just supported a plan to require that concrete batch plants receive special use permits before they can operate, effectively adding another layer of regulation and giving the city more power to determine where these can operate.

The City Council approved spending $2 million on remediating the land that once held Shingle Mountain, which has been found to contain lead and other contaminants related to a landfill that was there in the 1970s and 1980s. And Evans was recently hired away from the Environmental Protection Agency, where he enforced the Clean Air Act and helped inform punishments for operations that were in violation of its standards.

Ryan spoke of looking at where industry is adjacent to residential and proposing “transition areas,” basically parts of town where the city gets rid of industrial uses. “We just want to breathe clean air,” Cisneros said. “We just want the same quality of life that our more affluent neighborhoods have.”

Mayo believes the path to that goal is in reforming the city’s land-use plan, timing the discussion right as the city digs into what ForwardDallas will be. “These things don’t just happen on their own,” Broadnax said, in another admission.  

That process will take many years. And the reality is that Cisneros is still living next to GAF. Jackson said she has a list of eight illegal industrial operations in her neighborhood of Floral Farms. (Broadnax told her to email him and said, “We’ve gotta do better.”)

If the event opened a door, now the organizers have a path—and they’ve got city officials on record as they call for accountability.

“We can work with you guys,” Broadnax said, “if you can work with us.”

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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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