The city of Dallas’ new top environmental watchdog, Carlos Evans, is a lifer from the Environmental Protection Agency. His nearly two decades with the agency saw a slow awakening that has reached the highest levels of government: American cities have systematically shunted industry and pollution into lower-income neighborhoods, where people of color have suffered disproportionate incidences of illness, from asthma to cancer. The dirty businesses have perpetuated poverty cycles by creating barriers to economic growth and depressing property values.
Under the Obama administration, the EPA began incorporating environmental justice strategies into policy under the declaration that “every American deserves clean air, water, and land.” Evans was part of the team that established Plan EJ 2014, a policy document and toolkit that infused environmental justice matters into rulemaking, permitting, compliance, and enforcement. It built out community programs that provided a new avenue for input from residents that could inform decisions happening at the federal level. And then he switched roles within the agency, using his legal background to hold industrial businesses accountable.
For the last six years, Evans has worked as an enforcement attorney for the EPA, pursuing violators of the Clean Air Act and finding ways to cut their emissions. Those bona fides set him up nicely for what awaits him here in Dallas, a city reckoning with its own racist land use and environmental decisions. As the director of the Office of Environmental Quality and Sustainability, he’ll lead implementation of the city’s first-ever climate action plan, which proposes 97 steps to reach carbon net-neutrality by 2050.
One example of an improvement Evans is working on: in the spring, Dallas’ new Environmental Commission proposed a change that would require dusty, loud concrete batch plants to engage in public meetings prior to getting a permit from the city. Currently, batch plants can get the OK from a state agency and start operations without ever dealing with the city. The new process would give Dallas a chance to analyze nearby neighborhoods and make its own judgment.
Another improvement: the City Council recently decided to buy 24 air quality monitors that will be placed across Dallas. It’s the first time the city has taken a significant step to measure air pollution.
Bringing in someone like Evans is the type of move that even local environmental activists have cautiously applauded. He spent some of his childhood in San Jose, often living in apartment buildings near streets filled with trucks and cars. “Walking to school,” he says, “I can smell it. I can taste it in the air.” His family in West Oakland was subjected to diesel trucks pounding pavement on the way to the port. He didn’t realize until later in life that not everyone had that same experience. “Oftentimes, you have your Black and Brown communities in certain areas. They very strategically separated West Oakland from the rest of Oakland.”
Dallas engaged in that same sort of segregation. Evans says he is here to acknowledge it—and figure out how to fix it.
Dallas’ Worst Environmental Disasters
- Shingle Mountain
- Car Batteries
- Pig Blood
- Dump Fire
Lax oversight led to 139,000 tons of old shingles piled up next to homes in the Floral Farms neighborhood of southern Dallas. The city hauled them off in 2021 and might spend $2 million to clean up the mess.
A group of lead smelters operated from 1934 to 1984, with a 300-foot-tall smokestack that annually spewed at least 269 tons of lead particles across 13 square miles of West Dallas.
In 2011, an amateur photographer flying a drone caught Columbia Packing Company dumping pig blood into Cedar Creek, which flows into the Trinity River just southeast of the Santa Fe Trestle. Fifteen felony charges were dropped, and Columbia paid only a $100,000 misdemeanor fine.
In 1997, about 35 acres of the Deepwood Dump, the largest illegal dumping ground in the state, caught fire and burned for weeks. It cost $30,000 per day to fight the fire. The land is now part of the Trinity Audubon Center.
This story originally ran in the July issue of D Magazine with the headline, “Mr. Clean Comes to Dallas.” Email [email protected].