Southern Sector Rising activists stage a protest at Shingle Mountain in Dallas on Sept 30, 2020. The shingles have since been removed from the site by a City of Dallas contractor. Photo by Andy Jacobsohn/Deep Indigo Collective for Green Source DFW.
May 27, 2021
Local researchers want to ensure the history of environmental injustice in Dallas lives on in documents, not just memory.
The Environmental Injustice Archive is a collaborative project between Downwinders at Risk, SMU Sustainability and Development Program, Paul Quinn College’s Urban Research Initiative and the Clinton Global Initiative University.
The aim is to chronicle the most egregious cases of pollution that have decimated the quality of life of some communities over the past century. Researchers are hoping to bring a day of reckoning among business leaders and city decision makers.
The project's scope begins in the 1920s with West Dallas – so-called Cement City that put people in the midst of hazardous air pollution from cement plants. The archive summarizes the affliction that countless residents have suffered as they bear the brunt of air emissions, water pollution and infrastructure neglect that have resulted in loss of property value and even death. That history includes the recent illegal dump known as Shingle Mountain – a case that’s seen recent action by the city but is still not fully resolved.
The archive lists both the well-known cases, such as West Dallas’ decades-long battle with a battery reclamation facility that produced lead pollution that threatened the development of children who lived nearby and poisoned the land of nearly 7,000 properties, along with lesser-known cases like Shady Grove’s Deepwood Dump, an illegal and unregulated landfill that began forming in the 1980s and part of which caught on fire, subjecting the community to noxious emissions.
Collin Yarbrough, coauthor of the Environmental Injustice Archive. Courtesy of Collin Yarbrough.
“The goal is to kind of lay bare the environmental injustices in Dallas's past and present because we have a long history and a short term memory, especially when it comes to injustice, particularly in South and West Dallas,” says archive coauthor Collin Yarbrough, a member of the Dallas Sierra Club conservation/eco action committee and sustainability graduate student at SMU’s Lyle School of Engineering. “The goal is to bring those stories to light, and particularly, to share them in a way that centers on the voices of those who have fought the battles and have lived the battles themselves, so that it's their voices in the narrative rather than voices of those from the outside.”
In determining exactly what constitutes an environmental injustice, the researchers performed a cost-benefit analysis, weighing the measurable benefits to a community, such as jobs created by an industry, against the health hazards, diminished property values and poorer quality of life that were also associated with each case.
As for flooding in South Dallas along the banks of the Trinity River, the archive exposes the disregard for the welfare of the city’s least powerful citizens as levees that were built to protect northern communities stopped short of protecting residents past the Forest Avenue Bridge — a simple case of federal, state and local planners deciding not to invest in the infrastructure needed to protect vulnerable and politically powerless residents who lived in the floodplain.
Mapping the environmental injustices, the researchers reveal evidence of what many local community activists in Dallas have suspected for decades. Communities that are by and large the places where the city council decides not to provide the infrastructure investments or zoning protections needed to spare human life and property values, and where polluting companies tend to gravitate, all share demographic similarities.
“In Dallas, it’s definitely Black and Latinx neighborhoods,” Yarbrough says. “There’s definitely a race and income lens to this. South and West Dallas are predominately Black and Latinx communities, and the highest correlations to environmental injustices fall in those neighborhoods.”
In these communities, says Yarbrough, the protections of the Federal Clean Air and Clean Water Acts are not fully enforced by either the City of Dallas or the Texas Commission for Environmental Quality, the state agency that’s responsible for overseeing federal environmental policy. Companies exploit loopholes in local zoning laws and TCEQ policies to get temporary approval for polluting facilities without undergoing a thorough emissions application and approval process. Once they begin operating, often without attracting the attention of the residents in the communities where they locate, they become established and far more difficult to challenge.
“They’re able to get through, seemingly under the radar,” Yarbrough says. “And so that's why it’s really important to have something like this archived so that people don't think it's just isolated incidents like a Shingle Mountain, or an RSR lead smelter that happens maybe once a decade. This is day in, day out stuff that happens at the city, regional and state level every single day. And so getting people to understand this is not a small fight — it’s not a sprint — it’s a marathon. And it requires consistent activism every single day.”
Cindy, Hua, coauthor of the Environmental Injustice Archive. Courtesy of Cindy Hua.
For archive co-author Cindy Hua, chairperson of the particulate matter committee with Downwinders at Risk and PhD candidate for Applied Science in Engineering at the Lyle School of Engineering at SMU, the fact that these cases of environmental injustice happen almost exclusively in communities where residents lack the financial or political power to resist is no accident. She sees the archive as a tool to expose a habitual disregard for human life by wealthy and powerful people who appear to be intent on increasing their profit with little to no thought about how their actions will hurt other people. She says the goal behind the archive is therefore twofold.
“I think it’s one, raising awareness, and educating our communities so that they can be better equipped to address these issues. But I think it’s also putting out this information publicly so that whoever needs to be held accountable, whether they're industries or government bodies that need to address these issues, I think there needs to be some accountability.”
For now, the archive presents just seven of the more prominently known cases of environmental injustices that have been documented in news stories over the past century. The authors suspect that many more cases have occurred and are still unresolved in the city. The archive, they hope, will motivate more affected communities to reach out to them, tell their story and add their voices to the archive.
“Right now, it’s in its initial stages. You can scroll through and see a few highlighted stories and resources linking to community organizations that are working on it, but it’s definitely a work in progress,” Hua says. “In the second part, we’re hoping to expand it so that there’s a personal archive of stories from people who live in the neighborhoods, that we’re hoping to add to the website in the form of podcasts, and other visual media so it can be a little bit more of an immersive experience.”
Hua says that although the environmental injustices archived in the project have taken years and even decades to resolve or are still being battled, there’s a motivating message that emerges from the documented accounts that shows how marginalized and afflicted residents can succeed in taking on wealthy and politically powerful people when they unite, speak up for themselves and persistently defend their interests.
“I think the main point of the map is not only just raising awareness, but also celebrating the environmental justice wins that we’ve had in our city,” she says. “A lot of places [where environmental injustices have occurred in the past] are landmarks in the city. The Trinity River Audubon Center used to be Deepwood Dump, and now it’s a place where the land has been rehabilitated, and it’s a place where the community can come together. I think it’s also important for the people in our community to remember and celebrate all the hard work that it took to get to that point.”
Yarbrough will be a guest on Green Source On the Air on June 17 at 6 p.m. on Zoom.
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