A dispute over a proposed concrete mixing plant in south Dallas raised questions regarding the city's method of assessing environmental health risks. Image courtesy of Storyblock.

May 14, 2018

In the shade under towering trees on a warm April afternoon, the tiny Joppa community in southern Dallas seems like a sleepy country town. Thick greenery surrounds the small homes in peaceful quiet, despite the buzz of traffic on Interstate 45 and Loop 12 a mile away. About 500 people live on this half square mile of land only a short walk away from the Trinity River bluffs.

On this windless spring day, only a whiff of the pungent fumes of an asphalt plant a few blocks away taints the air.

Joppee SignThe neighborhood is a mix of new homes built with help from Habitat for Humanity, nicely kept older homes and older, worn-out houses. Joppa’s 500 so residents are mostly black and Hispanic. Many earn below the federal poverty line. Some are descendants of the freed slaves who founded Joppa in 1872. A marker on the railroad bridge and street signs commemorate that history with pride.

Courtesy of Joppa's Freedman's Town Association.

The Trinity River Audubon Center and the city-owned horse park are nearby. There’s also a Union Pacific rail freight yard called Miller Yard, the asphalt plant, a building products factory, a gas cylinder manufacturer and seven other small industrial operations. 

When residents learned that Union Pacific wanted Martin Marietta, a building materials manufacturer, to build two plants for mixing concrete inside the rail yard, some were worried about what that would mean for Joppa's air. Others desperately wanted the benefits promised in return for their support for Dallas City Council approval of the concrete batch operation. 

This April Monday, friends and community association leaders Temeckia Derrough and Jabrille McDuffie are sitting on Derrough’s front porch, mulling over the controversy that had roiled the neighborhood for 18 months. Concerned about health consequences, they found themselves arguing with neighbors who maintained it was best to allow the permits in return for job-training, a community center and rail yard improvements such as a safety crossing and barrier plantings. On March 28, at the end of a contentious City Council hearing, the special use permit was denied “without prejudice,” in a 9 to 5 vote.  

“Without prejudice” means the applicant can reapply immediately, starting a typically three-or- four-month process to get to a new council hearing, instead of waiting two years.

How did Derrough and McDuffie feel about the decision?  “Oh, my God!” Derrough says. “Relieved,” McDuffie chimes in.


But the question of whether and where to build more concrete operations isn't closed — not for Joppa, nor for the rest of southern Dallas. Whether near Joppa or elsewhere, concrete plants are headed for southern Dallas. The city’s “Grow South” development campaign and $53 million in bond-funded road building are moving forward. Every structure and every foot of road will need concrete.

Emissions and air quality information were the surprise in the public City Council hearing. The batch plant permit had gone through city staff review, Plan Commission approval and four previous City Council hearings without environmental challenges, which weren't part of the process.

Neighbors had long suspected pollution from nearby industry was already contributing to health problems in Joppa.  

With a longed-for juggernaut of growth on the horizon, other southern Dallas residents could find themselves in the same fix as their neighbor: hungry for jobs and worried about environmental risks.

This isn’t just a southern Dallas issue, either. Whatever goes into the air down south streams northwest on the prevailing winds.

What made the case of Joppa so contentious was Dallas’ failure to address decades-old environmental discrimination that puts polluting industry near the neediest people. 

What made Joppa worse for Martin Marietta is that the company trekked through the city's bureaucracy, winning approval from staff along the way, only to have the environmental issue stop their plans at the last minute.


A wake-up call to communities zoned for concrete plants unrolled before the City Council audience where McDuffie, Derrough and other Joppa residents and supporters testified in March. The news was both alarming and hopeful.

Mixing and moving concrete unleashes fine particles of dust, called particulate matter, that floats through the air and can enter the lungs of anyone who breathes it. The finer the dust, the bigger the threat to health, witnesses said at the council meeting. But tighter standards for concrete production can make the process cleaner. Both the alarming data and the clean production standards came from Dr. Neil Carman, Ph. D. environmental biologist and Texas Sierra Club clean air director, based on 38 years’ experience regulating industrial emissions and consulting with industry and government. His written testimony was circulated around the council horseshoe and summarized by David Griggs, political chair for local and Texas Sierra Club chapters. However, in Griggs’ allotted two minutes of testimony, he didn’t cite Dr. Carman’s 11 recommended measures for emissions reduction. Later examination showed only three of these were included in Martin Marietta’s proposal.

Mixing and moving concrete unleashes fine particles of dust, called particulate matter, that floats through the air and can enter the lungs of anyone who breathes it.

The gist: Dust can be deadly. Concrete batch plants are dust mills, and their transporters are rolling dust machines.

Particulate matter comes from every ingredient used in concrete. More particulate matter is spewed from the diesel exhaust of trains and from trucks that haul the concrete and kick up more dust from roads. 

In Joppa, particulate matter also wafts from the asphalt batch plant in Union Pacific’s Miller Yard and from the enormous Tamko building products factory that runs day and night. 

Particulate matter comes from every ingredient used in concrete. More particulate matter is spewed from the diesel exhaust of trains and from trucks that haul the concrete and kick up more dust from roads. 

The tiniest particles, 2.5 or fewer micrometers in diameter, “are exceptionally toxic and can easily reach into the deepest, most vulnerable tissues … where toxins have direct access to the bloodstream,” Carman wrote.

These “PM 2.5” particles are commonly associated with cardiac and respiratory disease. They're also related to more than a dozen other types of diseases and disorders.  


Even with the Martin Marietta plan denied, Joppa’s Union Pacific rail yard will receive 3.5 million tons a year of rock and gravel aggregate, by the company’s estimate, says Dallas Cothrum, the lobbyist who represented Union Pacific in dealings with the city. “It will take 30,000 rail cars to deliver it.”

Even with the Martin Marietta plan denied, Joppa’s Union Pacific rail yard will receive 3.5 million tons a year of rock and gravel aggregate, by the company’s estimate, says Dallas Cothrum, the lobbyist who represented Union Pacific in dealings with the city. “It will take 30,000 rail cars to deliver it.”

Joppa Union Pacific railroad crossing“That rock is going to come, and it’s going to get loaded on trucks to go to other batch plants in other locations, many of which are allowed by [zoning] right… The amount of emissions produced by the extra 278 big truck trips a day is far greater than the amount of emissions that would have been made at Miller Yard [by batching concrete],” Cothrum argues.

Union Pacific railroad crossing in Joppa. Photo by Jemeckia Derrough.

An additional 42,000 tons of emissions annually would be created by requiring rock haulers to transport rock to batch plants elsewhere, he had stated in presentations to staff, plan commission and Council. 

“That’s the problem, so that’s why staff recommended approval, and the Plan Commission recommended approval. You’re saving, at full [production] capacity, 278 big truck trips a day,” Cothrum says.

The difference now is that the higher emissions from rock hauling will be released mostly along the truck routes, not entirely in Joppa, as with the concrete plants.

“The rock is going to come in at Miller Yard regardless of where the batch plants are. That’s the rail depot,” the only one in southern Dallas that takes raw materials, Cothrum says.

That hasn’t changed with the permit denial. Dallas needs concrete. Concrete plants are still coming, somewhere. All the rock for it is coming to Joppa. Concrete plants still may, as well, speculates Cothrum.

Properties zoned by Dallas for industrial manufacturing (IM) allow batch plants, Cothrum says. “There is IM zoning elsewhere in the Joppa neighborhood. … I don’t know if batch plant companies are looking there. I expect they are.” 

Martin Marietta’s emission study was questioned at the council hearing by Dr. Richard Guldi, a materials scientist and Sierra Club conservation co-chair. Guldi faulted it for failing to show the weather assumptions on which it was based. Griggs criticized the study for not including all the emissions sources related to plant operations, such as truck traffic. No ambient air quality study of the site was provided until five days before the council hearing.

Did city staff or anyone at the Plan Commission meetings or four council hearings before the vote raise similar science questions?

“No one asked us to do further study,” Cothrum says. “City staff had it for nine months, with no questions. Nobody at the Plan Commission questioned it.

"We were happy to agree to let the city regulate the numbers of emissions. … We agreed to put in $100,000 on public drainage improvements, because storm water drains toward Joppa from IH 45.”

Will Union Pacific reapply?

“I couldn’t say,” Cothrum says. “Look how long that zoning case took ... two years and thousands and thousands of dollars. I can go to a site in Wilmer Hutchins or out in Dallas County and not have to do that.” 


Joppa’s air quality in key pollutant categories associated with concrete production is worse than in most of the U.S., according to information prepared by consumer advocacy group Public Citizen. Public Citizen used the Environmental Protection Agency’s environmental justice screening tool, or EJSCREEN, to give a snapshot of Joppa’s environmental conditions. With government data on 11 pollutant categories and traffic levels nearby, combined with demographic data, the screening tool identifies low-income and vulnerable communities and estimates their burden of pollutants.  

“The report shows a map of Joppa with high concentrations of particulate matter, ozone, toxic cancer risk,” Griggs said at the March 28 hearing. “It also rates respiratory hazards at 73 percent, which means only 27 percent of the state of Texas is in worse condition than Joppa for asthma.” The screening also rated Joppa at elevated levels for diesel particulates and air toxins. 

Air monitors in Joppa would give accurate on-the-ground, real-time readings, but there is only one PM monitor for all of Dallas County, on Hinton Street. EPA has only three ozone monitors in Dallas County. The closest of those to Joppa is 9.5 miles away. 

Downwinders at Risk, University of Texas at Dallas and University of North Texas are collaborating on a citizens’ air monitoring system. Their recent trial in Joppa was too brief for verifiable results. 

“The question is, what kind of system determines the fate of a community before finding out what’s in the air?” Jim Schermbeck of Downwinders demanded at the council meeting. “Why didn’t Martin Marietta do this? Why isn’t the city doing this?”

As the contentious council session neared its close, Mayor Mike Rawlings turned to City Manager T.C. Broadnax. “It’s imperative as we go forward on this issue, as we write economic development plans, that we deal with this issue throughout the city.” 

“It comes up time and time again. We’ve got to build this city. How are we going to do it in a safe, efficient way?" Rawlings asked.

Applause broke out across the chamber. Judging by who was clapping, the issue Rawlings meant was environmental health and safety. 

Councilmembers Sandy Greyson and Scott Griggs understood him to mean concrete batch plants.

“This came up before, in September 2012, at a hearing on a concrete plant by the Elm Fork soccer fields,” Griggs says. “He gave a big speech at the end. The issue is, where do you put them?”

In the Joppa case, the city appeared to have no system in place to evaluate the environmental hazards, consider batch plant sites away from neighborhoods and identify strategies to limit the effects of concrete-making’s intrinsic pollution. It didn’t show that it has a process to evaluate and address the effects of projects in timely fashion, before a business has spent two years and thousands of dollars to be considered.

Environmentalists enlisted late by Joppa’s Councilmember Kevin Felder attempted to fill the gap with a raft of serious questions and alarming data that no one had an answer for or time to address. It was a short, sharp shock that spelled out the hazards of concrete production and hauling and offered a helpful standard to control pollutants no one should have to breathe. 

That’s what happened in March. It derailed the development train at least temporarily, for good or ill.

A longer version of this article originally ran in the Dallas Observer.



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