Texas asphalt plants operate with limited oversight — and communities struggle with pollution
When Austin Bridge and Road wanted to move an asphalt plant close to a mostly Black community in southern Dallas called Joppa, it needed a permit. And that meant giving the state’s environmental agency some idea of what would come out of the smokestack.
The very same plant had been operating elsewhere in Texas for years. But the company instead chose to submit data from a plant it didn’t own. It was located in rural South Texas mostly surrounded by ranchland and pastures. State regulations allow for that.
A 2-month investigation by KERA News found that the state’s regulatory practices allow asphalt plants like the one in Joppa to operate for years without providing detailed information on the pollution they produce. People who live nearby struggle to find out what they are being exposed to. They’ve repeatedly claimed that the asphalt plant poisoned their air and threatened their health.
Similar concerns about asphalt plants have been raised across the state, from other North Texas communities like Frisco and Denton, to El Paso to the San Antonio area, to Central Texas and East Texas as well.
When operators of heavy industries seek a permit, the power dynamic often tilts in their favor. They know how the system works. They can hire lawyers, lobbyists — or even experts who specialize in navigating the permitting process. Residents of communities where a plant may be operated usually don’t have the time or resources to engage in the process — or simply don’t know how to do that.
The plants may never be subjected to outside testing — instead, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) may occasionally ask the plants’ operators to submit their own data. KERA found that other states exercise more oversight.
“TCEQ is a rigged system. You’re playing against the house when you fight TCEQ,” said Jim Schermbeck, director of Downwinders at Risk, an environmental advocacy group focused on air pollution in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. “It is meant to reward industries with permits...not to guarantee health and wellness in the community.”
The Environmental Protection Agency typically doesn’t regulate asphalt plants. They’re defined as “minor emitters,” although health experts say that the impact on people who live nearby can be anything but minor.
‘Spoiled milk and rotten eggs’
A Union Pacific railyard runs along one main entrance into the Joppa community. A shingle factory and the Austin Bridge and Road asphalt plant form an industrial horseshoe around the historic Dallas Freedman’s town.
The plant — which can produce up to 600,000 tons of asphalt each year — has been in the Joppa area since 2009, supplying asphalt concrete to different customers.
But the plant didn’t start out in southern Dallas.
The plant is what’s known as a portable facility, which is designed to move around the state — from construction project to construction project. The TCEQ handles air permitting for most industries in the state.
Before moving to Joppa, the plant mostly operated in rural or unincorporated areas — miles away from a city center or residential communities in rural West Texas or in East Texas near Canton.
The plant has operated less than a half-mile from homes in Joppa for over a decade.
Some Joppa residents say they wake up to a sulfuric stench they say comes from the plant’s smokestack — or perhaps also from a shingle factory nearby. Sometimes, that's the last thing they smell at night.
Lakeisha Oatman has lived in Joppa since 2007. She says other communities in Dallas don’t have to deal with this issue.
“You and your family get to wake up every morning with fresh air,” Oatman said. “You get to go out and walk and don’t have to worry about smelling like spoiled milk or rotten eggs.”
When an asphalt company applies for an air permit, the TCEQ requires companies to submit data that can be used to predict the possible negative effects on the surrounding community.
Austin Bridge and Road applied to move its plant to Joppa in 2009. It submitted an environmental analysis of a plant located near Refugio, Texas a farming community north of Corpus Christi — nearly 300 miles away from Dallas and operated by a different company altogether.
That plant was located five miles from the city “in a rural area with mostly unimproved ranch land and pastures in all directions,” according to the technical analysis conducted at the plant by TCEQ.
TCEQ executives said the data from the Refugio plant was “substantially similar” to the facility moving into Joppa and waived the emissions testing requirement for the company.
This is what’s called “Data in lieu of testing” (DILOT). That means they can submit data from a similar plant, instead of actual emissions.
“It is common practice for the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality to accept data from a substantially similar plant with ‘like’ equipment, materials and production,” Austin Bridge and Road General Plants Manager Eric Schranz said in a statement to KERA.
The TCEQ does not factor in site-specific details when considering an application using the DILOT provision. A spokesperson for TCEQ said that the option is “related to specific state and federally mandated” standards that “apply no matter where a facility is located.”
That includes population density and whether the area is rural or urban. And the TCEQ does not factor in the socioeconomic or racial status of the surrounding community.
Records show Austin Bridge and Road has used – or indicated they would use — “data in lieu of testing” at multiple locations where the plant ultimately operated. The first time that shows up for the Joppa plant in TCEQ online records was in 2005.
That’s despite the same plant having been in operation for several years elsewhere in the state before moving to southern Dallas.
State environmental regulators also don’t require the asphalt plant to submit emissions data annually.
The plant is permitted as a “minor source” emitter. You won’t find it on federal toxic release inventories. That means detailed emissions information is not readily available.
“Air emissions inventories are typically required for only major sources of air emissions,” an EPA spokesperson said in a statement to KERA News. “Smaller sources of emissions like asphalt plants are not usually included in state emissions inventories.”
The TCEQ says the plant in Joppa is “is not required to submit actual emissions on an annual basis.” Instead, state regulators rely on plant operators to keep detailed records of what’s coming out of the facility.
The commission does not perform stack testing to calculate emissions.
The TCEQ “determines compliance by conducting pre-meetings for stack tests to discuss methods, observing stack tests, and reviewing stack test reports and other records. TCEQ also has handheld monitoring equipment that is used during some investigations to assess compliance,” according to a statement from the commission.
North Carolina has one of the largest maintained highway systems in the country – second only to Texas.
The Tar Heel State requires asphalt plant operators to conduct emissions testing once every 10 years. Federal and state regulations may require a plant to submit emissions tests initially — and then never again.
“Due to variability in a plant’s performance over time, our state has found that 10-year retesting helps ensure continued compliance with state and federal standards,” North Carolina Division of Air Quality representative Shawn Taylor told KERA.
North Carolina — as well as Texas and other states — also regulate the amount of particulate matter emitted by asphalt plants, at least to a degree.
“While federal regulations limit opacity and filterable particulate matter emitted...North Carolina regulations also limit total particulate matter,” Taylor said.
Natalie Johnson is an associate professor in the department of Environmental and Occupational Health at Texas A&M University. Johnson studies the effects of pollution in Joppa and the factors that led to the community being surrounded by industry.
Johnson says that while certain types of particulate matter pollution are regulated at the federal and state levels — “ultra-fine” PM is not. And it can have a greater impact on those breathing it in, according to Johnson.
‘The largest environmental causes of disease and death’
Alicia Kendrick is head of the Joppa Environmental Health Project, a group aimed at educating the community about the health effects of heavy industry.
Kendrick says her two-year-old daughter was rarely sick when they lived away from Joppa. That changed when they moved back.
“We play outside a lot and she started getting upper respiratory infections consistently,” Kendrick said. “Sometimes we play outside, she’ll have to come in and get on a breathing treatment.”
Kendrick says her daughter has not been formally diagnosed with asthma, despite getting recommendations for the treatment by her doctors. In her mind, the common denominator is the asphalt plant.
“It’s well known that PM2.5 has been linked with a variety of respiratory diseases, asthma, COPD and lung cancer,” Johnson said. “It really is the largest environmental causes of disease and death.”
Particulate matter (PM) pollution is currently regulated by size, the smallest of which is PM2.5. The EPA describes those particulates as 30 times smaller than the average human hair.
But Johnson says there’s even smaller “ultra-fine” particles that are about one billionth of a meter. She says preliminary research shows breathing in air polluted with this size of particulate could have a more severe effects on the body.
“You could inhale them and they can reach directly to distant organs,” Johnson said. “They’ve also been shown to directly reach the brain.”
Ultra-fine particulate matter is not currently regulated by the EPA or state environmental entities. And Johnson says these microscopic particulates absorb other compounds. Like Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons — or PAHs. Johnson calls these the “product of incomplete combustion.”
“Those are really known to be carcinogenic and initiate and cause DNA damage and mutation…and eventual tumor formation,” Johnson said.
Some Joppa residents have complained for years about negative health issues they attribute to the asphalt plant and other industry in the community.
Oatman says both of her daughters have what she thinks are allergies. One of her daughters developed a far more severe illness.
“She ended up with what they call a desmoid tumor,” Oatman said. “They don’t know what desmoid tumors come from and it’s very rare.”
She says the tumor was caught in time for surgeons to remove it, but still wonders how it developed in the first place. She thinks the plant has something to do with it.
The same chemical compounds that can lead to tumor growth can also occur in other sources — like cooking a hamburger or smoking a cigarette. But Johnson says there’s an important difference between those sources and what comes out of the plant in Joppa.
“You have a choice if you smoke. You have a choice of how you prepare your food,” Johnson said. “But a lot of times we don’t have a choice where we live and the types of industry that build around neighborhoods.”
‘No way to combat them...’
Austin Bridge and Road has announced its plan to cease operations at the end of June. Joppa residents count this as a win for local organizing — but say the road to getting here has been difficult.
In 2019 Downwinders at Risk asked the TCEQ to reconsider the plant’s air permit renewal. The group was concerned over the lack of available air monitoring data, outdated analysis tools and the effects of cumulative pollution from several of the facilities around Joppa.
TCEQ executives denied the request. They said because the permit was up for renewal the commission did not request any new emissions testing.
“The Executive Director has determined that the emissions authorized by this permit are protective of both human health and welfare of the environment,” the commission said in its response to Downwinders at Risk.
The commission also added that “the permit does not allow the company to operate at a level that would cause noxious fumes or odors.”
Dallas officials had implemented a two-phase program for asphalt and concrete batch plants in the city in May 2022. The first phase was to remove “by-right” permit renewals for the plants and require all new batch plants to go through a permitting process that would require a public hearing.
The city says the second phase is a long-term approach which includes “a more comprehensive and holistic strategy that staff anticipates will take approximately six to eight months to develop recommendations and present to City Council.”
Phase one of the program was approved in May 2022. Phase two has yet to be implemented.
Residents say Dallas city officials told them in late 2022 Austin Bridge and Road had indicated they would not be staying in Joppa. District 7 Council Member Adam Bazaldua says he was told the company was relocating voluntarily.
“I offered to have the real estate department and the economic development department to work with them to see what we could to do assist them to relocate,” Bazaldua told KERA in April.
But just days before the permitting deadline, the company applied for another decade-long stay in the area.
After learning that the company had submitted their application, community members were hopeful at the opportunity to voice concerns at an early April meeting billed as a chance to get more information on the plant’s status.
District 7 City Plan Commissioner Tabitha Wheeler-Reagan told residents in attendance at the raucous meeting that she needed proof of environmental issues before she would call a public hearing.
Wheeler-Reagan said the community needed to start supplying her with this evidence.
“You have to take into account that you all have a piece that could be given to me at the meetings,” Wheeler-Reagan said at the April meeting. “It’s not up to me or up to council to bring the Joppa community together.”
City commissioners are appointed by their district's council member.
Some Joppa residents and environmental activists said they had unanswered questions after the meeting and wondered why the city was so quick to shut down their requests for a public hearing.
“This is environmental Apartheid,” Kendrick said after the April meeting. “You are killing us slowly by changing zoning in our communities and then bringing in industry that you know is dangerous – that you would not put next to your homes.”
Not long after that meeting, KERA News reported that while Joppa residents had been complaining about the asphalt plant over the years, the city had been paying millions to Austin Bridge and Road for asphalt. And some of that asphalt came from the Joppa plant. Dallas County and the Texas Department of Transportation also have been customers.
Long time environmental activists and Joppa residents said they had no idea.
“This...stands out as a huge hypocritical example of how the city preaches one thing and practices another,” Schermbeck said.
Emmanuel Davis moved to Joppa about five years ago. He says the whole interaction between the city and his community is disheartening.
“That makes me feel hopeless,” Davis said. “Especially…after finding out how much money is being poured into the companies that are polluting our community.”
Now the plant is moving on. Austin Bridge and Road President Richard Mills confirmed the plant would stop operations on June 26. The company says the departure also stops the automatic permit renewal process with the city.
“Since 2009, Austin Bridge and Road has worked in good faith to be a good community partner with funding and support for projects and programs...it was never the company’s intention to continue long-term operations at the facility,” a June press release from the company said.
While Joppa residents celebrate a victory 14-years in the making, the plant will move into a new location and will likely be permitted under the same regulations that allowed them to pollute Joppa for over a decade.
Schermbeck says until TCEQ revises their permitting process, communities across Texas could be vulnerable to the exact situation that happened in Joppa.
“For any community these days, TCEQ is a foreign and hostile environment,” Schermbeck said. “The communities that get TCEQ facilities find that they don’t have any way to combat them within the process.”
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