Closing time: Controversial Joppa asphalt plant scheduled to cease production Friday
A controversial asphalt plant that has been at the center of a years-long struggle between residents and the City of Dallas was scheduled to stop production on Friday afternoon, according to Austin Bridge and Road President Richard Mills.
The plant has been located just outside of the historic Freedman’s Community of Joppa since 2009. Residents of the area and environmental activists have been working for the past several years to see the plant shut down.
The historic Freedman’s Community was founded in the late 1860s by former enslaved people recently freed from the nearby Miller Plantation.
KERA News has reported extensively on the community’s years-long struggle to get an asphalt plant removed from the industrial plot that surrounds Joppa — known as the Miller Yard.
Now the company has 120 days to fully remove the plant from the predominately Black southern Dallas community.
The road to shutting down
At an early April community meeting — billed as a chance for residents to get more information about the plant — residents asked Dallas city officials why no one had initiated a public hearing over the plant’s permit.
City officials told community members in attendance that they needed proof of environmental harm before they would think about subjecting the company’s permit to a public hearing.
One commissioner told them the burden to bring evidence to city officials, was on them,
“It’s not up to me or up to council to bring the Joppa community together,” District 7 Plan Commissioner Tabitha Wheeler-Reagan said during the meeting.
Residents said they had no more information after the meeting, than before. Misti O’Quinn is the community liaison for Downwinders at Risk — a 30-year-old environmental group advocating for cleaner air in the Dallas-Fort Worth area.
“I don’t feel like it’s okay to not listen to community,” O’Quinn said after the April meeting. “I think it went all over the place and it was not effective.”
Joppa residents have said they felt a lack of communication between the city and the community. The meeting solidified that for some.
District 7 Council Member Adam Bazaldua represents Joppa. He says some community member’s claims are false.
“I think more of what we’re dealing with is the response not being exactly what they would like,” Bazaldua said in an interview with KERA News.
A week after the meeting – and a KERA News article about the event — Bazaldua’s office announced that city staff had found the Joppa asphalt plant to be out of compliance with the city and would be subject to a public hearing.
But the same day Bazaldua made his announcement, the consulting company working on behalf of Austin Bridge and Road filed an application to delay the public hearing – an option available to the company per city code.
Millions for asphalt
Community members and activists say they wondered why the city was so hesitant to grant them a public hearing over the now soon-to-be-shuttered asphalt plant.
In mid-May a KERA News analysis of city financial records found that while Joppa residents complained about the plant — the City of Dallas paid millions for construction supplies from its owners.
Joppa residents and environmental advocates said they had no idea.
Since 2016, the city has paid more than $16 million for “asphaltic concrete” to Austin Industries and its subsidiaries, including Austin Bridge and Road. And the city has paid almost $50 million more for other products and services, such as engineering and construction services.
Alicia Kendrick is a Joppa resident and head of the Joppa Environmental Health Project – a group focused on educating the community about the health consequences of living next to heavy industry.
“Dallas is not on our side honestly in this, is what it seems like to me,” Kendrick said “…because they’re consuming a product that is, for lack of a better term, killing us.”
The plant supplied materials for various projects and customers “including the City of Dallas, Dallas County and Texas Department of Transportation,” an Austin Bridge and Road executive said in a statement to KERA.
“It really does ring a lot of alarm bells for me,” Kendrick said. “This is not just a fight with a company. This is a deeply rooted issue of economic growth for Dallas.”
‘A common practice’
A two-month long KERA News investigation found that environmental regulatory practices in Texas allow asphalt plants like the on 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. The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) is responsible for the majority of air permitting of industries in the state.
Records show that when Austin Bridge and Road applied to move the asphalt plant to Joppa, it submitted an environmental analysis of a plant located nearly 300 miles away, surrounded by “mostly unimproved ranchland” and operated by a different company all together.
TCEQ executives said the data was “substantially similar” to the facility moving into Joppa and waived the emissions testing for the company.
That’s what’s called “Data in lieu of testing” (DILOT). That means they can submit data from a similar plant, instead of actual emissions.
Records show the company used – or indicated they would use — the provision at multiple locations where the plant ultimately operated. That’s despite the same facility having been in operation for several years elsewhere in the state before moving to southern Dallas.
An Austin Bridge and Road executive says it is a “common practice” for TCEQ to accept different data to approve an air permit.
Both federal and state regulations classify asphalt plants as “minor source emitters.” That means in Texas, TCEQ might not require a facility to submit emissions testing annually.
“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 EPA has never done an air inspection at the Joppa asphalt plant, according to an agency spokesperson.
Out of Joppa, but where to next?
Mills says the plant has 120 days to relocate out of Joppa. The company says it has tried to work in good faith the community “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.
But while Joppa residents celebrate a victory 14-years in the making, the plant will move to a new location and will likely be permitted under the same regulations that allowed them to pollute Joppa for over a decade.
Jim Schermbeck is the director of Downwinders at Risk. He 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.”
It is unclear where the company plans to move the plant to next. TCEQ permit records do not show the company having applied for a new location yet.
For community members like Kendrick, the closure of the Austin Bridge and Road plant is just the first step in a larger plan.
“The plan is to deindustrialize Joppa as a whole,” Kendrick said.
KERA News is made possible through the generosity of our members. If you find this reporting valuable, consider making a tax-deductible gifttoday. Thank you.