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Texans affected by pollution from concrete plants push state agency to tighten regulations

 A concrete plant in Austin. Residents who live near concrete batch plants complain that they contaminate the air with dust. The residents are pressuring the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality to reduce pollution from the plants.
Miguel Gutierrez Jr.
The Texas Tribune
A concrete plant in Austin. Residents who live near concrete batch plants complain that they contaminate the air with dust. The residents are pressuring the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality to reduce pollution from the plants.

As the state’s environmental agency weighs new pollution limits on the plants, several lawmakers have filed bills that would put new restrictions on the facilities, which spew pollutants into mostly low-income neighborhoods.

ARLINGTON — Deirdre Diamond is frustrated and concerned that another concrete batch plant is coming to her town. Gunter, located about 50 miles north of Dallas, already has 11 permitted concrete batch plants, according to Texans for Responsible Aggregate Mining, and now another one is on the way, worrying residents who say the dust and particulate matter plants release is polluting the air they breathe.

“It’s like a dust cloud constantly,” said Diamond, a 40-year-old respiratory therapist who lives about 5 miles from one of the plants. The mother of six said she started home-schooling her kids because she feared that plants located less than 3 miles from their school would impact their health.

Diamond, the lead advocate for Gunter Clean Air, a local group created to fight pollution from the plants, was one of many residents from across North Texas who came to a Texas Commission on Environmental Quality meeting in Arlington earlier this week and told the agency that their neighborhoods are suffering from the pollution caused by concrete batch plants.

The meeting was the last of three public meetings meant to inform Texans about a proposed amendmentthat could tighten air pollution limits for new concrete batch plants. The agency last updated the Air Quality Standard Permit, one of the most common types given to concrete batch plants, a decade ago.

Meanwhile, some Texas lawmakers have filed a handful of bills ahead of the upcoming legislative session that would set new rules on where concrete batch plants can be built and impose tougher pollution restrictions on the facilities.

At the TCEQ meeting, residents from Dallas and Midlothian asked the agency to protect their communities. They want regulations to require new concrete batch plants be built further away from neighborhoods, schools and parks. Dallas already has 38 batch plants, with more than half located in West Dallas near schools and homes. Midlothian, southwest of Dallas, has four concrete batch plants.

Texas residents have long complained that the plants spew pollution that causes respiratory problems and disproportionately impacts low-income communities and communities of color.

About 100 Houston residents traveled to the Texas Capitol earlier this year to protest TCEQ’s decision to allow industrial plants like concrete batch plants to open in predominantly Black and Latino communities.

The Environmental Protection Agency has found that batch plants pollute the air with particulate matter, which increases the risk of asthma attacks and cardiac arrest if too much is inhaled.

Diamond said many concrete batch plants in Gunter are clustered together and urged TCEQ staff to address the “cumulative air quality impacts” that result from multiple plants operating in close proximity.

“I’m really concerned that TCEQ is watering down the science,” Diamond said. “I need the science to actually be reflective of cumulative impact.”

Daniel Jamieson, a technical specialist with the air dispersion modeling team at TCEQ, responded to Diamond and said the agency is currently required to do air pollution testing only for individual plants.

He said TCEQ conducts “protectiveness reviews” to evaluate the potential impacts of emissions from proposed concrete batch plants on people’s health. If the proposed plant meets the requirements, their permit is approved, he said.

TCEQ staff at the Arlington meeting said the cumulative impact Diamond mentioned is something that “we can go back and look at” and encouraged people to submit formal comments once a proposal is published.

The TCEQ said it will take public input into consideration during its review of air pollution standards for the plants and evaluate the potential health impacts they may have on nearby residents and the environment.

A proposed amendment is expected early next year, followed by a 30-day period for public comment and a public meeting. The earliest that new standards would be implemented is mid-2023, according to agency staff.

As the TCEQ moves forward on possible changes to pollution limits, lawmakers like state Rep. Jarvis Johnson, D-Houston, are trying again to apply tighter regulations to concrete batch plants. Johnson has filed legislation that would make it harder for new concrete batch plants to open in cities that have no zoning like Houston. The bill also would require companies to host community meetings with residents as part of their permitting process.

Johnson, whose district includes Houston’s Acres Homes — a neighborhood north of downtown that successfully fought a planned concrete plant in 2020 — has filed similar bills in previous legislative sessions, but they failed to pass.

He said his previous bills faced opposition from Republican lawmakers, including some who represent Harris County. This year, he said he is taking a different approach, arguing to his fellow lawmakers that concrete plants hurt property values and that means fewer tax dollars for cities, counties and schools.

Under current TCEQ rules, only residents who live within 440 yards of a concrete batch plant can request a contested case hearing, a formal procedure in which residents and company representative go before an administrative judge, who makes recommendations to the TCEQ.

State Rep. Nicole Collier, D-Fort Worth, has filed a bill that would expand that distance from 440 yards to 880 yards and expand the list of people who can request a contested case hearing to include representatives of a school, place of worship, licensed day care center, hospital or medical facility.

Collier said she understood the need for concrete batch plants “to help foster growth in our state” but hopes her bill creates a balance to ensure the “health, safety, and well-being of Texans.”

“Schools, daycares, places of worship, and medical facilities have the same potential to be affected by the dust … produced by these batch plants, and those implications can extend far beyond the 440-yard setback required by statute,” she added.

A similar bill by state Rep. Donna Campbell, R-New Braunfels, would open the process to the same list of people but keep the distance limit at 440 yards.

Advocacy groups also have been fighting to improve language access to the TCEQ permitting process for non-English-speakers. The EPA is investigating Texas’ permitting of concrete batch plants after the Harris County attorney and a legal aid group alleged that TCEQ discriminated against racial and ethnic minorities and those with limited English proficiency.

State Rep. Claudia Ordaz, D-El Paso, filed a bill that would require TCEQ to provide notices of public meetings in languages other than English as well as translators and interpreters who have the skills to communicate complex environmental laws and procedures like those involved in batch plant permits.

Ordaz said not having notifications of public meetings and translated transcripts of meetings has excluded her district’s majority of Spanish-speaking residents from participating in the permitting process.

“We are on the front lines of environmental injustices,” Ordaz said. “I know it is an administrative and financial lift for a state agency to take on these additional responsibilities. However, community health and well-being must be our top priority.”

Ordaz hopes the bill will force TCEQ to deliver on its promise to be more inclusive of marginalized communities.

Back in Arlington, Diamond begged TCEQ to tighten air pollution limits and stop more concrete batch plants from opening in Gunter.

“I’ve submitted comments, I’ve submitted all kinds of environmental issues, and no response,” she said. “So I need to convey to you guys how important it is to actually look at the impacts of multiple plants in one area because otherwise communities like mine will never be taken care of.”

Copyright 2022 KERA. To see more, visit KERA.

Alejandra Martinez | The Texas Tribune