Despite the flurry of cynical and self-serving photo ops and press releases that Dallas City Hall churned out on Monday celebrating the beginning of a clean-up at Shingle Mountain, no waste was removed from the site yesterday. Nor will any be removed today.

But thanks to you, a clean up is coming. And also thanks to all you, that clean-up is suddenly more concerned with the health of Choate Street residents.

Last week, after a required 30-day public notice period, a state court approved a settlement between the illegal dump’s landowner, the State of Texas and the City of Dallas that sets the table for removal of all “above ground” material. On Monday, contractors for the city were installing air monitors around the dump to record the levels of dust created when bulldozers begin loading the estimated 100,000 tons of hazardous waste into waiting 18-wheelers for the half mile trip to the McCommas landfill.

According to a separate agreement between the City and the landowner, the City has until December 25th to “begin” the removal process, i.e. sending trucks to actually haul off waste.

This result was anything but a foregone conclusion when the “Move the Mountain” campaign began last August 5th with a new conference at City Hall demanding the illegal dump be gone by the end of the year.

Only 4 months ago City Hall hadn’t made any commitments to a clean-up and had no estimate for when one would take place. The City Council had just unanimously rejected pleas from Choate Street residents to re-establish the Environmental Health Commission as part of a new Climate Plan. We were at a low ebb in our campaign. 

But a strategic and constant barrage of public protest and shaming – mock trials, leafleting the Mayor’s law firm, dumping waste at City Hall – along with the attendant embarrassing media coverage, made the City of Dallas actually commit itself to a clean-up  it hadn’t planned on doing quite as fast, if at all.

Keeping constant pressure applied for four months was often exhausting, but momentum grew with each new demonstration. November 16th might have seen “peak” Shingle Mountain coverage with publication of a long and well-written expose in the Washington Post, a public demonstration at the dump’s gate counting down the days until a clean-up was supposed to begin and a crew from Solodad OBrien’s upcoming BET documentary in town to film it for a premiere in February.

Thanks to everyone who showed up to those demonstrations of support. Whether you attended one or all of them, your presence made a difference.

Those of you who sent in public comments this last month also had an impact. Initially, neither the State nor City expressed the least bit of concern about the health of Choate Street residents during the messy business of removing the waste. No specific provisions for controlling dust or monitoring air quality were included in the City agreement or State settlement.

But after over 50 letters and emails worth of comments were sent and included in the public record, the City suddenly got religion. It included dust control measures and air monitoring in its final description of the clean-up to the court. Lawyers for Marsha Jackson, Co-Chair of Southern Sector Rising, and a Downwinder board member cited your public comments as the reason the City included these new safeguards at the last minute. So congratulations a second time.

Now what?

The settlement and agreements signed by the State and City are vague about what happens after the land surface is cleared of waste. Will there be any monitoring wells drilled to see if contamination seeped into the groundwater? Will the clean-up extend below the ground as well as above if the soil is contaminated? If pollution is found in the soil or water, what level of contamination is “acceptable”, i.e. what are the clean-up levels then?

And what and who will be responsible for the health costs -financial and physiological – accumulated by Ms. Jackson and the other Choate Street families?

Residents have drafted their own neighborhood plan for redevelopment that drastically changes the zoning in their community. They’ve submitted it to City Hall.  But the same City Council Member that was taking unearned credit for Shingle Mountain’s removal on Monday is fighting this neighborhood plan tooth and nail.

District 8 City Council Member Tennell Atkins is one of the biggest reasons Shingle Mountain exists at all, and why its removal has been so delayed. He’s been nothing but an obstacle to be overcome instead of an ally for his constituents. Adding insult to injury, he’s now standing in the way of Choate Street and Flora Farms residents being able to rebuild their community from the devastation he’s inflicted on them.

Atkins is up for re-election in May and it’s our hope that all of you who made this Shingle Mountain clean-up happen will stick around and finish the job by helping us remove this political tumor that threatens the future of  Southern Dallas.

Sunday December 13th was the two-year anniversary of the very first Robert Wilonsky column about Shingle Mountain in the Dallas Morning News. Some of us believed that first column would expose the problem and move officials to act to resolve it. 13 Wilonsky Shingle Mountain columns later, we’re still waiting on the trucks that should have arrived in January 2019.

If they show up before Christmas Day , it will be one of the best, most satisfying moments of a terrible year. But it won’t be the end of the struggle over racist zoning that began on Choate Street. That struggle is just beginning.

What:

Public Comments on the State’s Settlement with Shingle Mountain landowner

 

When:

Now thru Sunday, Dec 6th

 

How:

Use our ClickNSend email feature to send your comments to Texas Attorney General’s office in 90 seconds

 

Why:

To make sure residents’ health is protected during a Shingle Mountain clean-up

 

A four-month citizens’ campaign pressuring the City of Dallas to clean-up the Shingle Mountain illegal dump in Southern Dallas by the end of 2020 is on the verge of paying off.

Following a pattern that began in summer, on the very same October day groups planning civil disobedience at the dump site announced another action, the City signed an agreement with the Shingle Mountain landowner to take responsibility to “begin” a clean-up by Dec 25th. In return, the City received a check for $1 million from the landowner.

Meanwhile, the state has also reached an agreement with the landowner that clears the way for a clean-up. That agreement is now up for public comment until 12 Midnight Sunday, December 5th.

You can help us protect the health of the Choate Street families most affected by the clean-up by providing your public comments to this State agreement. Doing so sends a message to both Austin and Dallas City Hall that they’re being held accountable now that they’ve been put in charge of removing the 100,000 tons of illegal hazardous waste they helped create.

Public pressure is what’s brought us to this point. Public pressure must now make sure the clean-up itself won’t increase residents’ exposure to hazardous materials like Silica, Formaldehyde, Petroleum By-Products and exotic glues and adhesives used to make shingles that are now crumbling into tons of microscopic particles.

On Monday November 16th, members of Southern Sector Rising, Downwinders at Risk, Southern Dallas Shingle Movers and other protesters gathered at the dump’s front gate for an action that hoisted and hooked a huge Clean-Up Countdown Calendar onto the eight-foot-tall metal fence that divides the site from South Central Expressway.

Designed as a giant-size desk calendar, it marked the 30 days of public notice ending on Sunday the 6th.  Rev. Frederick Haynes of Friendship-West Baptist Church, Rabbi Nancy Kasten, and the Rev. Amy Moore joined Marsha Jackson and her neighbors in speaking about the need to monitor the City and State during this critical phase.

On the same day, a lengthy expose on Shingle Mountain by Washington Post national climate and environmental reporter Darryl Fears instantly made the dump a national poster child for Environmental Racism.

Two days later, Dallas Mayor Eric Johnson was asked about the Shingle Mountain clean-up by a Channel 8 reporter during his City Hall press conference on rising crime rates in Dallas. His revealing answer beginning with, “It’s really a legal problem,” confirmed the City always had the option of cleaning up the dump, but delayed doing so for over 18 months until it had received money from either the operators or landowners. Admitting that the City could have “solved” this problem early on, Johnson said the City choose not to because that would have made the City’s lawsuit against the landowners “moot.”

Moot is a lawyer’s term that’s defined as of little or no practical value, meaning, or relevance; purely academic.” Instead of making their lawsuit moot by immediately cleaning up a site causing daily human health damage, Mayor Johnson and the City of Dallas rendered the health of Marsha Jackson and the Choate Street families moot. They made it of little or no practical value in the City’s approach. Of much greater value was the cash received by the landowners. The City sacrificed a street full of its own residents for a lousy $1 million.

In his three-minute response, Johnson never uttered  Marsha Jackson’s name, never addressed residents’ health issues, and never expressed regret, second thoughts, or apologies over the year and half the six-story waste pile harmed Choate Street residents. He never admitted the City’s multiple failures in code enforcement, zoning or environmental regulation that paved the way for Shingle Mountain’s creation.  He complained how the City was put in a “tough position”  – never considering how tough it might be for parents to watch helplessly as their child coughs-up pieces of ground-up shingles. Mayor’s Johnson’s answer was full of legal rationale but completely devoid of humanity or self-awareness. There were no people in it.

In short, it was an articulate if soulless synopsis of the City’s position regarding not only Shingle Mountain, but all environmental health problems in Dallas. Because at Dallas City Hall there is no such thing as human-centric environmental problems. What was the City’s first legal response to Shingle Mountain? It wasn’t to cite what an illegal awful abomination it was, but to take it to court over storm water violations. There were no people to worry about. Besides the inability of the City to protect its own residents from illegal hazards is the fact that it continues to treat Choate Street residents as spectators to their own disaster.  Marsha Jackson is the Invisible Woman.

In May the Dallas City Council unanimously rejected the pleas of Ms. Jackson and Southern Sector Rising to re-establish the Dallas Environmental Health Commission to give an institutional voice to their concerns within City Hall; to put people back into the mix along with tree planting and water conservation. The Council turned its back on her – again.

That’s why your public comments about maintaining the safety of the pending clean-up are important.

Please show the City of Dallas that you care about Marsha Jackson and the families on Choate Street – even if it doesn’t. Thanks. 

CLICK HERE TO SUBMIT YOUR COMMENTS

Disregarding calls to postpone a vote on its controversial Climate Plan until the Dallas City Council can resume traditional public participation in meetings, Council Environmental Chair Omar Narvaez has set a May 27th date for full council approval.

According to an April 9th memo Narvaez sent to the rest of the Council, the newest draft of the plan will be unveiled online on April 21st with a full briefing to the Environmental And Sustainability Committee scheduled on May 4th if that’s possible. If not, the full council will get a briefing on either May 6th or 20th.

While current local Shelter-in-Place orders expire at the end of April, most experts believe those should be extended through May and there’s no timeline for reinstating in-person public meetings of any local city councils or other governing bodies. If the City follows Narvaez’ schedule, it’s uncertain under what circumstances the Dallas Plan would be adopted, and how much public participation would be allowed.

That Dallas’ plan might be approved while by-passing the usual democratic niceties is just one more way it’s managed to elude real public engagement and transparency over the past two years. From beginning to end, the project has been a consultant and staff-led exercise with just enough of a thin veneer of “public participation” to reassure the unaware. 

[pdf-embedder url=”https://www.downwindersatrisk.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/04/CECAP-memo_040910.pdf” title=”CECAP memo_040910″]

 

In the memo, Narvaez goes to great lengths to recap City Hall’s efforts at including “the public”  in the plan. He cites the plan’s Stakeholder process, where staff hand-picked its own City Hall-friendly review committee. Not cited is the strange fact that there’s never been a list of individual stakeholder participants released and anyone wanting to know who was representing “the public” in the process had to submit an Texas Open Records Act request to City Hall to find out. Navarez also recounts the previous briefings his Committee has received from staff – but not the fact that no public participation was allowed in those briefings.

Neither does Narvaez mention that some of the Plan’s own official stakeholders are in open rebellion over its uninspiring results, including allies who were practically embedded with city staff for months. There are at least two separate on-going efforts by former stakeholders to try and strengthen the Plan before passage.

But the same divisions that have plagued Dallas environmental groups since the Plan’s announcement are dividing it at the end of the process as well. Representatives of larger mainstream groups like the Sierra Club and Public Citizen are pushing for quick adoption of the Plan, while Texas Campaign for the Environment, the local fledgling Sunrise Movement chapter, and others are seeking delay until citizens are allowed to come back into the Council Chambers and speak directly to their representatives – without the help of Zoom.

One recent development of the Plan that could be actually be relevant for ordinary residents is talk about restoring the Environmental Health Commission as a way to monitor the Climate Plan’s progress as well as serve as a new forum for residents’ concerns. Eliminated ten years ago just as secret gas drilling deals were being written by then City Manager Mary Suhm, the Commission had previously acted as the Council’s eyes and ears on all things related to public health and successfully advanced policy on a variety of fronts, including practical elimination of all waste incineration in Dallas.

Downwinder allies in The Southern Sector Rising Campaign for Environmental Justice called for restoration of the Environmental Health Commission last year at its March 20th news conference at City Hall and has been lobbying to bring it back ever since. Responding to a 2019 Dallas Green Alliance questionnaire, 10 of 15 current Council Members approved of the idea, so theoretically at least, it might be an easy sell.

If restoration of the Commission as previously fully empowered were to actually be included in a final Climate Plan package, at least something of practical real word use would have been purchased with the $500,000 + spent to date on the effort.

Our past coverage of the plan:

February 2019: “All Plan, No Action: Dallas City Hall’s Approach to Climate Change”

March 2019: “Dallas Climate Plan’s ‘Public Participation’ is Neither Very Public nor Participatory”

May 2019: “Dallas’ Climate Plan Rolls Out Public Engagement Plan. Public is MIA.”

November 2019: “The Only Thing Missing in Dallas’ Climate Plan “Focus on Equity” is…any measure of Equity”

February 2020: “How the Dallas Climate Plan Baits and Switches on Air Pollution”

March 2020: Biggest Disappointment of the Dallas Climate Plan? Greens Giving Away Their Power For So Little in Return.

A staff presentation focusing on Dallas environmental equity lacks any metrics for comparing residential pollution burdens, or even for measuring the success of its own outreach effort.

So how does City Hall know what environmental “equity” looks like?

 

According to management guru Peter Drucker, “If you can’t measure it, you can’t improve it.”

Then what does it mean that a full year into a Dallas climate planning process heavily touted as reflecting the city’s emphasis on “equity” there’s still no map showing how pollution burdens are distributed across Big D? And what does it tell you when a presentation meant to advertise the inclusiveness of the City’s outreach effort for its climate plan doesn’t document participation by residents of color?

It tells you that despite all the rhetoric on the subject, Dallas City Hall isn’t serious about environmental justice yet.

Office of Environmental Quality and Sustainability Susan Alvarez presents the City’s climate plan through “an equity lens.”

Exhibit A: “Dallas’ Climate Action Through an Equity Lens.”  

This was a presentation that Susan Alvarez, Assistant Director of the City of Dallas Office of Environmental Quality & Sustainability, gave as part of Eastfield College’s Sustainability as a Social Justice Practice: Developing Resilient Strategies held last Friday, November 8th.

Context is everything and so it’s important to note that the entire thrust of both the Conference and the City’s specific presentation was aimed squarely at how to respond to current environmental challenges in an equitable and just way.  Here was a chance for Dallas OEQS city staff to display their embrace of equity as it relates to the climate plan it’s been paying a half-million dollars to consultants to construct. It was their very own EJ report card.

Equity and the Climate Plan:

And sure enough, there was no turning away from Dallas’ racist history in Alvarez’ presentation. Maps showing the City’s chronic segregation and poverty were included, as well as allusions to the Trinity River as the city’s dividing line between Haves and Have-Nots. Alvarez spoke about the current “Redlining Dallas” exhibit at City Hall that traces the City’s history of racism across 50 feet of photographs and stories.

In fact, just about every impact of the City’s official segregation was referenced, except for the one you’d expect.

There was not a single slide or sentence expended on the disproportional environmental impacts of 100 years or more of Dallas racism. No maps of where heavy industry zoning is allowed in the City. No maps of where most of the City’s largest polluters are located. No maps of what zip codes or Council Districts have the highest pollution per capita numbers. No references to past environmental justice struggles with the City like the West Dallas RSR fight, or gas drilling.

Watching the presentation you’d get the impression that racism infected every aspect of life for Dallas residents of color except for their exposure to pollution. But of course, we know that’s not true.

During this and other presentations on the climate plan-in-progress, staff go out of their way to point out that industry makes up “only 8% of emissions.” But if you’re interested in applying “equity” to this number the next slide should show the audience where that industry is distributed in Dallas – a map showing you where industrial polluters are allowed to set-up shop.  A slide to show you the amounts of permitted pollution by Zip Code, or maybe actual 2017-18 emissions by Council District. But there is no next slide.

If there were, it would show that most of that industry is located in predominantly Black and Brown neighborhoods. Racist zoning is at the heart of not just banking, education, and employment inequities in Dallas. It also means the dirtiest industries have always been located in close proximity to people who were institutionally considered Second-Class citizens.

This one slide is already more information on Dallas environmental equity than you’ll find in the entire City staff presentation on equity and the climate plan

Disproportional exposure to industrial pollution by residents of color is not just AN equity issue. It’s THE single most important equity issue when you’re speaking about environmental justice in Dallas. The City’s Black and Brown residents are more likely to be exposed to harmful pollution than their white peers because the City’s own zoning designed it that way – but you’d never know it watching this presentation, on equity, at the social justice conference.

The “Redlining Dallas” exhibit that Alvarez cited thinks so. Along with other insidious effects of racism, it gives space to the RSR clean-up fight Luis Sepulveda and his West Dallas Coalition for Environmental Justice waged in the early 1990’s.  But there was no mention of that fight or any other Dallas examples during the presentation on equity, at the social justice conference.

Staff referenced every other kind of red-lining on display at the City Hall exhibit – except the one most relevant to the topic.

Nor was there any mention of how much industry was located in the Trinity River floodplain, doing business in Black and Brown neighborhoods founded because the City wouldn’t allow these so-called “undesirables” to live anywhere else but side by side with “undesirable” industries. Alvarez made the point in the presentation that climate change means more flooding in general and more severe flooding. The next slide should show who and what is affected by that new flooding risk. A slide showing what percentage of heavy industry is located in the flood plain. A slide showing what the racial make-up and income levels are of those who’ll be more affected by increased flooding…and contamination. But there was no next slide, in the presentation on equity, at the social justice conference.

If you don’t have accurate maps of the inequities plaguing the status quo, how do you know when or if you’re ever getting rid of them? How do you judge success without a baseline?

PR, Process and Equity:“I don’t think it’s important to say I’ve got four black people in my stakeholders group.”

Alvarez lowered expectations for the presentation by saying it would only look at the question of equity in how it was applied to the City’s climate plan “community engagement.” No actual equity policy options from other plans were on the table, just how well the plan’s public relations campaign did.

Not very well, she admitted. In fact the initial meetings and publicity were so anemic that she said the professional PR folks at Earth X had a come-to-Jesus-meeting with staff about a reboot. So that’s tens of thousands of dollars wasted on PR consultants only to be usurped by better free advice from locals.

A meeting of the Dallas climate plan advisory group.

In her recounting of the climate plan’s PR rollout and planning process Alvarez gave an overview of the mechanics. “X” number of  meetings attracted “X” numbers of people. The City’s survey got “X” number of responses. An “X” number of people serve on an advisory stakeholders group.

Considering the very specific circumstances of the presentation, the next slide should have been how the results of those attending meetings, or completing a surveys, or advisory committee memberships reflect Dallas’ population as a whole. How do we stack up to who we’re representing? According to the Statistical Atlas Dallas is approximately 25% Black, 41% Hispanic , 30% White and 3% Asian. So the next slide should compare what percentage of those attending climate plan meetings, or completing surveys, or becoming advisory committee members were Dallas residents of color vs the city demographics.

But there was no next slide about how inclusive the City’s climate plan community outreach or advisory process has been in the presentation on equity, at the social justice conference.

In response to a question about the lack of such information Alvarez said it was irrelevant to the topic at hand. “I don’t think it’s important to say I’ve got four black people in my stakeholders group.”

Since the advisory group membership is only listed online by organizational affiliation it’s impossible for anyone outside the meetings to know what the ethnic or gender make-up of it is. There are 39 separate entities listed. 25% of that number would be nine to ten black people.

In elaborating, Alvarez challenged the idea that mapping Dallas’ racial or ethnic disparities in pollution burdens was necessary to understanding “Dallas’ Climate Action Through an Equity Lens.”  She more or less stated it didn’t matter. (the presentation was recorded by Eastfield College and Downwinders has asked for access to it in order to quote Alvarez accurately).

Nothing could better summarize the kind of Catch-22 “don’t confuse me with the facts” approach to “equity” the City staff has taken in regards to environmental racism than the belief that actual data about Dallas environmental racism is of no use to the study or remedying of Dallas’ environmental racism.

And nothing makes a better case for the need to pass environmental justice reforms the Southern Sector Rising Campaign is advocating at Dallas City Hall, including an environmental justice provision in Dallas’ economic development policy, restoration of the Environmental Health Commission, and creation of a Joppa Environmental Preservation District. If residents want environmental equity considered in city policy they’re going to have to enlist their City Council members, do it themselves, and enact reforms like these.

The same is true as City Hall ramps up to take on citywide land-use planning in its “forwardDallas!” process early next year. When staff recently released the City’s “equity indicators” report, there was an indicator for everything but the environment. It only reinforced the idea that the environment, and environmental justice, are still after-thoughts in Dallas city government. Residents will have to arm themselves with the information the City staff can’t or won’t provide. They should start with the recent Legal Aid report “In Plain Sight” that demonstrates deep neglect for code and zoning regulations in Southern Dallas.

And it also goes for the climate plan. Southern Sector Rising’s first recommendation for the city’s climate plan last May was “Remove industrial hazards from the flood plain.” On the other hand, the idea of land use reforms in the floodplain hasn’t appeared in any official literature or presentation associated with the city’s climate plan.

Grist recently published an article about the Providence Rhode Island climate planning process that looks to be the exact opposite of the model Dallas has adopted. But that city benefited from having an environmental justice infrastructure already in place when the climate crisis assignment arrived. Where’s the home for Environmental Justice in Dallas City Hall? Right now, it’s with staff that doesn’t think metrics about equity are important, in its presentation on equity, at the social justice conference.

 

For the first time in its history, Downwinders at Risk is endorsing a candidate for Dallas Mayor. Scott Griggs has been a reliable ally to clean air advocates since he was first elected to the Dallas City Council in 2011. He led the successful fights opposing both the Trinity Toll Road and illegal gas drilling in Dallas parks. He’s the only candidate in the Mayor’s race with a proven track record of working on behalf of the Dallas environment and public health.

We’re listing the Dallas Green Alliance city council endorsements here as a kind of Green voter’s guide for those interested in other Big D races.

Finally, we sent what we think is the first questionnaire to DISD board candidates that focuses on electric buses and public health. Response was underwhelming with only two of nine candidates bothering to answer and we present their answers here. This lack of replies is probably an accurate reflection of the awareness level of the issues within the School District itself. But we’re determined to change that.

In many ways, this May 4th election is as important at themid-terms were last November in changing the balance of power.

Don’t sit it out.

They had the PowerPoints. They had the hardcopies of the PowerPoints in Spanish. They had the Subject Boards. They had the Post It notes and purple dots. Lots of purple dots. They had staff. They had consultants. They had consultants hired by consultants.

All in all, Dallas City Hall had everything it thought it needed for its very first of six climate plan public engagement meetings…save the public itself.

Of the 23 people in attendance on April 29th at the Beckley Saner Rec Center, only three were members of “the public.” Staff and consultants outnumbered them a good five to six to one with the rest being members of the City Climate Plan’s handpicked “Stakeholders Group.”

And even that group was not a safe bet. One Stakeholder came armed with a flier complaining that the City had made “no promise your voice or ideas will actually be heard” while another wondered why there were being asked to attend. That was a easy question. To help fill seats.

Looks can be deceiving. There were only two members of the public at the first climate plan public meeting. Everyone else in this picture is staff or Stakeholders.

It wasn’t a very auspicious beginning to the public interface phase of the city’s climate plan process. It’ll be interesting to see how much the city gets billed by the professional PR experts to generate less than a Poker game’s worth of participants.

That result prompted a memo which produced wave upon wave of new social media reminders about the great opportunity to attend the next five meetings from everyone at City Hall including, council members, Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings to DART board members. That push was successful in tripling the size of the April 30th and May 2nd meetings to nine members of the public. But there hasn’t been a meeting yet where the public made-up a majority of those in attendance.

Maybe word got out about the, er, circumscribed nature of the “engagement” meetings. You arrive to find the categories for responses have already been defined by staff on big white boards surrounding the room. There’s “Buildings and Energy,” “Food and Urban Agriculture,” “Parks and Open Spaces,” “Solid Waste,” “The Water We Use,” and “Transportation.”

These follow the format of the online survey the City is pimping.

Missing are topics like “Air Quality,” “Flood Control,” “Zoning” and “Industry.”

Under each of these broad subject titles are exactly six prompted policy options already proposed by staff. Not five, or seven, always six. And they’re far from comprehensive. For example, despite the worldwide wave of electric bus fleet electrification (Paris just ordered 800 e-buses), that policy option is nowhere to be found on the Transportation Board. If you’re aware of that trend you can record a write-in vote for it but it’s not presented to the general public as an obvious climate change policy, which it most certainly is.

Otherwise, your job is to place purple dots by the policy options already outlined for you by City Hall staff.

This is after you get a 30-minute Dallas staff PowerPoint primer on climate change that tells most people showing up for this meeting what they already know. There’s never any opportunity for a back and forth discussion among participants or true brainstorming as a group about local remedies. You watch the PowerPoint, pick among the already chosen policy options on the big boards, or write your own suggestions in, and then….go home. This is the staff’s definition of “public engagement.”

Setting the tone-deaf basis for these public engagement meetings was the much ballyhooed “Town Hall” at this year’s Fair Park’s EarthX event, which was really just one looooong lecture. There you could immerse yourself in 45 minutes of staff talking at you about how great staff and Dallas had been doing so far. Want to ask questions about the process? No time. It was less a “town hall” than a “city closet.”

A good fifth or fourth of the Town Hall audience were Stakeholders already chosen by the city staff to participate in a sort of overview of what’s going on. These are the same Chosen Few who were asked to please show up at the public engagement meetings. There is no public listing of who’s in the group – it’s not there on the City’s website or anywhere else, but it looks to include all the usual suspects we predicted it would plus a few others. There’s also not a meeting schedule for the group or an indication whether the public is allowed to attend.

In fact, the City’s climate plan website is kind of a hot mess, full of 404 error messages and empty white space where details of the process should be housed. A question on the site’s “forum” asking about Stakeholder membership has gone unanswered for 6 days now. It’s “blog” is empty of posts. Like the process itself, it seems mostly for show and to serve as a funnel to take the city’s survey.

Official Stakeholders are sometimes asked to identify themselves in the meetings, but never actually introduce themselves to the public.  They’re supposed to be a combination of business, government, and environmental group representatives but since there’s no listing of them, it’s hard to tell how representative they really are. During their first group meeting, the guy from the Trump EPA reportedly looked around the room and commented how “white the group was.” Not a good sign.

Nor do they seem to have much opportunity for real input. Stakeholders complained at the April 29th meeting that either that they hadn’t been asked to provide suggestions for the City’s survey and meeting format or the ones they’d offered were ignored.

So far, they’ve mostly served the purpose of filling out the very thin public presence at each of the City’s official climate plan events and being a PR backstop for staff to proclaim how inclusive they’re being.

We hate to say we told you so, but we really did.

There are three more city “public engagement” meetings scheduled if you want to assess the process for yourself:

MONDAY, MAY 6

Churchill Rec Center

6906 Churchill Way

6:00 – 8:00 p.m.

 

TUESDAY, MAY 7

Audelia Rd Library

10045 Audelia Rd

6:00 – 8:00 p.m.

 

THURSDAY, MAY 9

Eastfield College- Pleasant Grove

802 S. Buckner Rd,

6:00 – 8:00 p.m

After being rebuffed by its own city council on the idea, Dallas Staff Goes to NCTCOG to promote autocratic regional air monitoring network

You may remember that way back last September members of the Dallas City Council Quality of Life Committee approved a independent regional air network as laid out in a 20 minute presentation by the University of Texas at Dallas’s Dr. David Lary and Downwinders’s Director Jim Schermbeck. They approved it 7-0 with even Rickey Callahan voting for it.

Usually when things get voted that favorably out of a Committee, they head straight to the full Council and get approved. But moments after the Committee vote City Staff demanded it not be sent to the full Council until December.

Everyone who knew the backstory of how much the Dallas Office of Environmental Quality and (Rockefeller) Sustainability hated the idea of such a network knew what was really going on. And sure enough, here it is April and there’s still no movement on the one regional network idea officially endorsed by a City Council Committee.

But guess what? Staff isn’t just standing still. No, they’re on the move. They’re not only going out of their way to shoot down the air monitoring network approved by members of their own the city council; they’re going out of their way to ignore the Dallas City Council all together and take their case for a more autocratic, less public network to the North Central Texas Council of Governments, or “COG.”

Not satisfied with allowing the worst environmental justice crisis  since West Dallas to explode into Shingle Mountain during his watch,  OEQ&(R)S’s James McQuire is now out to make sure Dallas residents never get a chance to make decisions about monitoring air quality in their own backyard.

Why? Because as one Dallas staffer put it, “too much participation by the public can be a bad thing.” McQuire and Company want a monitoring network staff can control without citizen participation or accountability, in other words the Status Quo. But of course the status quo has failed spectacularly to address both the region’s old, and new air pollution problems. UTD and Downwinders are proposing a model with heavy doses of public participation and representation.

So last month, McQuire submitted a request to COG to ignore what his own Dallas city council committee had endorsed, and instead start from scratch to build a less-democratic, more staff-driven network that would be run by the same agency that for years denied the Midlothian cement plants had any impact on DFW air quality.  He did this OVER THE OBJECTIONS of Quality of Life Chair Sandy Greyson, who has a healthy skepticism of CO’s abilities to look out for Dallas’ interests.

Like members of the Dallas Citizens Council who to make an end run around the City Council to get their own pet projects funded – see the VisitDallas headquarters slated for the new extension of Kyle Warren Park that is now being pimped by COG’s Director Michael Morris – McQuire is now circumventing his own Council and seeking relief from a “regional” agency that has historically only looked at air quality as an obstacle to highway funding.

So let that soak in – Dallas city staff is intentionally ignoring its elected city council and the only air monitoring approach that council is on record as supporting, and instead now backing its own more autocratic version which has never been voted on by council and in fact was rejected out of hand by council members when asked.

It would take a novel’s worth of history to make the full case of why the COG is a poor choice for any new serious clean air effort in DFW but let’s start with just fundamentals.

COG has never cared about air quality from a public health perspective. Ever. Any work it’s done or is doing now – including promotion of electric vehicles and other anti-smog measures – are aimed at keeping DFW out of “non-attainment status” with the Clean Air Act in order to keep getting precious federal highway money. As long as the dollars keep flowing, COG isn’t interested in taking on other kinds of air pollution besides smog, or doing research into how even routine levels of combustion pollution are harmful, or until this moment, shown any interest in doing the air monitoring other metro areas are now routinely engaged in.

This skewed perspective is reflected in the language of McQuire’s proposal to COG. It’s all about how this air monitoring network could be a boon to transportation planning and oh by the way, maybe be of some public health interest too.

Because it lacks a public health perspective and is run by a cabal of local governments and staff by way of committees    within committees, COG has been every bit as pro-active about bad air as the Dallas OEQ(R)S under McQuire, which is to say not a bit.

Downwinders spent years trying to convince COG leadership that three giant cement plants located in close proximity to each other in Midlothian, upwind of Dallas, and in eyesight of I-20 did in fact contribute to DFW smog. Despite spewing the equivalent of half a million cars worth of air pollution every year and being sited just across the Dallas and Tarrant county lines, the COG folks just didn’t get it – until Downwinders had to petition the EPA to bring those cement plants into DFW’s official smog plan itself. Those cement plants now have to be included in regional anti-smog plants but COG didn’t do that, citizens did.

When COG was writing its anti-smog plans, there were only two sides represented in it regional Clean Air Steering Committee: city staff and business. It took Downwinders to organize a collective boycott of this process until environmental groups were given seats at the table. COG didn’t do that, citizens did.

When fracking came to DFW, COG was as reluctant to point the finger at this huge source of new air pollution as it had been with the Midlothian cement plants. Why? Because local governments were benefactors of the Barnett Shale “boom” in tax revenues and drilling leases. COG steered clear from even acknowledging gas drilling as a significant air pollution problem and aligned with industry to dismiss concerns. It was up to local residents living next to drilling pads and compressor stations to write new rules for everything the drilling boom brought with it. Dallas residents wrote the most protective gas drilling rules in the state. COG didn’t do that, citizens did.

And if it had really been interested in air quality and air quality monitoring, the COG has had years to develop the idea and pursue it. It did not. Instead it was left up to non-profits like Downwinders and UTD to design and build a new approach to air monitoring. For over three years now this effort as been in the works and in fact James McQuire and his staff sat in on the meetings where the UTD model that was endorsed by his own council was drafted. He raised no objections at the time. Instead he waited until after the effort was finished and begin to sabotage it immediately from behind closed doors. Despite his best efforts at scuttling the proposal, the UTD model made it to Greyson’s committee and won a 7-0 vote. COG and Dallas OEQ(R)S didn’t do that. Citizens did.

And so now two of the region’s two most citizen-hostile entities are trying to team up and let COG do for Dallas air quality monitoring what it’s done to Dallas transportation policy – make it top heavy, unresponsive, undemocratic and staff controlled. 

Like Greyson, Dallas County Commissioner Theresa Daniel is four-square against the COG idea and in favor of more public participation. Representing the largest local government entity involved, her opposition may keep McQuire’s effort from taking off despite his best bureaucratic efforts. And there’s also the May elections in Dallas to consider. A new council could have a lot more confidence in overriding staff proposals than the current one. And maybe that accounts for McQuire’s proposal arriving at COG now as well.

What really frustrating is that if McQuire and staff hadn’t begun his campaign to undermine the one approach that was favored by most of the entities involved, the Dallas city council would have already approved the UTD plan and we’d be on our way to building a truly independent monitoring network. Until Dallas staff objected last fall, there was a consensus about how to proceed. He’s single-handedly gutted that consensus, stifled all progress, and kept DFW way behind the air monitoring curve.

We’ll keep you up to date on how far this COG proposal gets, but Downwinders in Denton, Plano and Fort Worth should be on alert that McQuire is trying to get those cities on board with the COG approach as well.  Please contact your most citizen-friendly council members and ask them not to support, what is in essence a staff coup in Dallas.

In the meantime, here’s one more question you can pose to Dallas council candidates this election season:  “Do you support staff’s attempt to override the will of the council and impose a less public -friendly COG-run air monitoring network on Dallas, or the homegrown version proposed by UTD that’s already received a 7-0 vote?”

If this is going to get done right, citizens will have to do it.

12 Noon, Wednesday March 20th

Dallas City Hall      Flag Room     6th Floor

 

JOIN US FOR THE PUBLIC LAUNCH OF THE

 

SOUTHERN SECTOR RISING

 CAMPAIGN FOR

ENVIRONMENTAL JUSTICE

 

Downwinders at Risk has joined with the the Joppa Freedman’s Association, Neighbors United/Vecino Unidos, the Highland Hills Community Action Committee, Sierra Club/BeyondCoal, Pax Christi Dallas, and other Dallas groups in initiating a campaign aimed at uniting residents who live along and south of the Trinity River, and their allies to say “enough is enough.”

The Southern Sector Rising Campaign for Environmental Justice seeks to end decades of racist zoning forcing industrial polluters into predominantly Black and Brown residential neighborhoods and more equitably distribute Dallas’ pollution burdens.

The Campaign’s First Target


SHINGLE MOUNTAIN


The most serious on-going environmental justice crisis in Dallas –
The Blue Star asphalt shingle sham recycling operation,
aka, “Shingle Mountain” aka “the Asphalt Alps.

 

What makes this situation such a crisis?

Volume – thousands of tons of waste are accumulating with new loads arriving daily. The mountain is now4-5 stories tall.

Proximity fine dust spewed and stored across the backyard fences of families with kids

Toxicity Asphalt shingle waste is chock full of carcinogens

Help us apply more public pressure.

 

The Campaign’s First Action:



Public Launch @ DALLAS CITY HALL

 

WEDNESDAY MARCH 20th

12 NOON

FLAG ROOM 6th FLOOR

 

JOIN US AS WE PROPOSE A PRO-ACTIVE
DALLAS ENVIRONMENTAL JUSTICE AGENDA

On March 20th, campaign representatives will be announcing a variety of tactics the campaign will be using to win the closure of Blue Star.  But they’ll also be announcing four other goals that can help all Southern Sector:

1.     The City of Dallas must immediately close the Blue Star Asphalt operation and begin to clean up the mess the company has created along the South Central corridor.

2.      The City must include an equity provision in the City’s new Economic Development Policy prohibiting concentrations of polluters/pollution in the same neighborhoods.

3.      The City must pass a moratorium on any new Industrial permits south of the Trinity River until that new industrial equity policy is in place.

4.     The City must restore the City’s Environmental Health Commission to allow for a more resident-friendly process for hearing environmental nuisance and health problems.

5.   The City must create a Joppa Environmental Preservation District prohibiting any new industrial permits in that historic Dallas Freedman’s community, phasing-out of existing industrial zoning there, and better protecting residents from pollution exposure.

March 20th’s launch at City Hall will begin with a video by local filmmaker Rick Baraff examining the personal toll Blue Star’s operations have had on the families who live around it. We’ll hear from Marsha Jackson, Biance Morales and members of her family as well as some very special guests.

It’s expected that at least one lawsuit, and maybe others, will be announced on March 20th on behalf of Ms. Jackson and the Morales’.

Campaign representatives will also be submitting language for specific ordinances the Dallas City Council to pass to implement the five campaign goals, announcing weekly pickets and a warning to the City that if Blue Star isn’t shut down by Earth Day, Monday April 22nd, we’ll be attempting to blockade new trucks of shingles from being dumped.

 

The Campaign’s First Protest



Picket Line at the front gate of Blue Star

 

12 noon to 2 pm, Saturday March 23rd
9527 S. CENTRAL EXPRESSWAY

VOTE WITH YOUR FEET TO HELP THIS NEIGHBORHOOD
IN ITS TIME OF CRISIS

This first protest at Blue Star will reflect Ms. Marsha Jackson’s deep ties to the Southern Dallas trail riding community. We’ll have a check-in tent with water, Rules of the Road and the latest information.  We can supply some signs and help you create your own. The important thing is to show-up and support the effort to clean-up this horrible mess and the messes that decades of racist zoning have produced all over the Southern Sector.


Marsha Jackson thought she’d found relief when Dallas Morning News columnist Robert Wilonsky wrote about the grotesque environmental disaster being caused by the Blue Star asphalt operation in mid-December..the first time.

After complaining almost a year to the City of Dallas, the State of Texas, and the EPA without any action taken, Ms Jackson saw Wilsonky’s column set-off a flurry of official concern about this inept and dangerous operation destroying acres of tree-covered Southern Dallas and Ms. Jackson’s home of 25 years.

That’ll happen when the city’s most read reporter informs you for the first time in passing about a situation it’s your job to already know about.

But that initial knee-jerk response left Blue Star still open for business, and without a clean-up. So Wilonsky wrote another column. Some more official action ensued. The City got a Temporary Restraining Order….that expired after a week. The authorities made Blue Star push their 4-5 story high mountains of used shingles back away from a small creek running through it’s property so the waterway would be better protected. Ms. Jackson? Not so much.

In fact, Blue Star has not been cited with even one nuisance, air pollution, or public health violation by the City of Dallas since it began building its special version of  Hell a little more than a year ago. Officially, the city has shown zero concern for the human toll being taken by Blue Star’s pollution.

Last month Wilsosky wrote his third column stating what many of us feel when we see the operation in person: “This is insane.” He got Dallas City Manager T.C. Broadnax on the record saying Ms. Jackson’s plight was the result of bad zoning, the kind that allows polluters to only set-up shop south of Dallas’ historic dividing line Trinity River. But no action was taken to change that zoning and Blue Star keeps right on accepting truckloads of old shingles and keeps grinding them up in the open-air using the industrial equivalent of giant wood chippers, spewing fiberglass, plastic and maybe asbestos into Ms. Jackson’s property and neighborhood. 

Blue Star keeps operating even though the City of Dallas says the business didn’t have a Certificate of Occupancy when they opened, despite evidence current city zoning doesn’t allow what they’re doing on the property they’re doing it on, and despite evidence they don’t have all the environmental paperwork they need for the despoiling taking place.

Despite his best efforts to do the job the City and State are supposed to be doing, Wilonsky’s words just haven’t been enough to stop the obscene environmental and public health problems being caused daily by Blue Star.

So maybe it’s time to do this ourselves.

 

Maybe it’s time to file some lawsuits of our own, as citizens. There’s now plenty of documentation to prove the case of destruction, property rights takings, and personal and public health problems.  Are there lawyers working in the public interest who could pursue these on behalf of Ms. Jackson and her neighbors? Yes there are. There are ones who can sue for regulatory relief and others who sue for “personal damages” caused by this kind of reckless disregard. These “toxic tort” attorneys would do well to target the deep pockets of the City of Dallas and the State of Texas as well as the modest holdings of Blue Star. Often the way to permanently put a stop to this kind of thing is to make the responsible parities pay such a high price that they’re never even tempted to try it again.

Maybe it’s time for us to begin amortization proceedings against Blue Star. This is the process that closed the RSR lead smelter in West Dallas in the 1980’s. A city can change the zoning for a piece of property to something that clearly does not allow the current activity to take place on that property. In order to be fair, the law allows the current users to operate until they get their investment in the property back and then they have to close-shop and move. Once you see the Blue Star property, you’ll understand that it’ll take about a day and a half for the company to get back its “investment.” In fact, because of all the violations of law and probable lawsuits, Blue Star is probably already close to being in the red.

Amortization proceedings can be initiated by the City Council OR citizens themselves. Here’s a description from the Dallas City Code using the City’s 15-member, council-appointed Board of Adjustments:

§ 51A-4.704. Nonconforming Uses And Structures.

The city council may request that the board of adjustment consider establishing a compliance date for a nonconforming use.  In addition, any person who resides or owns real property in the city may request that the board consider establishing a compliance date for a nonconforming use.  Upon receiving such a request, the board shall hold a public hearing to determine whether continued operation of the nonconforming use will have an adverse effect on nearby properties. If, based on the evidence presented at the public hearing, the board determines that continued operation of the use will have an adverse effect on nearby properties, it shall proceed to establish a compliance date for the nonconforming use; otherwise, it shall not.

Ms. Jackson owns her house. So maybe it’s time we help her petition the Board of Adjustments to begin kicking Blue Star out of Southern Dallas ourselves. If the Council wants to do its job and join in, that would be great. But we don’t need them to start the ball rolling.

Maybe it’s time we protested. Not just on behalf of Ms. Jackson, but the ancient, racist underlying cause of this awful situation and so many more south of the Trinity River. Everyone who lives in the “Southern Sector” is a current or potential Marsha Jackson. We’ve got to begin to change the entire zoning map of the city to get rid of the kind of outrages even the City Manager acknowledges are a problem. We need to demonstrate not just against Blue Star, but for improvement across the board, for real progress on the City’s own Master Plan for South Central that aims to “de-industrialize” the area – not make it into a wasteland. We need a platform for progress that address the Southern Sector as a whole instead of continuing to play whack-a-polluter every few months at a different location. 

Since August, The Let Joppa Breathe Alliance has been meeting to try and draft such a platform as part of its mission. It’s been recruiting allies south and north of the river. It’s very near to making an announcement about that platform and the means it will begin to pursue it.  This platform will be the first attempt to articulate specific City of Dallas environmental justice policy changes in the City’s history. It represents a tectonic shift in responding to age-old discrimination that’s still leaving a huge dusty coal-like legacy in Southern Dallas. We’re tired of playing defense. Its time we set the agenda.

Dallas City Hall has failed Ms. Jackson and her neighbors. It’s failed Joppa. It’s failed Cadillac Heights, and Highland Hills and Fruitdale, and West Dallas. Over and over again. To win progress, something more must be done. When the call comes for that something more, how will you respond?

Despite supporters’ claims that the new $500,000 Dallas Climate “Action” Plan would have lots of opportunities for public participation, the decision-making apparatus drafting the plan puts all the decision-making power in the hands of City staff and its hired consultants.

Meet the New Boss. Same as the Old Boss.

Oh, they’ll be countless PowerPoint presentations and “brain storming” sessions around the city over the next year in meetings sponsored by City Hall and neighborhood associations, but those will have exactly zero official standing in the final plan. Suggestions and comments will be harvested but they don’t have to be included – not even if they’re extremely popular in all those meetings.

Those community meetings are the foundation for the process AECOM consultants outlined at the City’s Climate Symposium on February 4th. They’re at the very bottom of the plan’s purported decision-making pyramid. This MO is familiar to anyone dealing with Dallas City Hall in the recent past: We’re happy to give you all the well-publicized public meetings you want. Just don’t ask us to let the public in the room when the actual decisions are being made.”

To maintain the illusion of someone other than city staff and consultants being involved, there’s a 20 member “Business and Advocacy Working Group, or “BAWG” (pronounced like the noun describing the soft ground formed by decaying plants, but also like the British slang term for a toilet, as in “Do you have any Bog/BAWG paper? We ran out.” Either metaphor is probably apt here.)

This august body will be, let’s see, what was the very civilized term used by the AECOM consultant at the Symposium? “Curated,” that’s it. The BAWG members will be “curated” by city staff and AECOM. We thought that was such a precious term for “hand-picked by the Powers-That-Be.”

So City Hall and AECOM will hand pick the 20 members of this working group, at least half of whom will be Dallas “Bidness” folk. That leaves 10 or less slots for “advocates” like the Texas Tree Foundation, the Texas Nature Conservancy, and other City Hall friendly-groups who are allies or have the blessing of  Dallas (Rockefeller) “Resilency” Czarina Theresa O’Donnell. Of course O’Donnell proved her green bone fides earlier this decade when she passionately defended the idea of drilling for gas in Dallas public parks.

Despite other cities singling-out “equity” concerns for their own tracks, there’s absolutely official zero intent in the Dallas Office of Environmental Quality and (Rockefeller) Sustainability to do so here. Not even after going around the last six months proclaiming how concerned City Hall was about black kids with asthma. Local environmental justice advocates approached the OEQ(R)S last month with the idea of  establishing an “equity working group” as part of the public participation process. They were told the City wasn’t interested.

Remaining remarkably consistent with their current management philosophy city staff dismissed the idea that more Dallas residents being involved in the planning process was a good thing. When the EJ groups brought up the recently-completed San Antonio plan which established not only a business-environmentalist steering committee but working groups on “Energy and Buildings,” “Transportation and Land Use,” “Solid Waste Resources, ” Water and Natural Resources,” and “Equity,” staff responded that San Antonio City Hall had warned them to avoid all that democracy. “There were too many people involved down there” was the reply, which will surely come as a surprise to the 86 San Antonio activists who participated.

Despite all this official gate-keeping surrounding the Climate Plan’s BAWG/BOG membership in Dallas, the actual on-the-paper influence of this curated working group is questionable since it only meets 3 times over the course of the year long drafting process. For most of those 12 months this “working group” is unemployed.

Which brings us to the real decision-makers at the top of the pyramid, the “Environmental Planning Task Force, or “EPTF.” Gesundheit!

Comprised exclusively of city staffers and consultants, this Task Force will oversee the day-to-day machinations of the climate plan, and most importantly what recommendations to include, or not, and what timelines are “realistic” vs “not practical.” While there’s a patina of public participation in its “listening tours” the final arbiters of Dallas’ climate plan remain completely removed from public transparency, accountability and meaningful participation. 

It didn’t have to be this way, at least not without a fight.

The same mainstream green groups that signed-off on City Hall using Dallas’ moribund plastic bag fund to pay for this plan could have demanded authentic public participation in return for their support. They could have asked for Southern Sector groups to have their fair share of representation at the table. They could have requested multiple resident-staffed working groups like San Antonio. They could have asked for real oversight and decision-making.  Dallas City Hall needed them and their lobbying last August during the budget town hall meetings, but they gave up their leverage without asking for anything in return (that we know about anyway).  This current public participation plan that really isn’t, is the result.

As we noted in our last post about this subject, perhaps the only good thing about this process is that’s it gives Dallas residents a chance to upset the cart with their own ideas about how a climate plan for the city should be assembled. There’s already rumblings about a citizens’ planning process to shadow the staff’s version and provide an honest measuring stick for it. That would be a good idea. Unlike city staff, Downwinders believes the more people in the room, the better the decisions being made.