Texans affected by concrete plant pollution urge state agency to toughen regulations

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ARLINGTON – Deirdre Diamond is frustrated and worried that another concrete batching plant is coming to her town. Gunter, located about 50 miles north of Dallas, already has 11 licensed concrete plants, according to Texans for Responsible Aggregate Mining, and now another is on the way, worrying locals who say dust and particles emitted from plants pollute the air they breathe.

“It’s like a permanent cloud of dust,” said Diamond, a 40-year-old respiratory therapist who lives about 8 km from one of the factories. The mother-of-six said she started homeschooling her children because she was concerned that plants within 3 miles of their school were impacting their health.

Diamond, the main defender of Gunter Clean Aira local group set up to fight factory pollution, was one of many North Texas residents who came to a meeting of the Texas Environmental Quality Commission in Arlington earlier this week and said to the agency that their neighborhoods were suffering from pollution caused by concrete plants.

The meeting was the last of three public meetings intended to inform Texans of a proposed amendment that could tighten air pollution limits for new concrete plants. The agency last updated the standard air quality permit, one of the most common types granted to concrete plants, a decade ago.

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

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

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

About 100 Houstonians marched to the Texas Capitol earlier this year to protest TCEQ’s decision to allow industrial plants such as concrete batching plants to open in predominantly black and Latino communities.

The Environmental Protection Agency has found that concrete plants pollute the air with particulates, increasing the risk of asthma attacks and cardiac arrest if too much is inhaled.

Diamond said many concrete 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 really reflect the cumulative impact.”

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

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

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

The TCEQ said it will take public comments into account as it reviews air pollution standards for factories and assesses the potential health impacts they could have on nearby residents and the environment. .

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

As the TCEQ pushes forward on possible changes to pollution limits, lawmakers like State Rep. Jarvis Johnson, D-Houston, are again trying to enforce tougher regulations on concrete plants. Johnson filed legislation that would make it harder to open new concrete plants in cities that don’t have zoning like Houston. The bill would also require businesses to hold community meetings with residents as part of their licensing process.

Johnson, whose district includes Houston’s Acres Homes — a neighborhood north of downtown that successfully fought off a planned 2020 concrete plant — introduced similar bills in previous legislative sessions, but they didn’t not been adopted.

He said his previous bills had faced opposition from Republican lawmakers, some of whom represented Harris County. This year, he said he’s taking a different approach, telling fellow lawmakers that concrete plants hurt property values ​​and that means lower taxes for cities, counties and schools.

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

State Rep. Nicole Collier, D-Fort Worth, 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 hearing to include representatives from a school, place of worship, daycare, hospital or licensed medical facility.

Collier said she understands the need for concrete plants “to promote growth in our state,” but hopes her bill will create 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 concrete plants, and these implications may extend well beyond the setback of 440 meters required by law,” she added.

A similar bill from 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 have also fought to improve language access to the TCEQ authorization process for non-English speakers. EPA investigating Texas licensing of concrete plants after Harris County attorney and legal aid group alleged TCEQ discriminated against racial and ethnic minorities and people with limited proficiency in English.

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 necessary skills to communicate complex environmental laws and procedures such as those involved in batch plant licensing.

Ordaz said that not having public meeting notifications and translated meeting transcripts excluded the majority of Spanish-speaking residents in his district from participating in the licensing process.

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

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

Back in Arlington, Diamond pleaded with TCEQ to tighten air pollution limits and prevent more concrete plants from opening in Gunter.

“I submitted comments, I submitted all kinds of environmental questions, and no response,” she said. “So I have to impress on you how important it is to really look at the impacts of multiple factories in an area, because otherwise communities like mine will never be taken care of.”

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