By Steven Monacelli
Dozens of West Dallas residents rallied on Tuesday, December 14, to demand the shuttering of a shingle factory that has polluted the air in the surrounding neighborhood for over 75 years.
“There are daycares, schools, a library, a health clinic, and both elderly folks and children who live in the area,” said Janie Cisneros, who lives just a block away from GAF. “This is wrong on all kinds of levels.”
About thirty people marched from Cisneros’ home to the GAF office, where company representatives had offered to meet with a limited number of local residents after declining to hold a larger public meeting. But that meeting didn’t happen. Just a few hours before it was slated to occur, GAF decided to cancel.
Cisneros is an organizer with Singleton United/Unidos, a coalition of West Dallas residents united by their basic desire to breathe clean air. “We don’t want to be worried for our families’ health because of where we live,” their website reads. “GAF must move.”
Singleton United/Unidos began organizing to shut down GAF in the summer of 2021 with the backing of a coalition of over a dozen housing and environmental justice groups. They are not alone in their efforts. West Dallas One, a coalition of neighbors and neighborhood associations, has also been organizing against GAF since this summer. A handful of articles have since covered the efforts in the local news, but Cisneros says that Tuesday’s cancelled meeting would have been their first with GAF leaders.
Cisneros grew up on Bedford Street in West Dallas in the shadow of the GAF shingle factory. She still lives there now across the street from her mother. For two generations the Cisneros family and their neighbors have endured alarming levels of air pollution. Measurements from air quality monitors placed around the GAF plant indicate that residents on Bedford Street regularly breathe levels of Particulate Matter air pollution above the World Health Organization’s 24-hour standard of 15 ug/m3. It is not uncommon for measurements to be above twice that amount.
A 2019 report from the Environmental Protection Agency’s Air Quality Planning Unit makes the danger of such pollution strikingly clear. “Health studies have shown a significant association between exposure to particle pollution and health risks, including premature death,” the report reads. “Health effects may include cardiovascular effects such as cardiac arrhythmias and heart attacks, and respiratory effects such as asthma attacks and bronchitis.”
The ZIP code where Cisneros lives, 75212, is the most polluted in Dallas according to an assessment published last year by researchers at Paul Quinn College. It also stands out in terms of asthma rates, cancer mortality, and heart disease mortality, according to the 2019 Community Needs Health Assessment by Parkland Hospital.
These disturbing realities, as well as the visceral smells of sulfur and burning tires reported by residents, have led Cisneros and others to demand the amortization and effective closure of the GAF plant, which is the largest sulfur dioxide emitter in Dallas and 4th largest Particulate Matter polluter.
For nearly a century the development of West Dallas has been marred by what Dallas-based environmental justice organization Downwinders At Risk calls environmental racism. Starting in the 1920s, Mexican-American communities with few other choices in segregated Dallas lived near the cement factories where many of them worked. Living near cement factories has been linked to increased risk of respiratory disease. Two lead smelting plants later opened in 1934 and 1954, producing highly toxic pollutants linked to a wide variety of chronic illnesses and childhood development disorders for over half a century. Official City of Dallas documents acquired by DW dating from the 1990s show dozens of toxic lead exposure cases, many of them children.
Most disturbingly, a court document acquired by DW includes a signed affidavit from a longtime lead smelting worker Donald C. Francis dated to 1998 which alleged that the Dixie lead smelter owned by the now defunct Exide corporation concealed the nature of toxic waste it generated and never revealed the existence of certain materials to the public or government. Even more alarmingly, Francis alleged that from time to time “Exide accepted for disposal lead containers which contained radioactive medical wastes” and that the “migration and endpoint” for the materials “were essentially unaccounted for.”
It was only through the decades-long efforts of activists like Luis Sepulveda that the last of the lead smelters closed in the 1990s. Sepulveda, a retired judge who grew up on Bedford street and has lived in West Dallas his entire life, has relentlessly agitated for air quality for decades. Sepulveda played a central role in getting a lead smelter and other industrial polluters out of West Dallas and his activism was so concerning to the powers that be that he had been targeted and surveilled by government agencies in the 1990s.
A few years ago, Sepulveda was diagnosed with cancer and a heart issue that required a double bypass surgery. Ever the fighter, Sepulveda recovered from both his cancer diagnosis and heart surgery, and continues to fight to this day. On December 14, he was among the protesters outside GAF, watching the next generation of activist leaders take charge.
Cisneros hopes that Singleton United/Unidos’ will be able to secure a meeting with GAF, but isn’t sure when that will happen. She also hopes to secure a meeting with the City Council district representative, Omar Narvaez, but said that their office had yet to find a time in his busy schedule.
Councilman Narvaez did, however, find time to speak with DW. He said he is aware of the community’s desire to kick GAF out of West Dallas and that he hopes to catch up with West Dallas One and Singleton United/Unidos. But when asked how Singleton Unidos/United fits into the decades long fight by activists against air pollution in West Dallas, Narvaez suggested that the latest push from Singleton United/Unidos wasn’t necessarily reflective of the community at large.
“Most of the members are not residents of West Dallas,” Narvaez said. When relayed to Cisneros, she balked at the assertion. “How would he know if he hasn’t had a meeting with us?”
Cisneros remains undaunted and points to the traction made elsewhere, having met with Congressman Mark Veasey, Congresswoman Eddie Bernice Johnson, and State Representative Jasmine Crockett. She also said she has spoken with West Dallas One and that they are on the same page. Raul Reyes, the president of West Dallas One, agreed with the sentiment.
“Those neighbors that live in the area where Singleton United/Unidos is based, they live right on the fence line,” Reyes said. “They’ve been suffering the brunt of the pollution that’s been generated by that facility. But at the end of the day, we know that the footprint is much wider than that.”
Representatives from GAF dispute the claims that their facility is spewing out an unsafe amount of pollution and contaminants. “GAF PM emissions are very far below our permit limits and the neighborhood air meets national health standards as set by the EPA,” a GAF spokesperson sent via email to DW.
A fundamental issue that plagues the conversation is the question of measurement. When pressed on how they measure air pollution at their facility, GAF admitted that they do not currently have Particulate Matter air monitors at their facilities and argued that it is not a common practice in the industry.
In response to this, local activists have put up their own monitors, which GAF representatives argue are unreliable and installed without quality control. GAF claims they’ve done the analysis that proves that there is no correlation between the activity at their facilities. But when asked whether they would share data from that report, or a presentation they said they had planned to show the community on Tuesday, GAF declined.
Ultimately, the Singleton United/Unidos have a goal to shut down GAF for good. They hope to do that through amortization, a process that would effectively establish that the GAF facility constitutes nonconforming land use due to its close proximity to residential areas. “It can be City led, or private citizens can submit to the board of adjustments an application for amortization,” Cisneros said. “So that’s the path we are hoping to take.”
This comes after hundreds of comments were made during a Texas Commission on Environmental Quality hearing regarding the facility back in July, a push that had been led by West Dallas One. “We still haven’t heard back from the TCEQ,” Reyes said. “Probably because they got so many comments.”
In the meantime, Cisneros and others are busy doing what they can to raise awareness and protect their community. “We’ve hold free respiratory clinics to get their lungs checked and are in the process of setting up an automated Particulate Matter alert system so we can be alerted to when our air quality monitors are picking up a high concentration and let people know that maybe on those days they don’t want to go outside,” Cisneros said. “Just because you can’t see air pollution doesn’t make it safe.”