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'You're Asking Us To Sacrifice Ourselves': A Dallas Community Fights To Overcome A Toxic Legacy

Janie Cisneros has lived the majority of her life in the shadow of heavy industry. Towering smokestacks at a now-closed lead smelter and piles of roofing materials from the nearby GAF shingles plant are frequent fixtures in photos from her childhood.

Decades later, Cisneros still lives on Bedford Street in West Dallas, just around the corner from the GAF plant. Her health-compromised mother lives across the way in a home she once shared with Cisneros’ father, who died of cancer at 72. Cisneros’ daughter, 3-year-old Lila, struggles with asthma. All of these ailments were likely caused by prolonged exposure to pollution, Cisneros suspects. 

As one of her neighborhood’s most vocal advocates for deindustrialization, Cisneros is often asked why she stays. The better question, she said, is why she should be forced to leave.

Janie Cisneros, leader of Singleton United/Unidos, stands in front of her home on Bedford Street, which is just around the corner from GAF's shingles plant.

“This is our home, and [leaving] doesn’t get rid of the problem,” she said. “My mother is still here. My neighbors are still here. There’s a lot of people that I love that are here — people that have worked really hard and endured so much to continue to live here.” 

Across the Metroplex, neighborhoods of color are sounding the alarm over the encroachment of industrial development. Residents of these areas, known colloquially as sacrifice zones, are exposed to dangerous chemicals and other environmental hazards caused by nearby polluting industries. 

Fort Worth City Council is considering a moratorium on zoning changes that would allow for new industrial projects in Echo Heights. The move comes amid complaints from residents in the majority Black and Hispanic neighborhood that industrial facilities built too close to homes pose safety, health and environmental risks.

And in the southern Dallas community of Joppa, residents have banded together again to protest a concrete batch plant operating without the proper permit — less than two months after a decades-old asphalt plant was shut down following years of organizing.

At an Aug. 17 public meeting on the Joppa plant, District 12 Environmental Commissioner Dr. Barry Lachman warned that emissions from the plant posed a multitude of health risks, “specifically increased birth defects, heavy metal emissions, increased lung cancer risks and negative effects on asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.”

Last summer, GAF agreed to shut down its nearly 80-year-old West Dallas shingles plant located just steps from Cisneros’ home. The decision came after the release of a 2020 emissions report by Paul Quinn College and Downwinders at Risk found the manufacturer to be one of the city’s top polluters.

The move was heralded as a landmark win for Cisneros and her neighborhood association, Singleton United/Unidos, which launched its GAF’s Gotta Go!/Gaf Vete Ya! campaign in 2021.

But once the company announced it would take seven years to wind down operations, a new battle ensued — one that Cisneros said has become all too familiar not just to the people of West Dallas, but for Black and brown communities as a whole.

“They’re asking for this community to continue to sacrifice ourselves, our health and our families to accommodate this company and to accommodate the city,” she said. “That’s where we run into issues."

After exhausting all other options, earlier this week Singleton United/Unidos joined a housing discrimination complaint filed with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development against the city of Dallas. Other complainants include the Joppa Environmental Health Project, Neighbors United/Vecinos Unidos and the Coalition for Neighborhood Self-Determination.

The complaint alleges the city’s industrial zoning of single-family neighborhoods of color violates the Fair Housing Act, noting that because of the industrial zoning the city has placed on their homes, Cisneros and her neighbors have no protections from legal and illegal industrial polluters.

“There’s empty promises, but there’s no action,” Cisneros said. “The HUD complaint puts the city on notice that our neighborhood will no longer tolerate racism, and we are going to pursue every avenue available to seek justice for the decades of harm from the racist zoning practices that we’ve endured.”

Environmental Justice Enters The Mainstream

Pushback against the toxic impacts of heavy manufacturing isn’t relegated to DFW, though some advocacy efforts are further along than others.

Long after the dismantling of the steel industry on Chicago’s South Side, lingering pollution inspired activism that led to a change in the rules and regulations governing construction of industrial facilities in the area. 

Resistance organized around the approval of a $5B Rivian electric vehicle plant in Atlanta has led to a two-year delay of the project, which nearby residents called an “environmental nightmare” that would destroy thousands of acres of farmland and forests. 

“Today, because of the environmental justice movement, more and more communities understand the workings of government, the workings of permitting, and the workings of their communities,” said Robert Bullard, director of the Bullard Center for Environmental and Climate Justice in Houston, who is widely considered the nation’s preeminent expert on the topic.

“And more and more communities are resisting.”

Environmental justice has captured the attention of both local and federal officials, but for Bullard, the intersection of civil rights and environmentalism has been his sole focus for more than four decades. Bullard’s studies show that heavy industrial uses have long been considered incompatible with white communities, but the same ethos seldom applies to communities of color.

“If you are a single-family homeowner in a neighborhood of just houses, the assumption is that those types of activities will be located away from the highest and best use, which is a single-family home,” Bullard said. “But when it comes to the residential homes that are occupied by Black and brown householders, that thinking does not become the dominant paradigm. That's how you get this patchwork of land use in communities of color.”

In West Dallas, GAF is not the only heavy manufacturer, and it is hardly the first to draw the ire of residents. The area has a history of successful grassroots campaigns, including one that led to the 1984 closure of RSR Corp.’s lead smelter. This is just the latest fight, Downwinders at Risk co-Chair Caleb Roberts said, and it probably won’t be the last.

“Even if we get no more industry, we still have to deal with the industry that’s there,” he said. “The level of work to get to a place where your neighborhood is safe and healthy is a very uphill climb.”

The GAF shingles plant has been at its location on Singleton Boulevard since 1946.

The adverse effects of pollution in sacrifice zones are well-documented. The same study that named GAF as a major polluter found there is a 15-year disparity in life expectancy depending on which Dallas ZIP code a resident lives in, with a disproportionate amount of air pollution emitted south of Interstate 30.

“I started connecting the amount of people who have gotten the same type of diseases all of my life in this neighborhood, the amount of people who have gotten organs removed, heart problems, lung problems, cancer,” Cisneros said of her early days working on the GAF’s Gotta Go!/GAF Ya Vete! campaign. 

"This is silently poisoning us without us even knowing because it’s air pollution. I never knew that in the city of Dallas —  a very well developed city — that this could be happening.” 

‘We Can’t Build Back’

In a Racial Equity Plan approved last summer, Dallas’ top officials outlined plans to address the disproportionate impact pollution and climate issues have had on the city’s historically disadvantaged communities.

Several months later, President Joe Biden created the Office of Environmental Justice, aimed at using scientific research to understand and prevent damage to people's health brought by pollution, particularly in Black, brown and Indigenous communities.

Despite the fact that lawmakers appear to be more aware of these issues, Cisneros said economic growth continues to take priority over the health and safety of communities like her own. When it comes to the will of city staff and the sitting council, Roberts said some are more committed to seeing environmental justice achieved than others. 

“If you talk to some economic development people and other groups, they would say those industries provide a lot of tax revenue for the city and without those uses within the city, the city is going to have a tremendous loss in revenue,” he said. “The city may not want to do what’s right for the residents because the revenues they get every year will take a hit, and that’s bad for business.”

When GAF announced its seven-year closure timeline, Singleton United/Unidos prepared to file for amortization, which would establish GAF as a nonconforming use and allow the city to begin an eviction process. The group initially had the support of their district’s council member, Omar Narvaez, Cisneros said.

Narvaez eventually convinced Cisneros and her neighbors to halt their amortization proceedings, claiming the company would be willing to negotiate with the group on a shorter timeline.

Campaign signs calling for GAF's departure line Bedford Street in West Dallas.

GAF ended up pulling out of timeline negotiations, Cisneros said, and instead filed a zoning change request that would prevent industrial uses in the future. The company told Bisnow it requested the change as a sign of goodwill. It has also implemented throughput reductions and process improvements that will significantly reduce emissions at its West Dallas facility, it said.

“We have seen how West Dallas is changing, and heard the community’s concerns,” a GAF spokesperson told Bisnow via email. “We are supportive of maximizing the potential of West Dallas, and are working with the city and community to ensure the future of 2600 Singleton is in line with their vision for West Dallas.”

Cisneros said Narvaez has since gone radio silent, claiming he is unwilling to have discussions with Singleton United/Unidos amid GAF's pending zoning case. 

“He didn’t stand with the community, he embraced taking a risk with our health and our lives,” Cisneros said. “It’s very hurtful, because how do you just leave your constituents like that?”

Narvaez didn't directly address Cisneros' allegations in an email to Bisnow, but he applauded Singleton United/Unidos and West Dallas 1 for their role in GAF's closure.

"GAF has already begun its shutdown — I believe that this is a victory for West Dallas residents," he said in the email. "I will remain vigilant during the GAF shutdown to respond to issues related to this property all while following the legal process for zoning."

Singleton United/Unidos requested an authorized hearing last fall to rezone single-family homes on either side of GAF’s property to residential. The industrial zoning that exists today prevents homes in the neighborhood from receiving permits for repairs, and if a neighbor sells their home, a new one can’t be built in its place.

“We can’t build back,” Cisneros said. “The city has played a role in stunting our community’s survival, our community’s growth, and it’s not fair. This is how people get displaced.”

For the community’s authorized hearing to move forward, District 6 Planning Commissioner Deborah Carpenter told Cisneros GAF’s zoning change request must first be approved.

“That’s insane to me — they’re basically putting them first,” Cisneros said. “The message that’s sending is that GAF has money, so they’re worth more than your human life.”

Carpenter declined Bisnow’s request for an interview, citing GAF’s active zoning case.

Is The Clock Ticking?

Opposition against heavy manufacturing near residential homes makes sense given population growth within Dallas’ urban core, said Fred Ragsdale, senior vice president at CBRE. Areas of Los Angeles, New York and Chicago that were once home to heavy industry have been redeveloped, and what is currently unfolding in Dallas is no different. 

Meanwhile, affected communities have become more organized, Ragsdale said, prompting elected officials to pay closer attention to their concerns.

“It’s an evolution of a growing community and density,” he said. “People don’t necessarily want the potential of harmful interactions with their families, with their children, in the areas they live, play and work in."

The voluntary exit of GAF, as well as Austin Bridge & Road asphalt batch plant in nearby Joppa, will likely send a message to other heavy manufacturers that the clock is ticking on their own departures, District 7 Council Member Adam Bazaldua said. But each existing permit will have to be tackled individually, he said, and that won’t happen overnight.

In the meantime, city staff is in the process of reviewing the ForwardDallas draft plan, a comprehensive land use overhaul that would prevent industrial development from occurring in Cisneros’ area of West Dallas as well as other residential neighborhoods. 

Cisneros is hopeful that the plan’s implementation will finally put to bed decades of racist zoning and environmental injustice, but given the city’s poor track record in protecting communities of color, she isn’t holding her breath.

“When are we actually going to see those changes?” she said. “That’s my concern, because what you’re asking is to continue to sacrifice ourselves until that point in time.”

This is Part 1 of a series that explores a trend of communities rising up against what they claim is a history of racist zoning and environmental injustice in DFW.

CORRECTION, AUG. 28, 11:58 A.M. CT: This story has been updated to correct the age of Cisneros' late father.