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'Fighting Can't Hurt': Embattled Joppa Demands City Push Harder Against Heavy Polluters

Twenty-five-year-old Alicia Kendrick had lived in Joppa for only a short period when she became one of the community’s loudest voices for deindustrialization.

Like many who came before her, Kendrick’s advocacy began when she grew suspicious that her family’s health was being adversely affected by neighboring polluters. After speaking to her neighbors and realizing just how many were suffering the same fate, it was too late to turn back.

“You become this figure for a fight you didn’t know you were fighting, and then you can’t go back,” she said. “I can’t go back inside and act like I don’t know what I know.”

Joppa resident Alicia Kendrick stands in the shadow of the Union Pacific Switchyard, which owns much of the land that is home to Joppa's heavy industrial tenants.

Joppa residents have fought to keep heavy industry away from homes for decades, but those efforts gained significant ground in 2020 with the launch of the Joppa Environmental Health Project, which aims to examine the link between exposure to particle pollution and the health of residents.

The study is ongoing, but in the years since its inception, calls for the swift removal of heavy industry have grown louder. A tense back-and-forth has ensued, pitting neighborhood advocates against their elected officials and putting Joppa at the center of the city’s conversations around environmental justice. 

“It’s very clear that the aim is to deindustrialize Joppa, which means the removal of Tamko [asphalt shingle plant], the batch plants go, the railroad yard is reduced or eliminated, and the trains are electrified,” Downwinders at Risk Director Jim Schermbeck said. “It means a lot of different things, and everybody in the community knows that.” 

Austin Bridge and Road announced in early June it would cease operations at its 14-year-old asphalt batch plant in Joppa. The move was considered a major win.

But it was only a matter of weeks before Kendrick and her neighbors were faced with the impending approval of yet another industrial permit. 

The Texas Star Ready Mix concrete batch plant has been in Joppa since the 1950s. A city investigation found the business was operating without the proper permits in 2022, forcing the company to apply for the correct paperwork with the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.

Unlike Asphalt Bridge and Road, Joppa residents are less hopeful about the fight to remove Texas Star. The TCEQ rarely denies a business its permit, Schermbeck said, so long as it meets outlined requirements. 

“[Texas Star] is exploiting a system that gives these permits out like candy, and they know they’re going to get a permit no matter how many times they do stuff that they shouldn’t or get called on technicalities,” he said. “The TCEQ will just slap them on the wrist and give them a permit.”

The relentless drive to remove heavy industry from low-income communities of color isn't unique to Joppa. Latino residents in West Dallas have for years battled against heavy polluters. The predominantly Black Echo Heights area in Fort Worth is advocating for zoning changes that would stem the spread of industrial development in close proximity to homes.

The phenomenon is so widespread that it has captured the attention of elected officials at the local, state and federal levels. But for advocates like Kendrick, those concerns are little more than political posturing and fail to recognize the systemic nature of the issue.

“They could help by actually moving things along — by calling a spade a spade, and then removing that spade,” Kendrick said. “We don’t want symbolic sidewalks, we don’t want more green spaces. We want you to remove heavy industry from our neighborhoods.”

A Peninsula Of Industry

Surrounded on three sides by industrial development and on one side by the Trinity River, Joppa is often described by Kendrick and her neighbors as a “peninsula of industry.” 

The area is home to the Tamko plant, the Texas Star concrete batch plant, the Union Pacific Switchyard and other industrial facilities. Directly downwind from the McCommas Bluff Landfill, Joppa is the city’s most polluted neighborhood per capita.

Joppa was settled by formerly enslaved persons in the 1860s before becoming part of the city of Dallas in 1955. Upon annexation, many residential areas were rezoned industrial, paving the way for businesses like Texas Star, which opened its batch plant the same year.

Joppa is one of Dallas' last remaining freedmen's towns.

In the years that followed, more industrial tenants moved into the area. This type of domino effect is common in sacrifice zones, or areas where residents are exposed to dangerous chemicals and other environmental hazards caused by nearby polluters, said Robert Bullard, director of the Bullard Center for Environmental and Climate Justice in Houston.

“If a community has been informally designated as compatible with a nonresidential use, then if you have four of those uses, it’s easy to get five,” he said. “If you have 10, it’s easy to get 11.”

Tensions escalated in 2018 after two additional concrete plants attempted to move into Joppa. Dallas City Council ultimately denied those requests, which was celebrated as a victory. But tensions reignited after Austin Bridge and Road’s permit came up for renewal.

Residents like Kendrick were unhappy with how the renewal process was handled, claiming that there was a lack of transparency on the part of District 7 Council Member Adam Bazaldua and members of city staff. 

Bazaldua has publicly aligned himself with the community’s goal of deindustrialization and told Bisnow that he plans to oppose each business's permit as it comes up for renewal. 

“I want this to be an easy transition for businesses. I don’t want this to be divisive, because the reality of them leaving is inevitable,” he said. “It’s not a matter of if I want to get rid of them from the immediate vicinity — it’s a matter of when.” 

But in some cases, city approval isn't needed for a business to continue operating, which is why widespread zoning reform is so critical, said Caleb Roberts, co-chair at Downwinders at Risk.

“What we need is a space to articulate the problems we have, but we don’t have that in certain scenarios,” he said. “If they’re allowed just based on zoning, it’s very hard to have that conversation.” 

Texas Star’s permit would have slipped under the radar had it not been for the community urging its state representative, Toni Rose, to demand a meeting on behalf of her constituents, Schermbeck said. 

The TCEQ agreed, and a nearly three-hour meeting was held in mid-August at the Crowne Plaza Dallas Downtown, located 7 miles outside of Joppa. Neither Bazaldua nor Mayor Pro Tem Tennell Atkins were present at the meeting, though both submitted written statements, according to KERA News.

A Texas Star spokesperson told Bisnow the company is a “100% electric-based batch plant” and works “mainly with natural resources.” The company questioned the motives of aggrieved residents who moved into Joppa despite the presence of heavy industry while noting that Texas Star is woman- and minority-owned.

“It is important to note that this company has been in the Joppa community since it was established in 1955,” a spokesperson told Bisnow via email. “Most houses built around the batch plant were built/developed in the ’90s or early 2000s, while the most recent builds were built in 2020/2021.”

Trucks prepare to leave Austin Bridge and Road's property in Joppa.

A comment period for the Texas Star application is open until Sept. 29, a TCEQ spokesperson told Bisnow. The community has also requested a contested case hearing, which is up to the TCEQ to grant.

Despite the pleas of residents, Texas Star’s continued operation in Joppa is a foregone conclusion, according to activists like Schermbeck.

“They’re going to get this permit from the state. There’s no question,” he said. “We don’t have any leverage there at all.” 

What Comes Next

Scientists working on the Joppa Environmental Health Project have finished collecting data and are preparing to roll out the results of their study in November. 

The team hopes the findings will not only lead to the immediate unwinding of Joppa’s existing heavy polluters but also guide the city’s future zoning decisions, said Natalie Johnson, researcher and associate professor of environmental health at Texas A&M University.

“It’s going to start with a conversation and then end up with very specific actions,” Johnson said. “There’s already been some success around Austin shutting down operations, so that’s an excellent start.” 

ForwardDallas, the city’s ongoing land use overhaul, vows to promote air and environmental quality and to prioritize neighborhoods that are historically underresourced.

But at a recent ForwardDallas meeting, Schermbeck and Roberts said the city proposed a flex industrial zoning for Joppa, which would keep some of the existing land use the same while transitioning other uses to something more complementary to residential. 

“They’re trying to change the zoning to something that is a compromise between the existing industry and the residents,” Roberts said. “The problem is that there is no complement. Industry and residential have no complementary uses, and zoning was created to separate them.”

Kendrick and her fellow advocates remain unconvinced that the city has taken enough action. That is why a consortium of community advocacy groups in late August filed a complaint with the Department of Housing and Urban Development, alleging that the city’s industrial zoning of single-family neighborhoods of color violates the Fair Housing Act.

“The city doesn’t get off their ass until there’s legal papers behind it,” Kendrick said. “I don’t see anyone from the city unless there are cameras. So here’s some legal documents that you can read, because the city hates to be made to look bad. Our council member especially hates to look bad.” 

Fighting for environmental justice in Joppa has been a series of peaks and valleys, but Kendrick is determined to stay the course. Unlike some of her neighbors, she said, she isn't yet disillusioned by the power of corporations, resolved to protect her community at all costs.

“A lot of the older residents don’t feel like there is a need to fight because they’re going to do what they want to do, and there’s no other option,” she said. “But we just have to keep going. Nothing is going to be different if we don’t try. Fighting can’t hurt.”

This is Part 2 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.