“Literally,” state Rep. Armando Walle says, “you can’t breathe.”
The residents the Houston Democrat has represented since 2008 in House District 140, which includes the city and parts of unincorporated Harris County between Loop 610, Beltway 8, Highway 290 and the Eastex Freeway, tell him that the dust that blows from concrete batch plants covers their roofs, their cars, their barbecue pits. They can’t go outside. They can’t have friends over.
The dust, they tell him, is everywhere.
That dust, a kind of air pollution called particulate matter that can penetrate deep into the lungs, is just one part of the problem that concrete batch plants present. Because the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) grants them 24-hour permits, heavy diesel trucks line up as early as 2 a.m. to idle noisily on local streets, waiting to pick up as many as 150 loads every day, emitting even more pollutants like black carbon and nitrogen dioxide. These trucks, Walle says, tear up yards, drainage ditches and other infrastructure governments have to repair. Even attempts to water down the dust end up creating an ugly muddy slurry that tracks all over the community.
Environmental Protection Agency data compiled by the Houston Chronicle show that there are at least 188 plants in Harris County alone, the most in Texas.
That’s why, earlier this year, Walle and 280 residents showed up at a meeting to demand answers from a company seeking a permit for a new plant near hundreds of homes in Aldine. It was heated, Walle says, until the owner slipped TCEQ a note to withdraw the request in the middle of the meeting. That came just one week after a company seeking a permit for a new plant next door to a couple’s home and a park in Acres Homes agreed, after years of residents’ pressure, to build it somewhere else.
Keeping these plants out were wins for the health of these communities. But there are already eight concrete batch plants in Aldine. On the other side of I-45, in District B, which includes Acres Homes, there are more than a dozen. Environmental Protection Agency data compiled by the Houston Chronicle show that there are at least 188 plants in Harris County alone, the most in Texas.
And there are more in Texas than any other state. Though they produce one of the ubiquitous materials of cities, the concrete we pour for everything from sidewalks to stormwater pipes to skyscrapers, the unique combination of Houston’s lack of zoning, the region’s relentless outward growth and an overly permissive state environmental agency means that too many concrete batch plants are making it too hard to breathe.
What happens at concrete batch plants?
Behind the fences, mountains of sand and rock and aggregate are loaded around the clock into the drums of the trucks. That, says Corey Williams, research and policy director for Air Alliance Houston, is the largest source of the dusty, gritty pollution that Walle has heard so much about.
It’s like when you forget to change the vacuum cleaner bag at home — except, in Texas, no one’s coming to remind you.
That’s also the only place, Williams says, where the plants are required to control the pollution. A vacuum system is supposed to suck the dust into a baghouse, which is supposed to filter out the particulate matter.
The problem, Williams explains, is that baghouses have to be maintained and emptied regularly. When they’re not, or when that’s done improperly, they end up making even more of a mess. It’s like when you forget to change the vacuum cleaner bag at home — except, in Texas, no one’s coming to remind you.
TCEQ, Williams says, rarely returns to plants once permits are granted to inspect the baghouses and other operations. Companies are expected to clean up after themselves. “Nobody’s checking,” Williams says, “unless somebody from the community is vocal and makes complaints about emissions.”
But, without air monitors, residents might not know about those emissions. It’s dusty, but they might not know that they’re breathing one of the deadliest kinds of air pollution. Particulate matter is linked to serious health conditions, including reduced lung development in children, higher rates of asthma, bronchitis, heart disease and cancer. The most recent data, compiled from a range of sources, including satellite imagery, show that, in 2015 alone, particulate matter was linked to 5,200 premature deaths in Houston.
Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) are also a problem at concrete batch plants, says Dr. Latrice Babin, director of Harris County Pollution Control. VOCs can irritate the eyes and respiratory system and cause shortness of breath, headaches, fatigue, skin problems and impair the memory. Higher concentrations of VOCs can damage the liver, kidney and brain, according to Babin.
Particulate matter is linked to serious health conditions, including reduced lung development in children, higher rates of asthma, bronchitis, heart disease and cancer.
“Living near these facilities, you are exposed to higher levels of harmful pollution,” says Fern Uennatornwaranggoon, air quality policy manager with Environmental Defense Fund (EDF). Even inside a community, the pollution from a concrete batch plant can be comparable with the pollution along a congested freeway.
The findings of new research from EDF, which drove 32,000 miles in 22 Houston neighborhoods with air monitors mounted on Google Street View cars “confirm communities’ lived experience. They’ve always known where these problematic facilities are,” Uennatornwaranggoon says. In Houston, almost one-third of the concrete batch plants in the city are located a short walk from a school or day care.
The health impacts of this pollution are profound, and they are disproportionately borne. Because land has been cheapened by redlining, disinvestment, restrictive covenants and environmental racism, polluters concentrate unevenly across the region, often intentionally in communities of color and low wealth, compounding other issues and creating entrenched disparities, almost all of which are being exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic. Those who are exposed the most to pollution are the least responsible for it.
Fifth Ward, on the other side of the freeway from Acres Homes, has four concrete batch plants and 10 metal recyclers — and has higher rates of COPD, coronary heart disease and stroke than the city average. Asthma rates edge close to 11%, compared with 7% in River Oaks — where there are stormwater pipes and sidewalks and skyscrapers, but not a single concrete batch plant.
What can be done?
As residents in Aldine and Acres Homes prove, relentless community organizing can keep new concrete batch plants out — if the community knows when one’s coming in. TCEQ requires companies to post signs at proposed sites and print notices in a local newspaper to get their permits, but that’s “the bare minimum,” Williams says. The state is burdening the communities threatened by these plants to protect themselves. Unless you drove by or scoured the fine print, you’d never know.
Dr. Bakeyah Nelson, Air Alliance Houston’s executive director, has said that permits should also consider the context of the site and the cumulative impacts of exposure to many sources of pollution. The permit, she said, shouldn’t be based only on what is supposed to happen inside the fence.
What’s needed most going forward is a reevaluation of the entire permitting process. “The issue is lax enforcement from the state, and I think it’s by design,” Walle says. “I can't remember the last time TCEQ rejected a permit.”
He says he has filed bill after bill in recent legislative sessions to require more protections. Right now, for example, plants are required to maintain a buffer zone only of 440 yards from the nearest school, home or church. He thinks that should be increased. He thinks TCEQ should conduct more inspections. He thinks the agency should scrutinize permits more closely. He thinks the state should be more creative, he says, and give local health agencies and pollution control more authority.
In Houston, almost one-third of the concrete batch plants in the city are located a short walk from a school or day care.
He’d like to see TCEQ have the budget to hire more full-time employees who can focus on this particular problem, he says.
The bills, he says, go nowhere. “Industry kills them.”
But pollution is killing Texans. It’s inconvenient for industry and those in power to listen to people in communities like Aldine and Acres Homes, but that’s who we need to listen to, and work together, so everyone can breathe clean air.
“Do you want to live next to a concrete batch plant?,” Walle says he has asked the owners of companies who are seeking permits that, right now, don’t always lead to plants that are good for the health of the community. “I’m not saying they’re bad people,” he says. “I’m saying, ‘Be better neighbors.’”