Petter Johnson   Joppa
Petter Johnson Joppa

The Dallas Examiner

“The Confederate statue discussion you had at your briefing this month was impressive,”

Bill Betzen, a resident of Oak Cliff for 43 years, voiced during the March 28 Dallas City Council meeting, thanking the mayor for the debate on the monuments.

“Sadly, those statues reflect the type of abuse this council itself may continue to inflict today on minority families from Joppa, as they fight to stop additional toxic pollution of their homes by more cement plants,” he added.

Betzen was referring to the city’s possible allowance of a Specific Use permit for two industrial uses of “a concrete batching plant” within the predominantly African American community. Joppa, a former freedmen’s town known previously as Joppee, sits between Interstate 45 and the Trinity River, encompassing part of Loop 12/South Great Trinity Forrest Way at its southernmost point.

The city of Dallas website notes that Joppa is a “historic area” with less than 500 residents. The site of the potential plants is owned by the Union Pacific Railroad and proponents of the plants, which would have been owned by building material supplier company Martin Marietta, emphasized the job growth they would bring as well as the availability of building materials in the Southern Sector as GrowSouth continues to gain momentum.

“This is an important item for the community and for Dallas,” Mayor Mike Rawlings announced after he was informed during the meeting that 23 residents had signed up to speak on the agenda item, both against and in favor of the Planned Development District recommendation of the permits.

“There is a fair amount of emotion around this item, so we want to be responsive and listen to everybody speak – but for the audience and the council, we’re going to keep it to the facts of this issue,” the mayor expressed.

“If we get off-topic I’m going to stop you, and if anybody gets personal around anybody around the council, I’m going to stop you.”

One representative of the League of Women Voters of Dallas spoke in opposition of the plants “In support of the Joppa community and their right to have clean air and clean jobs.” The speaker pointed out “The cement plants pollute the air with particulate matter and silica. The particulate matter is a pollution that may be released during the regular operations of the plant and by the trucks going to and from the plant.”

She further expressed that children, the elderly, and those with preexisting respiration issues in the neighborhood would endure added distress from such material, which can be found on cars and trees where local heavy industry is already present.

The speaker added that contaminated air was not just a Joppa issue, affirming, “The air will mostly affect those closest to the batch plant, but will affect air quality and public health throughout all South Dallas.”

Claudia Fowler, a resident and community activist, supported the permits and urged the council to pass the recommendation.

“Again we have been neglected. Again we have asked for things the city could not or would not provide,” she exclaimed. “We have asked private developers to do things in our community that they could not and would not provide, i.e., a community center, jobs that our young people and other people need in our community,” she said in further criticism of the city.

Fowler begged to make the approval a “people issue” that would economically assist and provide amenities to the citizens of the neighborhood.

“Today you heard from a lot of people standing at this very podium from people that do not live in our community,” she voiced and wondered aloud where they were during community cleanups or neighborhood home repair endeavors.

Eventually the permit was denied, after the council encountered enough public resistance that ran the gamut from environmental science evidence to a reminder of the regional history of redlining.

Despite the dooming of the concrete plants, a wider conversation about the area continues. A May 22 event entitled Let Joppa Breathe was held to “begin permanent air quality monitoring in Joppa as part of a long-term effort to redress decades of environmental racism,” according to a promotional statement. The program at 1808 S. Good-Latimer Expressway included dinner, music, a spoken word performance and vignettes from The Freedmens by The Soul Rep Theatre Company.

However, the core of the event was the drive to improve the collective health of a long established yet neglected section of the city.

Natasha Dunn, vice president of the Joppa Freedman’s Town Association, discussed the former slaves that built the community and their spiritual link to the modern world, lamenting, “Although our minds are free, our bodies are still in bondage from environmental injustices that are still taking place.”

Data released by the association, as well as by the group Downwinders at Risk, reported that a week before the council vote portable air monitors revealed air pollution levels in Joppa were 30 to 50 percent higher than the closest EPA monitor nine miles away. It is this pushback against environmental racism – dirtier industries traditionally ending up near minority communities – that impassion Dunn and her compatriots.

“What would environmental justice in Joppa look like?” she pondered. “It would mean permanent air monitors spread through the Joppa neighborhood giving us real-time information about the air that we’re breathing.”

It would also include a baseline health service and follow-ups to track community health issues. Dunn recommended neighborhood medical treatment for respiratory diseases as well as routine mobile clinic visits. With every suggestion the speaker listed, applause rose from the audience.

“We didn’t know that we was going to get so much support from the Downwinders and from the Sierra Club, and when we walked into city hall for that last battle, you guys just don’t know how good it felt,” she called out, overcome with emotion.

“We have been alone for so many years. We’re behind a concrete plant. Behind a railroad track. Behind dumpsters of trash and debris that’s next to a freeway with fuel emissions blowing over there, too,” her voice rising.

“Nobody cares about us but it’s made us feel so good to know that somebody finally cared about us, and our health and our elderly, and people who are struggling to breathe and make it through the day…” as she recalled the council meeting and the diverse allies who may have taken a first step in an environmental revolution for Joppa.

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