Editor’s note: This story originally appeared in the Sunday, June 1, 2008, edition of The Dallas Morning News.
First of three parts
The accordion notes of a Tejano song rollick from a window through the breezeways and over the community pool. Around the corner, men grill corn and fajitas. An ice cream vendor rings his bell, and children come running. The residents of the Regal Villas apartments north of Bachman Lake go about their lives, unaware of the danger nearby.
Separated by only a ditch and a chain-link fence, workers at the Petra Chemical Co. drain chlorine from a 90-ton rail tanker to make bleach. The workers perform a perilous task. If the chlorine leaks, a yellowish-green fog could creep through the Regal Villas. It could burn eyes, blister skin and suffocate anyone in its path.
In the company’s worst-case scenario filed with the Environmental Protection Agency, particles of chlorine could spread 14 miles from the plant – as far away as Plano, Grapevine or Garland. About 2.3 million people could be in the danger zone. As many as 17,500 could die.
It’s a risk repeated throughout Dallas County, from ramshackle bungalows in South Dallas, to half-million-dollar homes in Richardson, to new lofts along the Trinity River.
Thousands of Dallas County residents are at risk of a toxic disaster because outdated and haphazard zoning has allowed homes, apartments and schools to be built within blocks – in some cases even across the street – from sites that use dangerous chemicals.
A Dallas Morning News investigation found dozens of sites that are more toxic and closer to residential neighborhoods than the acetylene gas plant that exploded near downtown last summer.
That blast produced massive fireballs and a column of black smoke. Flaming gas cylinders rained on morning traffic. One launched a quarter-mile, sailing over 12 lanes of the Mixmaster and leaving a basketball-size hole in the black glass of Reunion Arena. Buildings a mile away rumbled. Those fleeing felt the heat on their backs. No one died, but the blaze injured three people, including one who suffered third-degree burns.
The explosion prompted questions about industrial plants near densely populated areas: How many dangerous sites are there? And why are they so close to where people live and work?
Dallas officials vowed action.
More than 10 months later, no official review of hazardous businesses or zoning laws has occurred – not even a City Council hearing. Some officials say they’re waiting for National Transportation Safety Board investigators to finish their review, which could take six more months. But that investigation is focusing on transportation; it most likely won’t say anything about zoning.
The News analyzed data from more than 900 Dallas County sites that store hazardous chemicals, including 52 with quantities considered so dangerous the companies are required to tell the EPA what could happen in a worst-case scenario and how they would prevent it. Submitting a scenario does not mean that a harmful release had occurred or is likely. Nor does it mean that companies had violations.
Twenty-three of the 52 most dangerous sites are within a quarter-mile of a residential neighborhood.
Residents of those neighborhoods tend to be lower-income, Hispanic and living in apartments or mobile homes. But The News also found sites with extremely hazardous chemicals near neighborhoods throughout Dallas County.
Dallas planning studies and zoning cases dating back nearly 65 years, reviewed by The News, almost never mention the danger of chemicals at a nearby plant or warehouse.
Most of the sites aren’t required to get a special permit to operate because city law covers only companies that manufacture chemicals. It doesn’t include those that store, sell or use the chemicals to make other products.
So the plants are hidden hazards. There are often no smokestacks with telltale clouds. And the most dangerous chemicals have household names – chlorine, which keeps water clean, and ammonia, which keeps food cold.
But in high concentrations, chlorine gas can be used as a chemical weapon, and anhydrous ammonia can freeze-burn skin and damage the lungs.
Residents watch from a distance as explosions rise above Interstate-35 E near Reunion Arena in downtown Dallas, as fire destroyed Southwest Industrial Gases on July 25, 2007. (File/WFAA-TV (Channel 8))
Several industry officials contacted by The News said they follow the law and operate their facilities safely. Chances of an accident, they said, are remote.
“Communities are safe around our plants, and we work every day with a focus on keeping it that way,” Tiffany Harrington, spokeswoman for the American Chemistry Council, said in an e-mail. “Facilities are demonstrating an outstanding safety record, and working closely with their plant community and first responders to maximize safety/security and minimize the risk of an accident.”
Plants that work with hazardous chemicals typically have safety measures that include leak detectors, alarms, automatic shutdown systems and neutralizers.
But federal agencies recognize that even one accident could be catastrophic. The rupturing of a 90-ton chlorine rail car, for example, has been studied in national security scenarios, EPA risk-management plans and investigation reports on significant leaks across the country.
A leak in a chlorine rail car probably would begin with a hiss. Chlorine gas, pressurized and stored as a liquid, would surge from the tank, freezing everything it touches and quickly expanding into a yellowish-green vapor cloud 450 times its original volume.
Chlorine is heavier than air, and the dense fog would hug the ground. Metal would corrode and turn green, plants and vegetation brown.
The cloud’s first victims would see their skin blister and turn grayish-blue as the chlorine reacted with the moisture found in tissue to form hydrochloric acid. Eyes would turn red, burn and tear as if flooded with jalapeño juice. The bleachlike fumes would sting, and as people breathed them in, they would cough and wheeze. Throats would tighten. Lungs would heave.
In high concentrations, chlorine can be fatal after only a few deep breaths.
Officials expect thousands would flee, creating a frantic traffic jam that would delay response efforts, when it might be safer to stay in their homes.
A Department of Homeland Security planning scenario for a chlorine tank explosion in an urban area estimates that about 100,000 people would be hospitalized. Hundreds of thousands more would flood hospitals to get checked. As many as 17,500 could die.
Some Dallas-area facility managers expressed concern that such information could provide a roadmap for terrorists. But the public’s right to know is equally important, environmental activists say. Information on the chemicals and worst-case scenarios is publicly available at the EPA. And emergency responders say one of the best deterrents to terrorism is an informed and alert public.
“People need to know about dangers that can affect them where they live, work and go to school,” said Paul Orum, a nationally known advocate of transparency in government on environmental issues.
Chlorine accidents have happened, most recently in 2005 when a train derailed in Graniteville, S.C., causing one chlorine car to rupture. Nine people died from inhaling chlorine, and 554 complained of breathing difficulty. But Graniteville is an unincorporated community of 1,200.
And there have been close calls in Dallas.
In 1978, at what was then a Purex Corp. plant near Bachman Lake, too much chlorine was added to a bleach vat. Three employees were treated for inhalation injuries, and an eight-block area was sealed off.
If such an accident gave anyone pause, it didn’t show in building permits. In the years that followed, the city approved zoning change after zoning change for apartments in the area.
The same site later was acquired by Petra Chemical, which operates the facility today. In 1997, 8,000 pounds of chlorine escaped. Dozens of people were injured.
Jon Smithson, a lawyer for Petra Chemical, said the company is as committed to protecting its neighbors as it is its employees. Since the 1997 accident, it has added safety devices and policies.
“Due to the safety features added or improved by Petra, we believe that the possibility of any release is small,” Mr. Smithson wrote in response to questions. “The possibility of a catastrophic release would be even less likely.”
Several of the neighbors interviewed said they were unaware of the chemicals stored at the nearby plant, down the street from Julian T. Saldivar Elementary School.
“I don’t think that a lot of people here know,” said Perla Rios, a resident of the Regal Villas, who moved there for the school.
It was a refrain repeated from neighborhood to neighborhood.
Race and growth
To understand how Dallas developed with industry and neighborhoods side by side, it’s useful to look at the racial and economic undertones of the 1944 Harland Bartholomew Plan. The once-bold documents, which heralded Your Dallas of Tomorrow in wispy calligraphy over the skyline, now sit yellowing in folder No. 98-004, stuffed in a box in the basement of City Hall.
The plan sharply criticized the haphazard growth in areas that the city was slow to annex because of poverty. “Serious mistakes are being made constantly,” its authors reported.
In parts of West Dallas, industrial districts grew side by side with neighborhoods. One of the oldest, the cement company town of Eagle Ford, near Loop 12 and Singleton Boulevard, still suffers the blight and risks, sandwiched between a chemical supply company to the east and a wastewater treatment plant to the west.
The 1944 city plan also set the course for more problems. The plan cited the lack of heavy industrial districts in the city and the shortage of “good negro and mexican areas.” The maps proposed a huge swath of nonresidential area along the Trinity River and railroads, with various nooks for the new black neighborhoods.
“One of the benefits to the city of keeping minority persons segregated by housing is it gives them places to put undesirable and noxious uses without the fear of any type of political reaction,” said Mike Daniel, a lawyer who won a settlement for Cadillac Heights residents who claimed racial discrimination.
Cadillac Heights, despite its name, is a flood-prone lowland where few residents can afford their neighborhood’s eponymous car. As houses went up in the late ’40s, plans were already in the works for a lead smelter.
Cadillac Heights is now a cluster of frame homes on the south shore of the Trinity River, west of Cedar Crest and Kiest boulevards, a Hispanic and black neighborhood where children toss footballs next to the old smelter site.
In 2002, a federal judge ruled that the Cadillac Heights residents had sufficient evidence to go to trial. The city settled the lawsuit soon after, agreeing to relocate residents. A subsequent suit effectively ended in 2006, when voters approved a buyout of 218 homes to build a police academy.
For now, many families still live there. Down Sargent Road is the city’s Central Wastewater Treatment Plant, which stores as much as 400,000 pounds of chlorine. Until a few years ago, a plant that processes animal carcasses for oils and pig feed next door also had chlorine to reduce the odor.
“It’s very uncomfortable,” says Debbie Davila, whose extended family has lived in a row of homes next to the smelter site for half a century. Sometimes during parties and cookouts, she said, the stench of dead animals or sewage will waft over the neighborhood.
Uncertainty and growth
Another factor putting industry and housing side by side was the uncertainty over what would become of Dallas Love Field. Over the years, the area north of the airport and Bachman Lake has been zoned for single-family homes, factories and apartment complexes.
It’s a noisy neighborhood. Cars honk and buzz along Northwest Highway and Denton Drive. Backhoes crunch through the pavement as they dig for the new DART line. Southwest Airlines jets soar over the apartments with such force that residents talk louder or stop midsentence to allow the planes to pass.
The neighborhood is also crowded with cluster after cluster of garden-style apartments, filled with not just one family but grandparents, cousins and neighbors as well. When they were built in the 1960s, the apartments were seen as a vast improvement over the houses, which had fallen into disrepair.
“It is quite apparent that Dallas Love Field and the adjacent industrially zoned district have had a terrible impact on residential structures in the neighborhood,” reported the 1972 Love Field community study. “The condition of yards is 78 percent clean, 11 percent junky, 4 percent hazardous and 11 percent unkept.”
With the historic pact that made all the airlines move to Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport, Love Field’s reign as a major airport was over, or so the city thought. Developers seized the opportunity to build apartments for the new flight attendants and airport workers who preferred to live in “Big D” instead of the Mid-Cities.
Over the next decade and a half, thousands of apartments were built. From 1980 to 1985 alone, 2,115 new units went up.
But Love Field didn’t close to commercial airlines, and after all that building, in 1988, the Federal Aviation Administration and the city reported that the noise from jets was far too loud for anyone to live there.
No new apartments should be built, the city recommended.
But by then, industry and apartments were side by side.
A blank slate
The city had a chance to fix some of the problems in 1987 when a change in the planning code allowed for massive rezoning. Dallas would be reshaped from the ground up.
The plan had good intentions – getting rid of a practice known as “cumulative zoning,” in which lighter land uses could be built in any district. Houses and apartments had been built in commercial zones and stores in industrial zones. That defeated a philosophy that considered commercial districts as buffers between industry and residential.
Here was a blank slate, according to critics. A chance to change the haphazard decisions of the past. The ones the 1944 city plan called “serious mistakes.” The ones that trapped certain neighborhoods in blight.
“It was going to start from scratch,” said Mr. Daniel, the Cadillac Heights lawyer. “And then, wham! South Dallas, West Dallas, Cadillac Heights – they put the industrial zoning right back up.”
With much of the city already developed and a slew of potential zoning fights before them, officials and staff took the path of least resistance, said David Cossum, assistant director of current planning, “for better or worse.”
The problem of putting residential neighborhoods next to chemical plants continues.
The push for new lofts along the Trinity River, in the Cedars and at the Oak Cliff Gateway is creating jarring juxtapositions.
In recent years, red-brick ranch homes have been built in southwest Dallas next to the Red Bird Industrial Park – a dense cluster that stores tons of anhydrous ammonia at a chicken plant and ice manufacturer, extremely flammable difluoroethane, which is used to make disposable cups, and a highly flammable mixture used to make plastic food containers and egg cartons.
Street names such as Bronze Way and Platinum Way fade into the more bucolic Heron Trail and Cedar Waxwing Lane.
On a recent weekday, on a field of wildflowers and scrub grass, a construction crew raised the first beams for a new home on Jesus Maria Court.
And just over a patch of red cedars, trucks backed out of a funeral supply company that will be a neighbor to the families moving into the new homes.
The warehouse stores formaldehyde, a toxic chemical used to embalm bodies – up to 29,000 pounds of it.