MIDLOTHIAN – Amid high winds and an incoming hail storm, most North Texans were headed inside Thursday afternoon. But, under a small covered pavilion at Kimmel Park in Midlothian, members of an air quality advocacy group had a meeting they couldn’t miss. 

For the first time, Earthea Nance, regional administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency’s Region 6, toured Midlothian and Arlington to learn more about residents’ experiences and concerns with industrial pollution. Region 6 encompasses Texas, Louisiana, Arkansas, Oklahoma, New Mexico and 66 tribal nations. 

The visits to Ellis and Tarrant counties were the result of a meeting Nance attended last fall with several North Texas environmental advocacy groups, including Midlothian Breathe

“I found residents who are tremendously knowledgeable about their environment and about the environmental laws and regulations that govern it,” Nance said. “They’re incredibly energized about working and partnering with the EPA to help to bring environmental protection to their families.”

Midlothian’s three major cement plants were at the center of Nance’s visit to the Ellis County city of 37,000. Six of the top 10 industrial polluters in North Texas are located in Ellis County, according to a 2021 Paul Quinn College report. Four of the top five call Midlothian, the “cement capital of Texas,” home. The city is about 30 miles southeast of Fort Worth, on U.S. 287.

Jane Voisard, a volunteer with Midlothian Breathe, was encouraged by Nance’s offer to help analyze air quality data and get a state air monitor back up and running. 

“That is light years difference for us as far as actually being able to talk with someone and put a face and a voice and an interaction together,” Voisard said. “Part of it is us continuing to apply pressure and have a positive flow of communication. That’s what we want: the interaction.” 

In Arlington, Nance visited several of the natural gas drilling sites that dot the landscape of Tarrant County. The environmental advocacy organization Liveable Arlington has pushed for more regulation and less drilling near sensitive sites such as schools and homes.

Her visit comes as the EPA moves forward with new regulations that would crack down on the amount of methane that oil and gas operations can emit. The new rules would also reduce volatile organic compounds and toxic air emissions, like benzene, that are released during oil and gas drilling.

Ranjana Bhandari, executive director of Liveable Arlington, has given dozens of tours to visiting scientists and journalists. This tour is the most important she has ever given, Bhandari said, because EPA policy will deeply impact Tarrant County. A 2022 report found that almost 1 million Tarrant County residents live within a half mile of oil and gas activity.

“I’m so, so grateful that they came and looked at all of it very thoughtfully,” Bhandari said. “I know that whatever they do will have the most impact in Tarrant County because this is the most impacted community (by natural gas drilling) in America. Their actions and EPA policy matters here more than anywhere else.” 

Midlothian is home to four of the five top industrial polluters in Dallas-Fort Worth, according to a 2021 Paul Quinn College report. The city is known as the “cement capitol of Texas.” (Haley Samsel | Fort Worth Report)

Midlothian cement plants prompt health concerns

Sitting at Kimmel Park picnic tables with Nance and her team, a small group of community advocates shared how their families have experienced health concerns while living in Midlothian. Keith Ricci, who has lived near the Holcim US cement plant for 14 years, said both of his daughters have suffered from respiratory issues. 

“What we really care about more than anything is transparency,” Ricci said. “We feel like we’re not being listened to, and that we’re not getting accurate (air quality) readings.” 

Several residents joined Midlothian Breathe as part of a fight to stop cement manufacturer Holcim US from increasing carbon monoxide emissions. The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality eventually granted Holcim permission to do so in 2021.  

At the time, Holcim spokeswoman Jocelyn Gerst said the company is committed to protecting public health in the Midlothian community. The permit application to increase emissions met all federal and Texas air quality standards, she said in a statement

Since then, Midlothian Breathe volunteers have deployed 13 low-cost air quality sensors, known as PurpleAir monitors, that can detect particulate matter pollution and send data to an online map in real time. One of the sensors was installed at Kimmel Park, near City Hall, after the group donated it to the city in 2021. 

“Midlothian has always been kind of a company town, and the city council has always steadfastly said: ‘There’s nothing we can do, we’re going to back away, we’re not going to have any involvement, and it’s TCEQ’s responsibility alone,’” Voisard said. “The first turn of events was when we presented them with the PurpleAir sensor, and they actually accepted it.”

Anna Hammonds, a city council member elected last year, attended the meeting with Nance and told residents she was there to listen. Midlothian city manager Chris Dick told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram in 2020 that city leaders weren’t interested in meeting with activists because of the city’s lack of jurisdiction over cement plant permits.

Despite progress on an air monitoring network, Midlothian Breathe has continued to face roadblocks in analyzing air quality data, especially when it comes to funding and scientific expertise, Voisard said.

Nance’s team offered to connect the group with grant funding opportunities that could pay for more sophisticated air monitors. EPA staff can also help residents understand the data they’re collecting, Nance said. 

“If you were in your backyard and you saw a patch of something, you’d take a sample. If you found something in that one sample, you might take a couple more samples,” she said. “The PurpleAir monitor is like that test sample … We can help you look at that and see what story it tells so we can then come up with the next step.” 

EPA vows to fix air quality monitor

Midlothian residents are also concerned about the lack of official EPA data on air quality in the city. The only air monitor overseen by the state environmental agency and the EPA has not been functional since April 2022, and Midlothian Breathe activists already believed the monitor’s data was irrelevant because it was located upwind of major pollution sources. 

Midlothian Breathe volunteer Jane Voisard, far right, tells EPA staff about the organization’s air quality monitoring efforts on March 16, 2023. (Haley Samsel | Fort Worth Report)

Ellen Belk of the EPA’s air quality section said she is working with the TCEQ to reinstall the monitor, which was decommissioned after the property was sold to a new owner. The EPA will also provide recommendations on where to place the new monitor and look into which location will produce accurate results, she said. 

Upcoming EPA rule changes will also require corporations to reduce particulate matter pollution – more commonly known as soot – that can result in serious heart and lung ailments. Those regulations should be enforceable within the next three years, Nance said. 

She encouraged residents to continue their data collection efforts and create a paper trail of complaints about any potential air quality violations. Her staff is also focused on creating partnerships with communities rather than hosting one-off meetings. 

“I hear the frustration, and I hope that the kind of support we offer is going to help to energize the group,” Nance said.

Haley Samsel is the environmental reporter for the Fort Worth Report. You can reach them at haley.samsel@fortworthreport.org

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Haley Samsel is the environmental reporter for the Fort Worth Report. You can reach them at haley.samsel@fortworthreport.org. Her coverage is made possible by a grant from the Marilyn Brachman Hoffman...