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Does Fort Worth Have an Environmental Racism Problem?

Echo Heights, one of the city’s predominantly Black and Hispanic neighborhoods, is worse than 91 percent of the country for proximity to hazardous waste. The ZIP code’s average life expectancy in 2019 was just 73.4 years, well below the average for the county.

Parked semi-trailers sit adjacent to single-family homes in the Echo Heights neighborhood
Parked semi-trailers sit adjacent to single-family homes in the Echo Heights neighborhood. Residents and community members recently formed Fort Worth Environmental Coalition of Communities to combat industrialization in the neighborhood.
Amanda McCoy/TNS
Letitia Wilbourn walked past a youth football team and a cheer-leading squad as they practiced in Prairie Dog Park in Fort Worth, Texas. She was headed toward one of three natural gas wells in the Echo Heights neighborhood.

The cheerleaders practiced chants and formations while their parents sat in lawn chairs under the shade of a tree. Their backs were just a few hundred feet from the gas well, which is separated from the park by tall grass, bushes and wire fencing.

Some believe such wells represent threats to people’s health and the environment. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development says active and abandoned oil and gas wells represent a risk for fire, explosion and pollution. Wilbourn says the wells in Echo Heights are just one example of how industry — and the noise and air pollution that come with it — have crept into her neighborhood.

“We have all this industrial stuff over here but we don’t have anything [else],” Wilbourn said. “We have no grocery stores, we have no art activities for the kids, we have no sports centers, and they only put industrial stuff over here that makes us sick.”

Wilbourn wants to stop industrialization in her neighborhood and in residential areas, especially neighborhoods of color, throughout Fort Worth. Recently, she and other community advocates established the Fort Worth Environmental Coalition of Communities to unite residents to fight against environmental racism and improve the quality of life in their neighborhoods.

Environmental racism is the disproportionate impact of environmental hazards on people of color due to policies or practices. It is evident when minority and low socioeconomic neighborhoods are exposed at a greater rate to such things as toxic waste dumps and other pollution.

The coalition is an outgrowth of tension that can occur as Fort Worth continues to grow and develop. Some people in Black and Hispanic neighborhoods feel that growth often happens at their expense.

Echo Heights is a residential community south of U.S. 287 and west of Lake Arlington that has about 2,000 homes of mainly Black and Hispanic residents, according to the Census. The neighborhood is also home to what residents say are dozens of industrial and commercial businesses. These businesses have been blamed by Echo Heights residents, but not confirmed by any study, for illnesses, miscarriages, respiratory problems, and deaths.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency’s Screening tool, the Echo Heights neighborhood is worse than 91 percent of the country for proximity to hazardous waste and worse than 83 percent of the country for exposure to air toxins known to cause cancer. The city of Fort Worth’s new Neighborhood Conservation Plan and Housing Affordability Strategy cited data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention stating Southeast Fort Worth (including Echo Heights and Stop Six) are neighborhoods where residents have some of the highest rates of adult asthma in the city.

A 2019 UT Southwestern Life Expectancy Study found that the average life expectancy for the 76119 ZIP code, which includes Echo Heights, is 73.4 years, compared to the Tarrant County and Texas average life expectancy of 78.7 and 78.5 years, respectively. The average life expectancy for Black men in the 76119 ZIP code is 68.2, 10.5 years shorter than the Tarrant County average for Black men.

Balancing Housing, Economic Growth

The city of Fort Worth has deemed Echo Heights and surrounding areas as an Industrial Growth Center through the Comprehensive Plan & Future Land Use plan that the city developed in 2000. The plan is a general guide for making decisions about the city’s growth and development.

The plan is updated yearly based on changes in policies, zoning, and studies that the City Council has approved.

Eric Fladager, assistant director of planning and data analytics for the city of Fort Worth, says the goal of the Comprehensive Plan is to accommodate the rapid growth of Fort Worth, balancing the development of apartments and single family homes, along with smaller scale industrial or commercial opportunities.

Echo Heights was chosen as an industrial growth center because of the transportation access to different parts of the region, state and the country with quick accessibility to Loop 820, U.S. Route 287, and I-20, according to Fladager.

Fladager sees this as a way for businesses to help economic growth and job creation, balanced with housing that reduces commute times.

“We wanted to build a city of Fort Worth that people recognize as an outstanding place whether you’re a business, whether you’re an industrial company, whether you live in a single family neighborhood or you live in a mixed use environment,” Fladager said. “We want to create a lot of those walkable places so there are a lot of goals that are associated with planning for a city’s future and that’s something that we want residents, we want businesses and other stakeholders to be involved with.”

A Change in Echo Heights

Adam Davis grew up in the Echo Heights neighborhood but moved out of the area when he was young. To help remember the passing of his mother-in-law in 2018 he created Pam’s Place Room and Board to honor her devotion to helping others.

The organization provides group homes in Echo Heights and the Historic Southside for those suffering with mental health disorders or homelessness or who were previously incarcerated. In the last few years, Davis says, he has had to deal with clients becoming sick and nauseated and an increase in noise and pollution from trucks and other companies in the area.

Davis said many people have lived in the a community for 30 to 40 years, but feel they haven’t had a say in changes that have occurred in the last 20 years.

“I really just felt like we should have had a choice whether they move a truck company right behind these homes,” Davis said. “We’ve been in this community for years, and I feel like we should have a say so, we’re all taxpaying citizens here.”

Wilbourn moved to Echo Heights in 1985 and remembers it as a quiet agriculture area with cows, horses and goats. It wasn’t until the late ‘90s that she started to see changes, as more industrial and commercial companies moved in.

Her neighbor, Teena James, also saw the changes in the neighborhood around the same time.

James has lived in the neighborhood since 1994 and says the proximity of these businesses and rising taxes threaten the value of her home because “no one wants to stay next to an industrial company that could possibly cause harm to your health.”

“You want to be able to reap the benefits that you’ve invested into a community that you chose to spend your money and raise your kids in and go to school in,” James said. “We should have the same amenities that any other area has because we pay taxes just as well as they do.”

Wilbourn used to hold after school parties at her house but stopped because of growing concerns of air and noise pollution from the trucking company behind her home.

A Fight Against Development

Wilbourn and James have been fighting against industrial and commercial development in Echo Heights for 20 years and have enlisted the help of the NAACP chapter of Fort Worth.

With the NAACP and other concerned residents, they formed the Echo Heights & Stop Six Environmental Coalition to fight against the growth of industrial and commercial businesses and to protect the health, wealth, and future of their community.

Gena Byrd, the Environmental Climate Justice Program coordinator with the Fort Worth chapter of the NAACP, follows the program’s national plan in making sure Echo Heights has resources and support in its fight. The Environmental Climate Justice Program seeks to provide strategic outreach, mobilization, and empowerment for neighborhoods like Echo Heights that face environmental injustices in health, education, transportation, and more.

Byrd helped residents learn how to draw attention to their concerns, going door to door to inform residents on what the coalition is doing and inviting them to get involved. Byrd also connected representatives of Echo Heights with other coalitions and helped them access records and data to support their concerns.

“We are leaders but we also are support,” Byrd said. “So when it’s a community initiative, we’re here to back the community up and not to take over.”

More groups have rallied to help the Echo Heights & Stop Six Environmental Coalition, including the Greater Fort Worth Sierra Club, a grassroots environmental organization, and Downwinders at Risk, a clean air and environmental justice group.

Jim Schermbeck, director of Downwinders at Risk, grew up in the Rollings Hills community, close to Echo Heights. He remembers a community of Black and white residents who lived in what felt like a semi-rural area with ranch homes and large backyards with horses and goats.

Last year, when the Echo Heights and Stop Six coalition opposed a proposed light industrial facility in front of W.M. Green Elementary School on Parker Henderson Road, Schermbeck and Downwinders at Risk decided they should help. The coalition was able to stop the rezoning for the project, and that served as a catalyst to bring more attention to the problems of the neighborhood, according to Schermbeck.

Coalition Forms for Citywide Advocacy

In June, city officials met with community members at W.M. Green Elementary School to address concerns raised by the coalition. In the meeting, the group said, it learned the city had applied for a grant through the Environmental Justice Government-to-Government Program without consulting Echo Heights residents or telling them after the application had been submitted.

The grant program was designed to build a strategic plan to address community concerns on environmental issues in the 76119 ZIP code that includes Echo Heights. Schermbeck said this mobilized him and the coalition to take their efforts and concerns citywide.

“We don’t want to lose more of our neighborhood, even as we’re trying to figure out how to save it,” Schermbeck said. “So what they’re looking for is some assurance that the council hears that request, which seems quite reasonable.”

In August, the Echo Heights & Stop Six Environmental Coalition, Northside Fort Worth Air, the Fort Worth Sierra Club, Sunrise Tarrant County, and Downwinders at Risk formed the Fort Worth Environmental Coalition of Communities to fight environmental racism in Fort Worth neighborhoods. According to Schermbeck, Echo Heights will be the flagship of the organization due to the advocacy residents there have done for their community.

Part of the group’s mission statement says: “Polluting industries must be held accountable for their environmental injustices, as well as the officials who facilitate them. This means that environmental racism and its continued impacts must be thoroughly documented and addressed. By centering residents’ voices, we can build trust and unity in our communities and citywide.”

Planning for The Future

Next year, the city will start work on its 2050 Comprehensive Plan, which will help shape the future of growth and development in Fort Worth. The Fort Worth Environmental Coalition of Communities will provide feedback during that process to ensure the city removes other industrial designations in residential areas in the future.

The City Council has postponed updating the Southeast Sector of the current Comprehensive Plan three times, after residents sought to stop further industrial or commercial development in the area.

On Nov. 14, the city council is scheduled to take up the last remaining piece of the 2023 update to the Comprehensive Plan, which is the Southeast Sector Future Land Use Map. Wording has been added to prevent further commercial or industrial development of the Loop 820 East/US 287 Industrial Growth Center.

Representatives of the city have met with community members several times to address their concerns and plan to meet with Echo Heights residents in advance of the Nov. 14 city council meeting.

John MacFarlane, who serves on the executive committee of the Greater Fort Worth Sierra Club, joined the Echo Heights & Stop Six Environmental Coalition over a year ago. He and Schermbeck say Fort Worth lags behind other cities, such as Dallas, in a comprehensive plan to address environmental racism.

MacFarlane is hopeful the city council will approve the new version of the Southeast Sector Future Land Use Map in the Comprehensive Plan, which includes the wishes of the coalition. Representatives of the new citywide coalition will go to public meetings and work to keep members of the community informed about what is happening, MacFarlane says.

“This industrial center just didn’t spring up overnight, right?,” MacFarlane said. “ Like one company here, one company there and then once you look up 20 years later, you’re surrounded.”

©2023 Fort Worth Star-Telegram. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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