When David and Donna Williams made the choice to live on De Soto Street in 2002, they thought they had found their forever home.
Now they’re not sure how much longer they can stay, because they appear to be stuck with a problem that may never be fixed.
The Williams live in a home immediately neighboring a proposed concrete batch plant in Acres Homes, which is undergoing a review process by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. According to a letter from the TCEQ mailed to Acres Homes residents May 15, executive director Toby Baker ruled that Soto Ready Mix’s batch plant application meets the requirements of applicable law.
Before granting an operating permit, however, the TCEQ must consider all requests for reconsideration and contested case hearings.
Among the opponents is Donna Williams, who said at first she and her husband didn’t think much of the vacant lot next to their home. But after the lot at 3411 De Soto St. was sold in 2015 to Armando Soto – owner of Soto Ready Mix – problems began to crop up.
“That’s when we started noticing a travel trailer and a cement truck coming in,” she said. “That was it for a period of time, and suddenly there was a fleet. That’s really been within about the last four years.
“We didn’t know what was going on. We had to deal with it, but we didn’t really know if we had a leg to stand on to fight it. As time passed, frustrations grew. … I know there are other communities in Houston where this would not happen or wouldn’t even be a conversation.”
Soto did not respond to text messages seeking comment, and his business did not respond to an email seeking comment.
The Williams are not alone in opposing Soto Ready Mix’s application to operate 24 hours a day and seven days a week. State Rep. Jarvis Johnson, who serves the neighborhood, continues to try to prevent the batch plant from doing business there.
“We’re still fighting it,” Johnson said.
With approval of Soto Ready Mix’s operating permit appearing imminent, the Williams family isn’t sure what to do. They’re bracing for the possibility that they might have to live next to a concrete batch plant.
“It’s the only house our grandkids have ever known, but we don’t enjoy it like we used to at all,” Donna Williams said. “We can’t enjoy the yard. We can’t even enjoy it in the house.
“I drive around Houston and see other plants like this with nothing around them. For them to set up shop directly in the middle of a neighborhood is disrespectful.”
Little help available
Environmental nonprofit organization Air Alliance Houston has been a driving force in public opposition to the plant. Air Alliance’s Corey Williams, who is not related to David and Donna Williams, said emissions from such plants can spray everything from visible dust to micron-level particulates into the air, having an impact on quality of life.
“The idea you would have a facility like that so close to a property line is offensive,” Corey Williams said.
The first air emissions permit Soto applied for in December 2017 was denied because the plant wasn’t far enough away from the property line. A subsequent application, submitted in October 2018, is the one now being considered.
With no zoning laws in Houston, city officials have declared their hands tied. Baker, in his official Response to Comments (RTC) regarding the De Soto site, said that given the TCEQ’s limited authority – it addresses concerns on a case-by-case basis – all it can do is ensure a company works within the permit’s parameters, which includes limiting particulate matter emissions.
The problem there, according to Corey Williams, is the plants can be difficult to maintain. He said a Houston Health Department study in 2016, involving the unannounced inspection of 39 batch plants in the city, revealed 44 violations.
“For whatever reason, they’re not staying within the parameters of their permit, and it leads us to believe that’s an industry standard,” he said. “There are consequences for that, especially when these facilities are located so close to residences and parks and other sensitive areas.”
It’s already presented an issue for the Williams family. Donna Williams said one of her grandkids has asthma that’s induced by allergies that have been aggravated by airborne dust, and that she’s experienced respiratory issues within the last year she believes was the result of fumes and toxins from the plant that have permeated the air.
TCEQ spokesperson Martha Otero said Soto Ready Mix can begin site clearance and site preparation prior to the permit being issued. However, construction and operation of facilities that require the air permit may not begin before issuance.
The Williams family already has been impacted.
“There’s been fly ash and fumes,” Donna Williams said. “From the soot and smoke that settled on our roof and plants and cars, it’s ridiculous. … If there was something where the entire community didn’t want me there, I wouldn’t want to be there.”
Additionally, there’s the nuisance of noise from jackhammers and truck traffic, which Donna Williams said has kept her family up late at night and awoken them as early as 4 a.m.
According to Soto’s permit, production capacity is 180 cubic yards per hour. Corey Williams said the average capacity of a truck is 8 cubic yards, meaning 23 truckloads coming and going per hour.
“All of these things are not appreciated by the neighbors,” he said.
What to do?
One recourse residents such as the Williams’ have had, after pleading with city council members and state representatives, is submitting a request for a contested case hearing in order to spell out why the plant would be harmful to the neighborhood. According to Corey Williams, there are 94 requests the TCEQ is now considering — out of roughly 130 occupied parcels of land within the buffer zone of the site.
However, no such hearings have been scheduled. To have standing for a contested case hearing, a person must live within a quarter mile of any proposed site.
“This is a pilot program for us, to test the bounds of the public participation process and see if it’s theatre or if the participation can actually have an influence on the outcome,” Corey Williams said. “The public is engaged to a degree I’ve never seen, and I haven’t met a person yet who wants this in the neighborhood.”
In Donna Williams’ eyes, they’re fighting for the life of their neighborhood. Hundreds of Acres Homes residents have battled for two years and don’t plan to stop now.
“There’s no beginning or end here,” she said. “It’s brought a lot of frustration, disappointment and disbelief that something like this is even an issue.”