A Personal Statement by Janie Cisneros of Singleton United/Unidos
There is a picture in the family album that has been haunting me lately. It is a picture of my mom standing with my younger brother and me. I am dressed in red and pink and our car is behind us in a hopeful shade of blue. We lived in a duplex right near the corner of Bedford and Manila, just south of Singleton Boulevard in West Dallas, Texas.
My amazing mom has always been a proponent of spending time outside for physical and mental health. She also instilled in us a need to connect with our neighbors. What she didn’t know back then was that spending time outside had a cost to our health. What we now realize is that we always had a neighbor that was causing us harm. Now when I look at that picture, I see that neighbor in the background. Their stacks of shingles have always been there.
The white covered stacks along the fence in the background are GAF roofing shingles. The GAF shingle factory has always been looming in the background, pumping massive amounts of pollution into our air. The picture used to just be a fond memory, but now I just wonder about the toxins that my brother and I inhaled that day. Our lungs were young after all, and young developing lungs breathe at a much faster rate than our adult lungs do.
Infants, toddlers, kids and elderly folks still live in this neighborhood. No real action has been taken to protect us from the emissions produced from the shingle manufacturing next door. These emissions are very harmful. Yet, when residents report the tangible symptoms of this toxic air – the rotten egg smell, the smell of burnt rubber, skin irritation or even itchy or burning eyes – they are only classified as a ‘nuisance’.
We had another neighbor at that time – WR Grace. My dad worked at that factory for over a decade and it was very convenient for him to walk to work. I remember how his uniform would be dusted with flakes and powder when he would come home from work. When the WR Grace plant shut down, the corporation continued to employ my dad for several years to maintain the facility’s grounds. Tasks included mowing the lawn around the plant and their storage facility area on Akron Street. It was common for my family to accompany him to the WR Grace grounds to help him with his tasks and spend some time with him. I am not quite sure he understood that it had shut down due to an asbestos contamination or any potential radius of its spread. Standard Industries, headquartered in NYC, owns GAF and now WR Grace as well.
My dad went on to work for Our Lady of San Juan St. Teresita Catholic Church. This church is right across the street from the GAF factory. He spent plenty of time outside doing various grounds projects all year round for over two decades. I am quite certain he had no clue about what GAF was pumping into the air and what he was breathing. My dad lived to tell me about the time there was an explosion at GAF around ’92 and how GAF asked him for help on that day. Interestingly the City of Dallas has no records of the explosion even though city services came to aid.
I know our environment played a role in my dad’s declining health. He died young, especially compared to the age his parents passed. I wonder how he, along with other neighbors on Bedford Street who have passed due to illnesses like cancer and heart problems, could have lived longer had industrial polluters not been part of our home environment.
Mine is just one story among many in West Dallas. There are many people who have stories to share about living in our neighborhood surrounded by industry. As an adult, I now understand that it’s not just our community that faces this. Our friends in Joppa, Texas, in southwest Dallas, are also facing similar hardships. Other communities across the country, with the misfortune of having GAF as a neighbor, are also experiencing alarm as they realize the toxic air pollution takes a toll on their health. We now stand with communities in Minneapolis, Minnesota and Baltimore, Maryland (GAF is on Ponca Street).
GAF likes to boast that they are a 3 billion dollar corporation. They have the means and resources to relocate and take care of their hard working employees. The health and safety of the residents of West Dallas should not be up for negotiation. For each day that GAF continues to operate, our bodies will bear the burden and for many of us- our life spans will continue to be cut short, ground down by what is in the air.
I have a 2 year old toddler now and I pray that one day in the near future I can take a picture with my daughter anywhere in our neighborhood without a shingle stack in sight. I am determined to fight so she can freely breathe safe and clean air in those open green spaces by the time she starts school.
The next time you look through your treasured childhood pictures, take a moment to be grateful for what you have in the background. If you see signs of industry and pollution in your neighborhood, we at Singleton United/Unidos understand and welcome you to share your stories.