Simonton residents wanted to escape air pollution. A concrete batch plant could bring it to them.

FULSHEAR — People in Simonton might not have known that a concrete batch plant had been proposed to run its operation in their small, rural city if Kristi Smith hadn’t stumbled across a yard sign notifying passersby about it. Smith, a local hairdresser and a member of Keep Simonton Beautiful, was putting up signs warning against the use of fireworks ahead of the Fourth of July when she saw it.

Concerned about how the plant might pollute the air in her town, Smith sprang to action.

The community had only days left to fight the batch plant before a comment period closed, Smith said. They’d need to hustle. She and other concerned residents fired off text messages and posted on social media to get as many people as possible to submit comments to state regulators in opposition to the plant.

They lived 45 miles west of downtown Houston on the Brazos River for a reason, Smith explained. “We don’t live in the city, because we want clean air.”

With so much interest, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality scheduled a public meeting Thursday night. Several hundred people drove to the Fulshear High School auditorium in the neighboring town to share their fears and try to stop the permit. The meeting echoed with complaints that other communities have lodged in the face of batch plants — about air, light, noise and water pollution — with one difference.

Many batch plants have been built in urban communities of color, where people at meetings like this argue plants would be better off placed far away in the countryside than in densely populated residential areas. The proposed site in Simonton was out in the country, and still people didn’t want it.

Perhaps the error was in the choice of an actual site within the community. Officials at R Construction Company hadn’t picked a place far off in the woods. They bought a property that’s next to the beloved town park where residents meet for movie nights and holiday celebrations, and by one of the two restaurants in town. It’s sandwiched between two main subdivisions.

“Do you think that’s really an ethical decision for your company to make?” resident Celeste Reyes asked, addressing the business representatives about their location selection at a meeting which was interrupted by heated exchanges and jeers.

Chief Operating Officer Brody Maedgen answered: “Do we consider ourselves ethical? Yes, ma’am we do.”

And so rural or urban, as long as there was no zoning, the problems appeared to be the same. State regulators ignored what was surrounding the property because they said the law didn’t let them consider it. The agency also failed to mail notices of the application to residents around the proposed site because the law doesn’t require it. (TCEQ officials said a notice about the Simonton plant was published in local newspapers and emailed to the state senator, state representative, county judge and city mayor.)

Lawmakers in the past have tried to put in place minimum distance requirements from parks and schools or to build in a better participation process for city and county officials, but they couldn’t get it through. Instead, they were left with a system that the average person doesn’t know how to participate in, said state Rep. Armando Walle, who is fighting a batch plant in his north Houston and Harris County district. The “rules of the game,” he said, are “stacked against citizens.”

The emotional pleas and spirited heckling from residents Thursday evening may not matter either in the long run, unless the business owners take them to heart and change their plans. The state agency has been criticized in an ongoing legislative review process for not meaningfully considering public input.

Earlier this year, Walle and Aldine-area residents asked state regulators to reject a permit for a plant near their community park. It turned out the meeting was held too late for residents to continue their fight through the next step in the regulatory process, and the permit was approved. People who’d attended the meeting ultimately felt they’d been tricked.

In the school auditorium on Thursday, Simonton residents fought hard whether or not they were aware of this history. The town had flooded three times since 2016, and residents said they’d invested in their homes and come together stronger. Smith handed out round, red-and-white paper fans to people as they arrived that he said, “WE WANT YOU TO STOP.” She rubbed “peace and calm” essential oil onto her skin and hugged and thanked the people she knew for coming. When her turn her came to speak, she told the company: “We will not back down.”

The crowd came through for Smith in number and spirit. Did the business owners have children? Would they live next to a batch plant? they asked.

A representative from TCEQ said repeatedly that the plants are considered to be safe for communities. The agency also doesn’t consider truck traffic, lights or noise. When a consultant for the company stated he would be willing to live by one, some in the audience laughed. The company officials expect 12 trucks to come to the site per hour, which will all beep when they back up.

A beekeeper worried about the impact on his bees. Felicia Fruia said she came to Simonton to raise her then 4-year-old child in a place with clean air. Even the mayor, who wore red like many others to convey the message the batch plant should “stop” its plan, seemed to choke up as she spoke. And it wasn’t just frustration: Realtor Barbara Minton had looked up alternate properties where she thinks the plant could go.

At one point, a man stood and shouted at the regulators: “It’s not your job to let them off the hook!”

Nathan Carle, who used to work at a concrete batch plant, said that even if a company was well run, things would go wrong and pollution would happen. He has health issues that he suspects came from working at the plant, he said. This plant would kill businesses in the community, he said, and do more damage than anyone could imagine. He warned them three times: “This is a dumb idea.”

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