In south DeKalb, Black neighborhoods fight ‘environmental racism’

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Credit: Steve Schaefer

In a part of metro Atlanta that has been called the “New Black Wall Street,” some residents are becoming increasingly worried about the possible side effects of those economic ambitions.

“It could never be a Black Wall Street with toxic industries in the area,” said Renee Cail, a resident in the city of Stonecrest who said an influx of proposed industrial development feels like “environmental racism.” Black communities, she said, “have always been dumped on with garbage. And if we don’t say something, or we don’t stand up to fight for our communities, then it goes downhill.”

In addition to a concrete recycling plant under construction in Stonecrest, two other companies have proposed rezoning industrial land in other parts of the city for an asphalt plant and concrete mixing facility. Both would be close to residents’ homes, said Cail, who leads a citizens’ group focused on health and safety, which has spoken out against the proposals.

Stonecrest, a young city of over 50,000 in southeast DeKalb County, is nearly 94% Black. Ahead of its formation in 2017, proponents for the city heralded it as a place where new economic development could flourish in predominantly Black communities. But while Mayor Jason Lary said industrial development is key to the growth of the city, several residents say that goal is coming at the cost of residents’ well-being and health.

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Amid widespread protests against racial discrimination and nationwide discussions about racial equality, people like Pyper Bunch worry her community could unjustly face health risks.

Bunch lives just outside Stonecrest city limits, but across the street from the planned Metro Green Recycling concrete recycling plant. “This would never happen in north DeKalb,” she said.

During a City Council meeting Monday where the two other proposed industrial rezonings were discussed, Lary addressed what he called an “idiotic notion” that Stonecrest was created “as a dumping ground for Black people.”

“You’ve got to be a complete ass to think that,” the mayor said, referring to his constituents’ concerns. “That’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever read.”

“Environmental racism” and the environmental justice movement refer to the argument that communities of color have a disproportionate number of polluting businesses and environmental hazards near their homes. In metro Atlanta, a 2012 report from environmental nonprofit GreenLaw found that minority populations in the area were more likely to be exposed to pollution.

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Representatives for the two companies seeking to build on land already zoned for an industrial use in Stonecrest say their work will not harm the environment or residents’ health. Ultimately, the council did not vote on either project Monday night.

The already-permitted Metro Green project is required to have a dust and odor control plan, company officials said, including a berm with trees to surround the property and lower noise.

But Bunch, who lives in the Windsor Downs subdivision off Miller Road, said she and her neighbors remain worried about the possibility of dust and other pollution emanating from the Metro Green plant. Bunch said the plant could also impact the property values of the large family homes in her quiet neighborhood, where she has lived since 1999.

Kamla Gonzales lives in a subdivision that sits just north of the Metro Green site. Although the land is still under construction and the plant is not open yet, Gonzales said she has already noticed dust, noise and a smell in the air.

“We’re definitely feeling it over here,” she said. “It’s in our backyard. ... When I enter my community, all I have to do is look to my right and it’s there.”

Metro Green’s construction on the 50-acre tract of land has attracted the attention of county and state lawmakers after residents raised concerns. The plan did not have to go before the City Council because the land was already zoned for industrial use, but officials have questioned the permit Metro Green obtained from the state Environmental Protection Division. The Stonecrest City Council recently launched an investigation into the issue.

Last week, Commissioner Mereda Davis Johnson sent a letter to the EPD, urging the state to take another look at the permit and revoke it. The company said it has complied with its state permit, state law and local ordinances.

“It just tells you that you cannot get lax ... based upon the color of the skin of who’s governing (you).” Davis Johnson said in an interview, a reference to the fact that the mayor and Stonecrest’s five councilmembers are Black. “We have a history of ... those type of facilities being in our community.”

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In an interview, Lary said the city was built on three sectors: Industrial, commercial and residential.

“The long and short of it is, we don’t discriminate against either one of those three sectors,” Lary said, adding that developers have the right to use industrial land for an industrial purpose. The city has several large pockets of land that have been zoned industrial since before Stonecrest was formed, some of which abut neighborhoods.

Baldwin Paving Company is seeking to rezone 52 acres on Maddox Road in northeast Stonecrest from “light industrial” to “heavy industrial” to run an asphalt plant inside a rock quarry there. Ryan Teague, the owner and co-president of the company, said if approved, Baldwin does not plan to build an asphalt plant immediately, but may do so later.

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Credit: Steve Schaefer

The streets around the site are mostly industrial lots, but are also home to several residential properties, according to zoning maps.

“It just so happens in this area that the residential homes were allowed to be built very close by. It creates this issue that we’re now dealing with,” Teague said in an interview. City staff recommended approval of the rezoning, but Teague asked that the council defer his application for another several weeks. “We certainly want to be good neighbors.”

Another company, 404Concrete, sought the city’s OK to operate a concrete mixing plant on Lithonia West Drive. The two-acre tract is adjacent to other industrial properties but lies a quarter-mile from a subdivision, separated by woods and a creek.

Stonecrest city staff recommended denial of the requested rezoning to heavy industrial because it is located at in a light industrial area. Staffers also had “significant concerns” about stormwater runoff impacting the water quality of nearby Pole Bridge Creek, according to the report. At a meeting Monday night, 404Concrete withdrew its application, but it could amend the rezoning request and reapply.

Councilman Rob Turner, who said he is against the Metro Green project, said he has no problem with industrial developments — but he thinks they should be located in the right places.

“(Residents) don’t want that in or next to a residential community,” Turner said in an interview. “We definitely have to go back and look at the zoning and change them or alter them.”