In 1928, the City of Austin’s Master Plan designated East Austin (the area east of what is now Interstate Highway 35) as the area where industries, African Americans and Mexican American communities would relocate. Prior to this re-zoning, African American and Mexican American communities were throughout Austin. Implemented in 1931, the new Master Plan resulted in East Austin being the home of numerous polluting facilities and industries including the Tank Farm, the Holly Power Plant, Browning Ferris Industries (BFI), Matheson Tri-Gas Company, and Pure Casting Facility.
Mandated racial segregation, historic zoning patterns and changing economies have created many of the environmental justice problems in East Austin. The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) is responsible for environmental permits for all facilities in the City of Austin. Unfortunately, the TCEQ does not believe it has authority to consider environmental justice concerns in the permitting process , thus perpetuating the zoning issues in East Austin. In response to the burden created by this “inappropriate land use and zoning” that placed Austin minorities next to toxic plants, a group of six Chicano and Chicana East Austin residents formed PODER in 1991. Since its formation, this group has helped to relocate or close many of the polluting facilities and has worked to change zoning and land use in their community. In 1992, PODER discovered that the companies at the Tank Farm had violated air emissions regulations and groundwater policies. They sponsored a “Toxic Tour” of the area – attended by elected officials as well as neighborhood association representatives and school leaders – and brought to light soil and groundwater contamination present at this site. Through community organizing, PODER was successful in relocating and shutting down this facility in 1993 and subsequently received their first media recognition with international coverage.
PODER also helped to relocate a recycling plant owned by BFI – one of the leading solid waste handlers in the nation – that accepted recyclables from over 350,000 households. Adding to the list of accomplishments, PODER helped to close the Holly Power Plant – which emitted chemicals contributing to ozone. This facility was surrounded by a chain link fence with a KEEP OUT sign guarding a landscape of smokestacks, metal towers and high voltage power lines in the midst of single-family homes and a school. The power plant had noise levels exceeding federal standards for residential areas, was the largest stationary source of nitrogen oxide which contributes to ozone, and was the source of many fires. Mobilization around this issue was led by PODER’s Young Scholars for Justice who conducted community health surveys and voiced community concerns through the media.
Even with all of these successes, the biggest triumph according to one of the founders is teaching and mobilizing the community to advocate for justice. This community identified the problems and knew they had to succeed in changing the zoning laws or no change would come to East Austin. Through endless meetings, presentation of maps showing injustices, and encouraging residents to contact their city councilors urging them to vote to approve their new zoning plan, PODER succeeded in 2003 by getting over 600 parcels down-zoned from industrial to residential and to restrict any more industry from going there. This was only possible because of the passionate involvement of the community. Their story was made known to the nation and the world through international media coverage after relocating and shutting down the Tank Farm in 1993 that relieved residents of over 35 years of toxic chemical emissions causing chronic illnesses. This property is currently being redeveloped into a public space for residents to enjoy.
Strong community pressure is what ultimately led to change in East Austin. The City of Austin responded to community concerns by rezoning properties, adopting a neighborhood approach to planning, enacting overlay ordinances, and expanding public participation . While many single family homes were down-zoned in the new plan, currently operating industries can continue uninterrupted and PODER continues to work to change this. Also a continuing battle for this community is the fight against gentrification resulting from a newly attractive neighborhood. Rising property taxes and land uses are creating a new kind of land-use debate, one that PODER intends to play a major role in.