Industrial Zoning in Austin, USA

Mandated racial segregation, historic zoning patterns and changing economies have created many of the environmental justice problems in East Austin. Read about successful mobilization of the social collective PODER


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 [1], 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 [1]. 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.

Basic Data
NameIndustrial Zoning in Austin, USA
CountryUnited States of America
Accuracy of LocationMEDIUM regional level
Source of Conflict
Type of Conflict (1st level)Industrial and Utilities conflicts
Type of Conflict (2nd level)Urban development conflicts
Other industries
Oil and gas refining
Specific CommoditiesHousehold recyclables
Crude oil
Natural Gas
Chemical products
Project Details and Actors
Project DetailsSix major American oil companies were owners of the tank farm: Mobil Oil Company, Star enterprise (owned by the former Texaco), Chevron Co., Coastal States Crude Gathering Company, Citgo Petroleum Corporation, and Exxon S.A. The tanks, covering an area of 52 hectares, were used for stocking millions of gallons of petroleum products. There were five schools within a one mile radius from the site.
Type of PopulationUrban
Potential Affected Population25,000-30,000
Start Date01/01/1991
Company Names or State EnterprisesBrowning Ferris Industries (BFI) from United States of America - Located within East Austin community
ExxonMobil Corporation (Exxon) from United States of America
Chevron Corporation from United States of America
Texaco Petroleum Co. from United States of America
CITGO from United States of America
Coastal States from United States of America - Located within East Austin community
Austin Energy from United States of America - Electricity provider and operated the Holly Power Plant
Citgo Petroleum Corporation from United States of America
Energy Renewal’s Partners LLC. from United States of America - owner of the former Holly Power Plant_
Matheson Tri-Gas Company from United States of America
Pure Casting Facility from Australia
Browning-Ferris Industries from United States of America
Relevant government actorsCity of Austin, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ)
Environmental justice organisations and other supportersPODER, Nahui Ollin/Healthy Communities and Climate Justice Project, Sierra Club
The Conflict and the Mobilization
Intensity of Conflict (at highest level)MEDIUM (street protests, visible mobilization)
Groups MobilizingLocal ejos
Ethnically/racially discriminated groups
Forms of MobilizationCommunity-based participative research (popular epidemiology studies, etc..)
Media based activism/alternative media
Official complaint letters and petitions
Public campaigns
Street protest/marches
Environmental ImpactsVisible: Air pollution, Fires, Loss of landscape/aesthetic degradation, Noise pollution, Soil contamination, Oil spills, Surface water pollution / Decreasing water (physico-chemical, biological) quality
Health ImpactsVisible: Other environmental related diseases, Other Health impacts
OtherMany chronic illnesses, nose bleeds in children
Project StatusIn operation
Pathways for conflict outcome / responseEnvironmental improvements, rehabilitation/restoration of area
Institutional changes
Strengthening of participation
Project cancelled
Withdrawal of company/investment
Development of AlternativesRezoning and changing land use designations
Do you consider this as a success?Yes
Why? Explain briefly.PODER achieved many EJ successes since it began in 1991. Their most notable success has been mobilization of the community to get involved in the process of fighting for change. They realized a huge victory in early 2000s with a new neighborhood plan and down-zoning of many properties from industrial to residential. A continuing battle now is getting the polluting industries out and preventing the negative effects of gentrification that is now increasing property taxes and threatening the affordability of homes for long time residents.
Sources and Materials

[1] PODER (People Organized in Defense of Mother Earth) organization website
[click to view]

[2] A Texas twosome takes on polluters, and wins - Sierra Club 2003-09
[click to view]

[3] Justice for All: Promoting Social Equity in Public Administration by Norman J Johnson and James Svara - 2011, p.200-201

[4] Environmental Justice in East Austin by Beth Cortez- Neavel in 2010
[click to view]

[5] PODER presentation to community members urging action
[click to view]

[6] Austin's growing population is gentrifying the city's East side and hurting Austinities in the process - Daily Texas Online March 2014
[click to view]


Why It Matters That Austin’s Black Population is Being Pushed to the Suburbs - January 2015
[click to view]

Residents look to revive Austin's shrinking black community - CNN article July 2015
[click to view]

Cast Away - Pure Castings, Zavala Elementary, pollution, jobs ... and the neighborhood, The Austin Chronicle, 28/09/2009
[click to view]

Media Links

The Relocation of the BFI Recyling Plant (Austin,TX)
[click to view]

PODER mobilization against the Tank Farm and the Holly Power Plant
[click to view]

Other Documents

Holly Power Plant Decommissioning Report Fall 2015
[click to view]

Shutting down the Holly Power Plant
[click to view]

A Proximity and Environmental Justice Report of Industrial Lands in Austin, Texas Final report by Kimberly Koch
[click to view]

How Environmental Justice Relates to Land Use Planning and Zoning A Report by the National Academy of Public Administration in 2003
[click to view]

[click to view]

Meta Information
ContributorBernadette Grafton and Paul Mohai, [email protected] and [email protected], University of Michigan School of Natural Resources and Environment
Last update08/02/2016