Chris Fillie worries about dusty peppers.
Fillie has lived in the Porters Community for 17 years and owns a community garden on Southwest Third Street. With the help of Keep Alachua County Beautiful, a nonprofit organization that established and maintains the garden in Porters, the plot of land provides peppers, tomatoes, parsley and rosemary for the neighborhood residents. While the garden has existed for 15 years and is meant to bring fresh produce and a green space to Porters, Fillie is concerned about the garden’s location near an industrial site.
Less than a quarter mile to the south are two industrial facilities, Argos Ready Mix, LLC, at 924 S. Main St. and Florida Concrete Recycling, Inc. on 930 SW Third St. The prospect of growing vegetables that could later be coated in cement dust generated from these companies makes Fillie wonder.
For the past several years, neighborhood residents like Fillie have been dealing with waves of dust and constant noise coming from the facilities across the street. Porters is one of very few — if not the only — Gainesville city neighborhoods that abuts a site zoned for heavy industrial usage.
Between sleep-shattering noise, dust coating their homes and little help from local governments to address the issue, some residents of Porters are frustrated with the disruption and environmental hazards that the industrial site imposes on them.
Fillie says the noise “sounds like a machine gun going off, it’s crazy.” He can handle the loud music and other noise that comes with living near downtown, but the noise from the industrial plant is more than he would expect in an urban environment.
He’s not alone in his concerns.
Janie Williams, a lifelong resident of the historically Black community, has also been disturbed by the noise and specifically its interruption of her and her neighbors’ sleep. Williams has in the past tried bringing her concerns to the Gainesville City Commission, but to little avail.
“The trucks start running about 1, 1:45, 2:45 in the morning when you are in your deep sleep, and that’s not good for the neighborhood,” Williams said. “Sometimes I can go back to sleep, and sometimes I can’t.”
The sites and their history
Argos Ready Mix on South Main Street is owned by Argos USA, a multinational company that produces and markets cement and ready-mix concrete through its operations in Colombia, the U.S., Central America and the Caribbean.
In 2014, Argos acquired cement and ready-mix assets from Vulcan Materials Company in Florida, including one cement plant, two grinding mills and about 70 ready-mix plants as part of a $720 million deal. The official purchase of the property on South Main Street happened March 7, 2014, from what was previously Florida Rock Industries, Inc. for a total of $949,100.
Florida Concrete Recycling, Inc. is a local, family-owned company that has been operating out of Gainesville for about 30 years. The company offers a variety of recycled aggregate materials and services.
The facilities’ dust creeps into Porters. Fillie said he power washes his home every few months, and the dust layers mixed with pollen that comes off each time is significant. He even had to paint his house that was previously white to sage green just to help hide the dusty mix.
The dust is especially bad in the spring when the winds blow it over to Porters, Williams said. This can be particularly problematic for some of her neighbors who already suffer from asthma and other sinus-related issues.
A 2018 study in the National Center for Biotechnology Information explored the health effects of environmental pollution for nearby communities. It found dust pollution resulting from activity in industrial complexes could be detrimental to human health. The pollution coming from the site could “enter the human body through the respiratory system or skin and can cause allergic reactions, respiratory symptoms, and various acute and chronic diseases, such as asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary diseases, lung dysfunctions, skin and eye diseases, acute bronchitis, cardiovascular disease and cancer.”
Concerns about these industrial plants in the area are not new. Reservations date back to 1999 when Florida Rock Industries initially opened its $100 million cement plant in Newberry. The construction of the plant was controversial at the time, and Alachua County residents opposed it based on environmental concerns.
That year, Florida Rock sued Alachua County over its commission’s action to reduce pollution coming from the plant to levels below those allowed by a state permit. This was after county officials and local residents asked the company to decrease air pollution emitted by the plant. Vulcan Materials later purchased Florida Rock in 2007 for over $4 billion.
Regardless of site ownership or management, the frustrations remain.
Tim Renfroe, the owner of Florida Concrete Recycling, said the company does its best to control dust. They try to minimize dust through sweeping and cleaning the surrounding roads when necessary. Still, he explained that dust coming from the site is not completely avoidable.
“You can’t do what we do and have it 100% dust free,” Renfroe said.
He also explained how Florida Concrete Recycling does its part in meeting with representatives from the Alachua County Environmental Protection Department to ensure the company is within the boundaries of its state permits.
To Renfroe, because the property is zoned as industrial, he feels residents should be aware of their surroundings prior to moving in.
Argos would not respond to questions about the dust or noise but did offer a statement: “We, as an organization, have worked with and will continue to work with local and government agencies to ensure that we are within our permitted limits of the community ordinances. Our community is important to us, and we would like to strengthen our relationship with the people of Gainesville.”
Neighboring companies Cemex Inc. and CIC & Co Inc. are no longer operating on two adjacent sites and therefore cannot be contributing to the noise and dust pollution. Cemex Construction Materials Florida, LLC only operates at this site when additional capacity is needed as they mainly operate out of 820 NW 53rd Ave. and have not had any issues at the location near Southwest Depot Avenue, according to Alachua County.
“Legacy of environmental racism”
Porters was established in 1884, making it one of the oldest historically Black neighborhoods in Gainesville. The community was named after the initial owner, Canadian physician Dr. Watson Porter, who sold plots of the land exclusively to Black families. The neighborhood is about a tenth of a square mile large and home to about 400 people.
The property on South Main Street has been zoned for industrial use since at least 1964, although Argos and Florida Concrete Recycling did not enter the picture until much later, over 100 years after the establishment of Porters.
These companies are the latest industrial facilities to operate near Porters, in part because of Jim Crow-era zoning laws, according to Panagioti Tsolkas.
Tsolkas is a community organizer in the Gainesville area with a keen interest in environmental justice. He has advocated to prevent the expansion of industrial activity in southeast Gainesville, particularly with landfills.
“In this area, there is just this legacy of environmental racism,” Tsolkas said. “A lot of these companies don’t want to accept that that’s what they are a part of, they don’t want to view themselves in that way.”
Even after the abolition of slavery and throughout the Civil Rights Era, discriminatory zoning made putting industrial facilities in low-income and Black communities the norm.
Federal legislation in 1994 that pointed to environmental justice regulations — namely the Environmental Justice Act passed under former President Bill Clinton’s administration — was not enough to combat the issue.
“Even that didn’t have the teeth to stop it,” Tsolkas said. “It just basically gave official recognition to point it out.”
Nearly 20 years later, the proximity of heavy industry to people living in Porters is still tinged with allegations of environmental racism.
A plan to further limit pollution?
Frustration over the dust and noise coming from this industrial plant is not news to city and county officials. Still, their actions to address this ongoing issue have not been enough to eliminate the nuisance for residents of Porters.
Stacie Greco, the water resources program manager with the Alachua County Environmental Protection Department, said that the department has received dust complaints regarding this location over the years. However, she said it can be hard to pinpoint the exact source given that Argos and Florida Concrete Recycling are directly next to one another.
Nevertheless, Greco said that the department is trying to address vehicles that come in and out of the industrial facilities, tracking problematic dust and rock onto Southwest Depot Avenue, the road between Porters and Argos.
She said the department is monitoring the situation. Staff in the department met with both Argos and Florida Concrete Recycling representatives on site in late March to discuss their state general permits and the requirements that cover unconfined emissions generated from vehicle traffic. Any and all dust that is tracked offsite from their facilities is a violation of their permits.
The department has already worked with Florida Concrete Recycling to change some of its practices. For example, the company is no longer loading material onto flatbed trucks; vehicles now must have sides that keep in the material and a tarp placed over it.
“We have noticed an improvement since they’ve been doing that practice there,” Greco said.
However, she says dust can be a tricky issue. In the department’s monitoring of active construction sites, the facility can try to reduce dust by wetting an area down, but they also cannot use too much water because then it creates runoff.
“At this point, our main thing is looking at what is getting tracked into the road, and if we can decrease that, I imagine that would also decrease dust,” Greco said. “You have dust that’s being generated on the plant, and even though that is outside the scope of our codes, our department will report it to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, which has permitted these facilities.”
Argos is also monitored through the county’s hazardous material program, which performs routine checks with the site every five years. The most recent check-in at Argos was in February 2021, and they did not find any issues at the plant with hazardous materials code. This means that Argos has been responsibly storing its hazardous material, keeping materials out of the rain and other safe practices.
Fillie is a licensed contractor and has bought and recycled concrete from both Argos and Florida Concrete Recycling. When he goes in and out of the plant, he sees the dust carried even by his own truck. Because of what he does in his work, he does not have anything personal against these industries. Still, he feels it is a nuisance and inappropriate to have so close to a residential area.
“It would be nice to see the city take some initiative on this,” Fillie said. “People in our neighborhood deserve to be protected.”
A search for accountability
The city government is aware of the industrial-neighborhood conflict.
Argos and Florida Concrete Recycling employees know of the possibility of dust and take measures to minimize it when there is no rain, according to city spokesperson Rossana Passaniti. She said that up until February when code enforcement officers performed a check-in, there had been enough rain and humidity that sufficient dust would not be created to carry across the tract of land to violate standards set by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.
On the issue of noise, Passaniti cited the city’s zoning code. Because Argos and its neighboring properties are all zoned as industrial, outside operations that create noise —including loading — are only prohibited if the activity is within 100 feet of the property line of a residential area. Because there is over one acre of land between the companies and Porters, the 100-foot rule does not apply.
Williams said she brought the noise issue to the Gainesville City Commission about four years ago. The city agreed to put a time frame on when Argos could operate — beginning at 5 a.m. However, Williams is skeptical that the city has enforced this rule to any effect.
Williams said she may have to reconvene with her neighbors to bring this to the commissioners once more, especially since there are new commissioners who may take greater notice of the noise problem.
Mayor Lauren Poe suggests that residents who are experiencing excessive noise report it to the city. He promised the city will then send an employee to investigate and cite whoever is in violation of an ordinance.
Poe says that dust is a lot more difficult to deal with and the city will only find an ultimate solution to this problem when the industrial properties are redeveloped.
“That’s the direction the city has been moving in for several years now,” Poe said. “We’ve been investing heavily in that area of our city and changing the land use regulations to allow for more compatible uses such as residential and commercial properties like a coffee shop or day care center instead of a cement plant.”
Poe said the city has already received significant interest in investment for redevelopment in that area, and he expects it is only a matter of time that the owners of the industrial property realize it is in their economic interest to relocate, reap the financial benefits of selling and allow the property to be redeveloped for use more compatible with Porters.
When it comes to the new Comprehensive Plan dealing with infrastructure development and racial equity considerations, Poe says the city’s focus would be preserving the heritage of Porters and ensuring that legacy is maintained as the city continues to evolve. Regardless, the city cannot legally force the companies out.
Porters does stand alone as being a historically Black neighborhood very near to a Gainesville industrial site. The other notable zoning border in Gainesville where a heavy industrial site stands next to a residential area is the Cabot-Koppers Superfund site at 200 NW 23rd Ave. It’s next to the Stephen Foster neighborhood, but the last heavy industrial activity there was decades ago. The site is responsible for water, soil and sediment contamination that can interfere with human health and the environment. However, this site is undergoing remedial cleanup and the remedial activities are expected to be complete at the Koppers side of the site by the end of this year.
This leaves Porters virtually alone in the city in being directly next to an active heavy industrial plant.
“There is a legacy in the South of industrial sites that are prevalent throughout rural and low-income urban and Black communities,” Tsolkas said. “This legacy goes hand in hand with the history of racism and white supremacy in this country.”
In the meantime, the noise and excessive dust will likely continue to pose a nuisance for people in Porters.
While Fillie’s peppers are young sprouts right now, he might have a dusty harvest.