Before there was Pebble mountain, there was the Deepwood landfill. South Dallas illegal dumpsites collected tons of construction waste and debris over the past 25 years; a judge finally ordered the city to clean up the site in the late 1990s. The closed landfill then became a “visionary restoration project that reclaimed 120 acres of the Great Trinity River Corridor”, according to the Trinity River Audubon Center, the nature center opened on the site in 2008.
The landfill was a “prime example of environmental injustice,” said Ben Sandifer, the naturalist and environmental watchdog. who knows the Great Trinity Forest of South Dallas as well as any living person. It was a quarter-century episode in a long series of neglect, which saw a predominantly black community subjected to toxic pollution and ignored by the city.
“The city of Dallas was one of the main parties responsible for the damage and pollution there,” he says. “The thought process was that they were going to clean up the site and turn it into something that would become an ecotourism destination, not only for the city, but regionally. I think [the Audubon Center] did a great job in this regard. Tens of thousands of school children have passed through this property and discovered their own backyard, the land that represents nature here in Dallas.
Sandifer fears that will change, and he’s sounding the alarm about the possibility that the city is redeveloping 75 acres there for a solar farm. In total, the land spans 128 acres and includes the former Deepwood landfill as well as the nearby Loop 12 landfill, which is also closed. Dallas is now accepting proposals on the project, which “would reduce the energy burden among [lower and middle-income households] and increase renewable energy production in Dallas, ”according to a city document asking potential suppliers to submit their plans. According to Sandifer, it would also harm the wildlife habitat and nature center that has risen in place of the old Deepwood landfill.
The city did not answer my questions about the Deepwood solar project last week. In an email, Shelly White, director of the Trinity River Audubon Center, said, “The City of Dallas is an important partner of the Trinity River Audubon Center, and I am gathering information on this project so that my team and I can determine the impact on habitat and wildlife. A newly elected municipal council member tweeted that nothing “Will proceed without consideration by the Environment Commission and approval by the City Council”.
City Council’s Environment and Sustainability Committee was briefed in June on Dallas’ solar plans. Katy Evans, climate coordinator for the city’s office of environmental quality and sustainability, spoke to council members at the time about several projects promoting renewable energy, including loans for the installation of solar panels. in homes and the like. The city’s budget for 2020-2021 includes approximately $ 250,000 for the development of “community solar,” according to its presentation.
Evans also discussed the possibility of a solar farm at the Deepwood Landfill, just the town would be looking for developers who could finance, develop and operate the site themselves, with the affordable energy generated benefiting low-income residents of the South Dallas “adjacent neighborhoods”.
“This is a fantastic property for community solar power,” Evans told city council members in June. “In fact, on the east side of it, we could build it in a way that wouldn’t detract from the vistas and the experience of the nature center. We are therefore very optimistic about the possibility of obtaining between eight and 15 megawatts on the site.
For reference, Evans said, 1 megawatt on a peak demand day in the summer could power about 200 homes. Thus, between 1,600 and 4,000 homes could be powered by the solar farm.
Since the solar farm would be on a former landfill, it would be subject to numerous permits issued by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, but there is precedent here, Evans said. Solar panels are built on a former landfill in South Buffalo, New York. In Houston, a former junkyard in the historically black neighborhood of Sunnyside will become home to one of the largest solar farms in the country.
According to the city’s call for proposals, the project has its roots in the Dallas climate plan adopted in May 2020. The plan, among others, called on Dallas to invest and “ensure affordable access to renewable electricity.” A community solar farm, according to the RFP, could do just that, providing relatively inexpensive solar power to low-income residents.
It’s a project that tries to solve some of the biggest problems facing Dallas, where our inequalities are abysmal and our climate is moving in that direction.
But, in his June presentation, Evans had little to say about the wildlife habitat on and around the site. The city’s tender makes no mention of it, naming the Audubon Center only once. (At this meeting, city council members had no questions for Evans about the solar park.)
Part of the site identified by the city includes part of the Trinity River Audubon Center, although any solar farm would go onto the enclosed landfill itself, rather than the surrounding wetlands or forest. But that would “cut the habitat in half,” says Sandifer. “The lion’s share of this property, and what really gives the Audubon Center a buffer from the real world – the outside world, the human world – is this closed landfill.” Replacing that stamp with what it says amounts to a “big business project” would expose the Audubon Center to the clamor of Loop 12.
It’s unclear exactly what impact construction and the solar infrastructure itself would have on habitat.
A site visit scheduled for earlier this month was canceled by the city 45 minutes before it started, Sandifer said. Solar operators who had already been to the city to verify still showed up. No one from town came. Sandifer did and spent time chatting with suppliers from companies like Saudi Aramco and Vistra, the parent company of TXU and Luminant.
The sellers had a lot of questions that Sandifer, who of course knows the site, was able to answer. “As I was getting poetic about all the wildlife, just along this stretch – not the Audubon center, but this hill that they want to turn into a solar farm – a female white-tailed deer walked towards our group from that hill. “, says Sandifer. “I posted a photo of this deer watching us talk about the potential impact of this solar farm on wildlife habitat.”
That’s another part of the problem with a potential solar farm, he says. The old landfill itself has become a wildlife habitat, reclaimed by nature. “All of this has been deliberately remedied for this wildlife habitat, for a center of nature,” he says. “There was no other purpose for that than to bring him back to nature.”
Sandifer recognizes the need for renewable energy and solar power, especially in a place like Texas where the sun is plentiful. But he says, in this case, a solar farm is far from the highest and best use of land. As well-intentioned as he was, it wouldn’t be the first time the city had made a mistake about the Great Trinity Forest.
“I think someone was just looking for a random brownfield site in a part of town that had an underprivileged community, and they were looking for a way to tick a lot of boxes on their climate action plan,” Sandifer said. “I think they said, ‘Oh, here’s a brownfield site, let’s go.’ I don’t think they realized that the purpose of this brownfield site, the Loop 12 and Deepwood landfills, was decided 15 years ago to be a wildlife preserve.