Environmental Racism Is Poisoning Houston
HOUSTON—The smell in the Manchester neighborhood of Houston is like hot Cuban coffee—nutty, bitter and sweet. This isn’t coffee, though. This is the smell of benzene spewing from the nearby Valero oil refinery at 1.5-4.7ppm, the threshold at which most humans can begin to smell the chemical and what the Centers for Disease Control calls a possible indication of "acutely hazardous exposure."
Paula’s house is sparsely furnished, with brightly painted walls. Her grandchildren are all over the place, curious about the audio recorder. There are heavy drapes over the window and despite the bright sun outside, it’s dark and cool here in the dining room. The television plays in the background on mute. The oldest grandson complains he has a splitting headache.
Paula tells me the family has been living here for about four years: four adults and six children living in a three-bedroom house.
“It’s okay. It’s peaceful, it’s quiet. Except all the chemicals that are around, but that’s about the only thing that concerns us.”
The one-story house is right across the street from the Valero refinery. “Sometimes we see something that happens, and we get scared, and there’s been times that they have shut down the roads and they don’t let us know what’s going on. We have to go and ask. And they tell us, there’s nothing to worry about. But that’s about it.”
Paula says she thinks people care about them because activists, scientists, journalists and even politicians have visited the neighborhood to ask about the situation. But nothing has changed.
“We’re planning to move as soon as we get a little bit more money together. We’re planning to move.” The house was the best available that they could afford.
“My daughter, she works at a dry cleaner. My son, he works at a pharmacy, at CVS pharmacy. And the stepdad, he cuts yards.”
Paula says her daughter was offered housing assistance from the city, but it was too little to get another three-bedroom place that would be within Houston’s city limits. Since she works in Houston, they decided the commute would be too far.
She frets about the children not performing well in school. She says she suspects it’s because the teachers are bad, which may be the case as the area is poor and underserved more generally. But she does not mention that the pollution the children live and sleep and eat in may be damaging their ability to learn and putting them at risk for degenerative brain illnesses.
Paula doesn’t seem that concerned with the elections in November, and tells me she’s never voted in her life, saying, “It wouldn’t change anything.”
The family has three adults working and $700 a month to spend on rent, which gets them a house next to a toxic waste factory.
According to the census, the Manchester neighborhood in Houston is 97% Hispanic and 36% live beneath the poverty line. Of the 1,630 residents, 43% speak English “less than well.”
According to my assessment of Manchester’s air monitoring data, 4,325 hours exceeded the EPA guidelines for safe air in 2015—roughly 180 days worth of hazardous air.
The EPA sets the standard of ozone (smog) that is unhealthy to breathe at 70ppm. In 2015, Houston clocked 81ppm average. In East Houston, where Manchester is located, the levels were at 88ppm. In Manchester itself, the yearly average for 2015 was 182ppm. For 134 hours of 2015 (roughly 6 days), the air monitor detected more than 1000 ppm.
On October 18, the air monitoring station located a half mile away from the plant entrance measured 6073.4 ppm at 6am, the highest count for the year.
“I try not to think about the plants,” says Hector. “I don’t really care for ’em. I prefer, having the opportunity, if I didn’t have kids and stuff, I would have skied up and left a long time ago.”
“[The plants] produce a lot of cancer. A lot of people in this neighborhood has died of cancer. Lots. People I knew. Throat cancer, lung cancer, breathing this stuff in.”
How many people?
“Probably, at least, 15 people. At least.”
“Actually you know, it’s funny, but in one week, I don’t know why, but in one week there was three elderly people here that died in the same week. All like neighbors.”
“No shit,” says RafaÃ©l.
“I guess they couldn’t breathe.”
Why does Hector think nothing’s been done about that?
“You got lobbyists and people in your pocket, you know? And they pay a loooot of money, and they pay [just] a little bit of taxes too. They pay very little property taxes, the refineries do. And they got big-time attorneys, they can afford to keep ’em on the payroll and fight all the taxes, and that’s why their taxes are so low.”
He says Houston is good for business. I ask him if zoning has anything to do with it.
“They do have rules and regulations,” he says. “You can’t build a bar next to a church.”
Has the neighborhood changed much since he was a child?
“Originally it was whites, and on the other side blacks. Now it’s pretty much all Hispanics.”
The plant has always been there, and Hector doesn’t think that’s going to change any time soon. In his view, the government just isn’t willing or able to go after the companies responsible.
“You know, people getting slapped on the hand for white-collar crimes. I know a guy who closed two banks down. Got six months in jail. He wouldn’t even take six months in jail. You know? They were gonna put him in federal penitentiary for six months, you know, where they got tennis courts and McDonalds in ’em. He didn’t want it.”
“It’s just like everywhere. Money talks. Anywhere. I don’t know what country you’re—any country you’re at. Doesn’t matter. Long as you’re willing to pay for it or something, everybody’s open for suggestion. I’m sure.”
“I knew a guy—and it’s the God’s honest truth—and he used to run money to the capitol. All the time.”
“Well, he’d run briefcases with money in ’em. He’d go up to certain state representatives and drop off money to ’em. Cash. Paid off for so-and-so school, you know, do the streets or do the driveways, or build a building or whatever. Everybody wants their cut.”
Hector says with the advent of technology like cell phones, people can’t get away with as much as they used to. “Nowadays it’s harder to get away with stuff.”
“You used to run a red light and nobody would see nothing. Now they got cameras.”
But for all the advances in technology, the plant is still there, poisoning the neighborhood. Does he think added transparency is going to stop that?
“Oh hell no. They’ll never shut the plant down. Coz you need the products. You’ll never stop the drug dealers, the government’s never gonna stop the drug dealers. So what does the government do? They invest in the drug dealers. They make money.”
“This is a corrupt world we live in. We just gotta deal with it, just run with the punches and keep going.”
Is there nothing that can change that?
“Not unless you can get everyone’s hand out of the cookie jar.”
Juan Parras is a former labor organizer who is now the director of t.e.j.a.s., an environmental advocacy organization in Houston. Theirs is a difficult position, considering how much power the petrochemical industry has in Texas. Local municipalities are unable to regulate how petrochemical companies operate within city limits. Texas law is not allowed to “restrict the right of any person to use or access the person’s private property”—meaning that those who own the minerals can take them out of the ground as they see fit.
In Texas, the rights of the individual property owner seem to override local democratic efforts. Governor Greg Abbott has received more than $200,000 from Valero over the span of his political career. t.e.j.a.s.’s job is to do the best it can to counter the fallout that comes from such a political environment.
t.e.j.a.s. was originally called UCER: Unidos Contra Environmental Racism. I ask Parras to define environmental racism.
“Environmental racism was the first term they wanted to use when they came up with the principles of environmental justice, because it’s all about race.”
In 1991, during the First National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit, “they decided [the word] ‘racism’ would be too controversial and too challenging.” Instead, according to the Energy Justice Network, environmental justice would be the main focus as “the movement’s response to environmental racism."
“When we talk about environmental justice we have to also clarify to those we are talking to that it means [we are talking about] environmental racism. Environmental discrimination against low-income and poor people, whether you’re white, black or brown. But primarily, people of color are impacted by it.”
Is it possible to solve these problems with the system set up as it is?
“One of the things that politicians will ask, is, you know: get me elected—I want to be your state representative or congressional person. And they’ll go and do a good spiel on it.”
“The community doesn’t question, doesn’t investigate, doesn’t know who’s supporting that individual, or his or her relationships in the past or present towards the community. Instead, it’s like electing the most popular person, you know? That’s it. With no real understanding of their political views.
Parras thinks that the system has an interest in producing a low voter turnout, low understanding of the issues and disenfranchising voters. He thinks that without a vote, people can’t begin to change the system. He thinks people don’t have a system that works for them because they don’t speak out.
He explains that he became involved with environmental causes when the city proposed building Cesar Chavez High School in the east end in a triangle between a toxic waste site, an oil refinery and a tire plant. The neighborhood was largely Hispanic and poor, and children attending would be risking exposure to a cornucopia of carcinogenic chemicals.
“When the Chavez High School was built, they were also building the West Side High School. I’ll give you a history of it: so you have two high schools, and they were called the twin high schools because they were both legislated at the same time. So now you have the west side and the east side high schools being built. The west side is in a very affluent area, OK? The east side is in a very low-income area, and right next to three chemical plants. So when we, UCER, started challenging the location of the school—they call them school sitings, right?—we started having meetings with the city, health department, school officials, railroad representatives, and we had meetings with the mayor’s office.”
“They came back to us and they said: ‘You have all these environmental concerns? We had a meeting with the community (they didn’t invite us) and the community wants to name the new school in honor of Cesar Chavez.’ So once it became public, our supporters backed off on the siting of the school near the toxic chemical plants. They said oh no, if it’s going to be named after Cesar Chavez—you know, he’s a good man, right?”
“So you see, they went around us to beat us at the game.”
UCER still went after the fact that the school was going to be built on toxic ground. The city representative suggested making the school an “environmental magnet school,” figuring that being located in such an environmentally dangerous area might inspire the students to come up with their own solutions. They also offered to put up an air monitoring station (which Parras told me was non-operational until they moved it away from the school) and name it after Cesar Chavez as well.
“All these politicians, when you say: do we trust them? Do we have faith on them? Well initially we probably did, but then....” He chuckles. “So, now we have a school named after Cesar Chavez—an environmental magnet school—and an air monitor named after Chavez.”
Houston is notorious for its lack of zoning. A friend of mine who grew up here said it’s why he went to a daycare located next to a strip club. It’s something people have laughed about for decades. Hunter S. Thompson wrote that, “Houston is a cruel, crazy town on a filthy river in East Texas with no zoning laws and a culture of sex, money and violence.” But for the tens of thousands of families living in Houston areas afflicted by environmental racism, the lack of zoning becomes much more focused in its intention beyond “sex, money and violence.”
What’s supposed to be a laissez-faire business environment seems more like a slow death sentence for those who aren’t rich enough, white enough or speak English well enough. Would the majority of Americans be okay with the approach in Houston, the fastest growing metropolitan area in the United States if they knew it would be their children running track in a carcinogenic haze instead of those in an impoverished minority neighborhood?
The families in Manchester sleep at night with their heads resting just meters away from tankers of explosive chemicals running by on train tracks. The data air monitor in the area indicates major spikes in air pollution often happen at night, or in the early morning hours. How well would the families of the oil barons who run Texas sleep if they faced the same situation?