Communities of Color Cope with the Brunt of Petrochemical Waste
by Devon G. Peña
The East Side of Houston, Texas is known as el barrio de los pobres — the poor people’s neighborhood. Historically, the residents here have been predominantly African American but more recently many of the neighborhoods have been settled by Latina/o immigrants, most of them Mexicans who have joined some of the older Chicana/o families with roots in the area dating back 3-4 generations.
The East Side is also ground zero in any ‘toxic tour’ of Harris County. In fact, the area is the urban center for the region’s petrochemical industry. It is not unusual to see homes surrounded by tank farms; schoolyards, playgrounds, or athletic fields located next to fractionating towers and smokestacks belching black smoke or burning-off excess chemicals and gases. These are iconic fence-line communities. The East Side is currently home to four major petrochemical plant complexes: Valero Refinery, Texas Petro-Chemical, LyondellBasell, and Goodyear Tire and Rubber.
During a recent tour of the area with Juan Parras, a former labor organizer and current environmental justice activist, I stopped outside a family home next to several, large fuel tanks. The family and their home was there first. The family has lived in this home for three generations and refused to sell and leave when Westway Terminal Company started constructing the tank farm in this predominantly African American and Latina/o residential area. Over the past three years, Westway has built hundreds of these tanks in the neighborhood for liquid storage; what kind of liquid will be stored there is not yet a matter of official or public record. The residents of Manchester, there are still 300 homes and more than 1,400 residents in the area, are justifiably concerned.
In addition to these four active petrochemical plants, the East Side has some 17 waste metal recycling operations. Most of these facilities are located along Buffalo Bayou or the Houston Ship Channel. Five of these metal-recycling operators are located in just one neighborhood — Manchester. There are about a half -dozen former Superfund sites in the East Side neighborhoods although the EPA currently lists only one active CERCLA site — the San Jacinto River Waste Pits.
If the East Side of Houston is ground zero in any Harris County toxic tour, then the neighborhood of Manchester is the blast pit. The Manchester neighborhood is home to the aforementioned Westway tank farm, a Valero refinery, and the largest LyondellBasell facility in the entire state.
Juan Parras is a life-long activist in workers’ rights organizations and more recently in the environmental justice movement. He is the founder of the group, TEJAS, Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Service. Mr. Parras has worked for decades in the East Side communities battling corporations and the local and state governments in search of solutions to the overwhelming environmental problems facing low-income communities of color. In many ways, his environmental justice activism began with the naming of a school when East Side High School was renamed in honor of Cesar Chávez. “Yes, the East Side needed a high school. But we needed it in an alternative location. Not one a few blocks from the petrochemical plants and their smokestacks.”
Parras explained his disappointment with the United Farm Workers (UFW). “We kept trying to get the union involved to get an alternative location that would be safer for the students. They said, ‘We care about getting schools, libraries, streets named after Cesar. That school [location] is a local issue’”. The union that helped promote the first anti-pesticides campaign had abandoned a local community in search of a solution to the problem of siting schools within an earshot of toxic industries. It was worst than that: The school was actually being built on land donated by Browning Ferris Industries (BFI), one of the largest hazardous waste and recycling handlers in the country at the time.
After the school was built, the parents and activists insisted on the installation of air quality monitors on the rooftop of the newly christened Cesar Chávez High School. The monitors were installed and according to Mr. Parras the results were disheartening just as expected: Students were being exposed to high levels of contaminants including mercury from the nearby smokestacks. Instead of releasing the results, the school district insisted that they could not get the monitors to work property and promptly removed them. They reinstalled the monitors at a new location off campus and about one block further away from the petrochemical plants; all of a sudden the monitors functioned without further trouble.
Parras viewed this episode as further evidence that the local politicos, including school district officials, are afraid of challenging the “oil and petrochemical elites.” The irony is not lost on Parras: The school district named a facility located on a dangerously polluted site after an activist who dedicated his entire life to protecting workers from pesticides and other poisonous substances. The school district went forward with the name and with then with plans to make the facility serve as an environmentally themed magnet school. Parras rightly asserts that one cannot hide toxic racism behind the veil of the name of a beloved activist. Toxic is still toxic even if you call it clean. I am reminded of our own episode in Colorado when we fought a plan for a confined animal feeding operation that would exploit 500,000 hogs while generating an enormous waste stream. The proponents named this travesty, “Rancho Ambiente” (Environmental Farm), as if the name would somehow bamboozle and trick us into believing that this was a good sustainable design.
The naming episode only served to strengthen the suspicions and anger of the parents and students and so they asked for data on the health of the students. The district refused to release data on leukemia and asthma rates at the school even though the parents were reporting that their children had very high rates of both illnesses, well beyond the expected rates. The school district, which routinely violates student’s first amendment rights, all of a sudden became self-righteously concerned with protecting the students’ right to privacy. The district used the argument that they had to obey state laws designed to protect the privacy of student records and so this meant the health data could not be released. Of course, this was a gross misinterpretation of the privacy statutes since the data could have been presented in aggregate form without individually identifiable information. This was a typical ruse caused by the type of local politics made possible by a Republican-dominated state government that hates environmental regulation.
The battle over the naming of Cesar Chávez School was just the tipping point that led to the creation of TEJAS. For one thing, there are 134 railroad crossings in the East Side neighborhoods. These are deadly and a daily risk for residents and visitors alike. The number of recycling and waste handling operations is astounding but not as much as the way these are located inside residential areas. Houston and Harris County have no zoning laws and so the development pattern is one in which residential and industrial uses are cast literally side-by-side. This is a city where family homes can be built and then get surrounded by tank farms. This is neoliberal (un)planning at its very best or worst depending on your view. The market is the sole force that determines the appropriate land use patterns.
The result is plain to see in a dreadful urban landscape that mixes home rooftops with petrochemical smokestacks.
From Athabasca to the Gulf
The Manchester community, like the rest of East Side Houston, is a poster-town of toxic racism but the next wave in the expansion of the petrochemical sector promises to make matters much worse. Among the largest petrochemical refinery complexes in the Houston area is the Valero refinery plant in Manchester. Local rumors allege that Valero will receive at least 75 percent or more of all the bitumen piped in from Alberta to the Houston area via the proposed Keystone XL pipeline.
The First Nations of Canada have led the struggle against the (mal)development of the tar sands deposits in Alberta for more than a decade now. Environmental activists in the U.S. and Canada more recently joined the aboriginal peoples’ struggles in opposing the construction of a proposed pipeline that would bring the tar sand oil to Texas for refinement into gasoline and other fuels and petroleum by-products. American eco-activists have organized massive protests including lobbying efforts, letter-writing campaigns, and direct actions seeking to block approval of the proposed Keystone XL Pipeline. The KXL Pipeline would bring tar sands oil — the heavy bitumen crude — to refineries in Houston, Texas.
Very few activists have paid attention to the ‘end of the line’ as it were: The predominantly low-income families of color that live in the neighborhoods surrounded by the petrochemical complex that will be processing the tar sands should the source ever get delivered.
This points to the need for the social movements that can link the Idle No More struggles of indigenous peoples in Canada with the environmental justice struggles of the low-income Latina/o and African American people in the East Side petrochemical neighborhoods of Houston. Both communities face the same enemy and yet remain largely unaware of the struggles each is facing. Unity of struggles at the northern source and at the southern terminus would greatly empower both communities and prove highly disruptive to the proponents of the KXL project.
The beginnings of such a bi-national campaign to link the source and the end of the pipeline in the Houston area petrochemical complex are in place. Juan Parras and the TEJAS activists are part of this work and he is collaborating with an energetic group of young activists called Tar Sands Blockade. The blockade group has compiled an impressive set of documentary materials about the struggle against the KXL project that includes video clips of interviewed with environmental justice activists and protesters.
Alejandro de la Torre is one of the activists arrested during this sustained blockade defending an East Texas faring family from the destruction that will accompany the construction and operation of the pipeline. Here is an excerpt of his narrative:
I’m willing to risk arrest because I have a certain amount of personal privilege that allows me to participate. I don’t live near a Gulf refinery, or on land that’s at risk from a devastating tar sands spill, so I’m able to play a small part in an action that will really help people’s lives. I’m here to stand up for people on the front lines because they’re being trampled to make way for corporate profits. People in Port Arthur and my home in Houston are the ones who will be bearing the brunt of the toxic emissions from the tar sands refineries and they’re not going to see any of the economic benefits. This is just another example of how people of color and low-income folks are placed in “sacrifice zones” for our current economic system. A system ruled by fossil fuel industry greed and the trampling of the rights of people and our environment.
This inspired message connects the dots: This young Chicano activist understands that the struggle is not just about resisting toxic racism and the reduction of indigenous homelands and neighborhoods to sacrifice zones, it is about creating alternatives to the dominant systems based on corporate profiteering.
These thoughts are echoed in the words of Tom B.K. Goldtooth of the Indigenous Environmental Network (IEN) who has observed:
Environmental racism is rearing its ugly head once again. These systems of colonial domination and the trampling of Aboriginal treaty rights, continues an identical economic system that, through these agreements, supports racial oppression, continues issues of economic disparity, and devaluation of human life through the exploitation of the environment and nature.
It is the common struggle against colonial domination and environmental racism that unites the direct action campaigns that are being waged from aboriginal territories in Alberta, along the entire length of the proposed route for the KXL project, and by the communities of color in the East Side of Houston where the tar sands oil would ultimately be refined.
People in both places are tired of being at the bottom of the fossil fuel barrel, as Alejandro de la Torre puts it. They are unwilling to remain at the end of the line. Alex Wilson, an Idle No More activist from Saskatchewan, explains the activism of indigenous peoples: “Rather than being defined by colonization, people are becoming empowered by it. It is revitalizing our own knowledge and ancient wisdom, and reclaiming our sovereignty.” The Chicana/os and African Americans from the East Side neighborhoods of Houston are also reclaiming that sense of autonomy. They too are planting the seeds of resistance right in the midst of the tank farms and fractionating towers, sowing hope under the smoke and chemical haze of petrocapitalism’s last stand.
Devon G. Peña, Ph.D., is a lifelong activist in the environmental justice and resilient agriculture movements, and is Professor of American Ethnic Studies, Anthropology, and Environmental Studies at the University of Washington in Seattle. His books include Mexican Americans and the Environment: Tierra y Vida (2005) and the edited volume Chicano Culture, Ecology, Politics: Subversive Kin (1998). Dr. Peña is the founding editor of the Environmental & Food Justice blog, and is a Contributing Author for New Clear Vision.