Houston’s ‘Green Transformation’ Leaves Out Poor Communities Near Valero Refinery
Energy and petrochemical companies are at the centre of an exposé in Grist that traces Houston’s 2016 “green transformation”, and one of the poor communities of colour that is being left behind.
The story focuses on Manchester, a six-square-mile neighbourhood adjacent to towering petrochemical facilities, a 160,000-barrel-per-day gasoline refinery, and a nearby bridge that “carries tens of thousands of vehicles per day (along with their emissions) directly over homes. And where about 4,000 people live—more than 95% of whom are people of colour, and 90% low income.”
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After years of being treated as “the whipping boy of the urban-planning world”, Houston began attracting investment in its parks and building a 150-mile trail network along its bayous, Grist notes. But “the region’s signature industry inflicts a staggeringly disproportionate burden on east-side residents.” Citing a report by the Union of Concerned Scientists report, the online daily notes that “the airborne concentration of 1,3-butadiene, which causes cancer and a host of neurological issues, is more than 150 times greater in Manchester and Harrisburg than in West Oaks and Eldridge, relatively affluent neighborhoods on Houston’s west side.” The cancer risk in the two fenceline communities is 22% above the city average.
Public Citizen Texas Director Adrian Shelley sees Manchester and nearby neighbourhoods as sacrifice zones, facing conditions that are “unjust, offensive, cruel, racist, ridiculous, tragic, and costing lives.”
When the city decided to sell Valero Refining several streets in Manchester for US$1.4 million, enabling the company to expand its footprint, award-winning local organizer Juan Parras said he heard about the deal through a Houston Chronicle article. “We are ignored,” he said. City efforts to control fossil industry impacts are “inconsequential”, Grist notes, and “are consistently challenged in courts by the Business Coalition for Clean Air, an industry lobbying group that represents ExxonMobil and others.”
Air Alliance Houston Executive Director Bakeyah Nelson said “civic engagement and voting” will shift the situation when “elected officials reflect what the population looks like and vote in a way that is consistent with what people want, which is protection from environmental toxins.” Getting those results will mean helping people realize they don’t have to choose between their health and their livelihoods—and improving access to safe, affordable housing.
“People need living wages so they don’t have to purchase homes that put their health at risk,” Nelson said. “It is about environmental, health, and economic justice. All of those things are tied together.”