Black people in Houston are battling cancer, dying from a higher concentration of industrial hazards in their neighborhoods; Top official argues he is “not sure” if he wants to use the word “environmental racism”.

Black Houston residents have suffered disproportionately for decades from exposure to dangerous chemicals that have killed generations of Black residents. But the head of the agency tasked with ensuring the state has clean air and water is reluctant to acknowledge the existence of “environmental racism,” despite studies showing it does exist.

More than 100 Houston residents came to the Texas Capitol this week to ask the agency to protect them from environmental hazards. Among her concerns is the agency’s failure to regulate the Union Pacific Railroad’s industrial emissions, which have led to a cancer cluster in the predominantly black Fifth Ward.

Texas Environmental Quality Commission Chairman Jon Niermann answers questions during a Texas legislative session on June 22, 2022. (Photo: Texas Senate video player screenshot)

Many accused the Texas Commission of Environmental Quality of improperly reviewing permits for industrial plants and approving 150 concrete plants near residential areas, schools and churches. The chemicals produced by companies evolved into dangerous and deadly toxins.

“I’m telling TCEQ stop killing us and give Big Money ammunition to kill us slowly,” said Cara Deshawn of Houston.

Several other “victim zones” have been identified in other black communities across the country. Reports show that residents in predominantly black neighborhoods in Louisiana, Mississippi, West Virginia and Pennsylvania have historically lived in hotspots for cancer-causing fumes.

An annual report released earlier this month by the University of Chicago’s Energy Policy Institute found that air pollution, which is usually a mixture of dust, smoke and other particles, could reduce life expectancy by more than two years.

“These impacts on life expectancy are comparable to those of smoking, more than three times that of alcohol consumption and unclean water, six times that of HIV/AIDS and 89 times that of conflict and terrorism,” the report says of the Energy Policy Institute.

A recent report by the Environmental Defense Fund shows that black American elderly are three times more likely to die from particulate air pollution than white Americans over the age of 65. It was also found that black and Hispanic people are six times more likely to visit the emergency department for childhood asthma caused by air pollution than white people.

Reports show that residents of Fifth Ward were exposed to creosote, a chemical once used to treat wooden sleepers at Union Pacific’s old railroad facility. The US Environmental Protection Agency says the chemical could pose a cancer risk to humans. Health experts say it has seeped through the ground, including under houses in Fifth Ward.

Texas officials have found higher rates of lung, esophagus and throat cancer among adults in the neighborhood, and children there have had a higher expectation rate of being diagnosed with leukemia.

Houston resident Kathy Blueford-Daniels told Texas lawmakers that most residents of Houston’s black community have little choice in the areas in which to live. Many have been eliminated or priced out of other areas.

“For decades, communities of color have been targeted for creating environmental hazards that others did not want,” Taylor Bacon of the Environmental Defense Fund told the Atlanta Black Star. “They have been targeted for highways, factories, power plants and landfills, and the resulting inequalities and pollution burden are further compounded by discriminatory divestment, limited access to health care, intergenerational poverty and greater vulnerability to the health effects of air pollution. “

After the Civil War, black workers chose to live in the Fifth Ward because of its proximity to railroad stations and the Houston Ship Channel. However, according to reports, residents in the 1960s could smell a “heavy” odor and feel an air thick with oil and gasoline.

In the 1970s, residents began falling ill in numbers. Even when state officials didn’t find cancer clusters in the area until 2021, Texas’ Environmental Quality Commission has been slow to hold Union Pacific accountable for the pollution, residents and advocates say.

Borris Miles, state senator for Houston, said black neighborhoods have been targeted for “undesirable land use” and face a lack of enforcement of zoning and environmental laws due to environmental racism.

Texas Senator Borris Miles holds up a map showing concrete plants in his district during a session of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality’s Sunset Advisory Commission Wednesday, June 22, 2022. (Photo: Texas Senate video player screenshot)

Black Texans are also subject to pollution from concrete plants. About 44 percent of Houston’s concrete plants are located in predominantly Black and Hispanic neighborhoods, according to a Houston Chronicle analysis of Harris County data. The paper also found that when plants were permitted in white neighborhoods, the area tended to be less densely populated.

“Some of the facilities have been in the district for over 100 years, others are brand new,” said Miles, who is a strong advocate against environmental racism.

“What these facilities have in common is that they are mostly located in poor, minority neighborhoods” in his county and “throughout the state of Texas. This too is the definition of environmental racism.”

The review panel of lawmakers and members of the public held the session to review the commission’s performance and the need for its existence. The panel also considered an assessment report, which found that commissioners have become “reluctant regulators” who create “a worrying level of distrust”, create “stamped” permits and allow industrial companies to “self-regulate”.

Miles nagged commission chairman Jon Niermann about environmental racism in the agency’s regulation of concrete plant permits. In response, the Chair said he was “not sure what to make of the term ‘environmental racism'”. “

“Do you think that economic development should come before the health, safety and welfare of Texas citizens?” Miles continued.

“Absolutely not,” Niermann replied.

However, Niermann said he was “not quite sure how to approach Miles’ question about whether he thinks there is a problem allowing concrete plants in Houston’s black communities.

“Some communities in Texas have a greater concentration of regulated activities than others. That’s just a fact,” Niermann said. “Is there a connection between race and these concentrations of regulated companies? I won’t dispute that. I don’t know either way. We never did the analysis.”

Miles responded by setting out the definition of environmental racism and detailing the experiences of residents of Fifth Ward and other black communities in his district.

The senator also held up a map with several red dots showing the numerous plants in his district.

“If that doesn’t look like a stamp, what does?” said Miles. Black people in Houston are battling cancer, dying from a higher concentration of industrial hazards in their neighborhoods; Top official argues he is “not sure” if he wants to use the word “environmental racism”.

Dustin Huang

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