Citizens of Houston who are Black have endured decades of disproportionate suffering as a result of exposure to dangerous chemicals that have killed generations of Black residents. Nevertheless, despite studies showing its existence, the head of the organization tasked with ensuring the state had clean air and water refused to acknowledge its existence.
This week, more than 100 Houston citizens protested outside the Texas Capitol, pleading with the organization to shield them from environmental dangers. Their worries include the agency’s failure to control industrial pollution from Union Pacific Railroad, which has led to a cancer cluster in the neighborhood’s Fifth Ward, which is predominately Black.
The Texas Commission of Environmental Quality has come under fire for allegedly failing to adequately vet industrial plant permits and approving 150 concrete factories close to homes, schools, and places of worship. Companies’ chemical output transformed into dangerous and lethal toxins.
Houston resident Cara Deshawn stated, “I say to the TCEQ, stop killing us and giving ammunition to Big Money to kill us slowly.”
In several other Black communities across the country, a number of additional “sacrifice zones” have been discovered. According to reports, historically, residents of predominantly Black neighborhoods in Louisiana, Mississippi, West Virginia, and Pennsylvania resided in areas where cancer-causing gases were concentrated.
According to an annual analysis published earlier this month by the University of Chicago’s Energy Policy Institute, air pollution, which is typically a combination of dust, smoke, and other particles, can shorten life expectancy by more than two years.
The Energy Policy Institute analysis states that the effect on life expectancy is comparable to smoking, more than three times that of drinking alcohol and using unclean water, six times that of HIV/AIDS, and 89 times that of war and terrorism.
According to a recent analysis by the Environmental Defense Fund, older black Americans are three times as likely to die from exposure to fine particle air pollution than older white Americans. Additionally, it was discovered that compared to white individuals, Black and Hispanic people visit the emergency room six times more frequently for asthma in children brought on by air pollution.
According to reports, creosote, a substance historically used to treat wooden rail ties at Union Pacific’s former railroad site, was introduced to Fifth Ward residents. According to the US Environmental Protection Agency, the substance may cause cancer in people. According to health experts, it has gotten under houses in Fifth Ward as well as via the soil.
According to Texas officials, the neighborhood’s adults have greater rates of throat, esophageal, and lung cancer, and the likelihood that a child will be diagnosed with leukemia there is higher.
Texas lawmakers were informed by Houstonian Kathy Blueford-Daniels that the majority of the city’s Black population has limited housing options. Many have been priced out of other locations or redlined.
According to Taylor Bacon of the Environmental Defense Fund, “For decades, communities of color have been targeted for polluting environmental hazards that others did not want.” They have been targeted for freeways, factories, power plants, and landfills, and the resulting inequities and pollution exposure are made worse by discriminatory disinvestment, limited access to healthcare, intergenerational poverty, and increased susceptibility to health effects of air pollution.
Because the Fifth Ward was adjacent to railroad yards and the Houston Ship Channel after the Civil War, Black employees choose to live there. However, according to reports, by the 1960s, locals could smell something “heavy” and feel the air was thick with gasoline and oil.
The 1970s saw an increase in the number of sick locals. Residents and supporters claim that the Texas Commission of Environmental Quality has been slow to hold Union Pacific responsible for the pollution, despite state investigators finding cancer clusters in the region as recently as 2021.
State senator for Houston, Borris Miles, stated that due to environmental racism, Black neighborhoods have been singled out for “undesirable land use” and lack of zoning and environmental law enforcement.
Concrete plants also pollute the air in Black Texas. According to a Houston Chronicle review of Harris County data, 44% of Houston’s concrete facilities are located in communities with a preponderance of Black and Hispanic residents. The study also discovered that when plants were permitted in white neighborhoods, the population density there tended to decrease.
According to Miles, a fervent opponent of environmental racism, “some of the facilities have been in the district for over 100 years, and others of them are brand new.”
In his district and “across the state of Texas,” “these institutions share the fact that they are predominantly situated in poor, minority areas. This is another example of environmental racism.
The meeting was organized by the review panel, which included lawmakers and members of the public, to discuss the commission’s effectiveness and the necessity of its presence. The panel also considered a report on evaluation, which concluded that commissioners had turned into “reluctant regulators” who were “rubber-stamping” permits and allowing industrial corporations to “self-police.”
Miles interrogated Jon Niermann, the chairman of the commission, concerning environmental racism in the organization’s oversight of permits for concrete plants. The chairman responded that he “was not sure what to do with” the term “environmental racism.”
Do you believe that Texas’s residents’ welfare, health, and safety should take precedence over economic development? Miles went on.
Not at all, Niermann answered.
However, Niermann acknowledged that he was “not exactly sure how to approach” Miles’ inquiry about whether he thought approving concrete plants near Houston’s Black neighborhoods was problematic.
“Some communities in Texas have a greater concentration of regulated activity than others. That is just a plain fact,” Niermann said. “Is there a correlation between race and those concentrations of regulated entities? I’m not going to dispute that. I don’t know one way or another. We’ve never done the analysis.”
In response, Miles outlined what was meant by “environmental racism” and provided examples from the Fifth Ward and other Black areas in his district.
Additionally, the senator displayed a map with several red spots on it, indicating the various plants in his area.
“If this does not look like a rubber stamp, what does?” Miles said.