We were walking near a playground in Manchester when we caught a whiff of a scent I’d never smelled before.
The odor wasn’t foul; it was cloying and saccharine like cheap perfume. I looked quizzically at my colleague, then glanced around Hartman Park, where we were walking. Just beyond the trees and a chain-link fence sits an oil refinery. Of course, the odor wasn’t perfume. The park was empty. It was a chemical plume.
You might not know much about Manchester, the southeast Houston neighborhood near the Houston Ship Channel and Loop 610, but environmental justice advocates do. Residents called the city dozens of times to report smells as the neighborhood suffered intense industrial chemical releases during Hurricane Harvey. Nearly 94 percent of all the rogue emissions in Harris County as the plants shut down and failed were concentrated within four miles of here. Children living near the ship channel in neighborhoods like Manchester are 56 percent more likely to develop one kind of leukemia than those 10 miles away.
Until you’ve witnessed the reckless disregard of the petrochemical industry for yourself, until you’ve smelled it, it can be hard to fathom. After spending half an hour outside in Manchester that day, I left with a low-grade headache and a higher concern for the children who play in Hartman Park. But that’s the thing: I was able to pop some ibuprofen and drive away. The families living in the shadows of industry all up and down the Gulf Coast can’t. Imagine being advised to shelter in place in your home when the next hurricane swirls toward Houston and the refinery next door starts flaring.
Denae King says my headache-induced epiphany is far too rare. The research program manager at Texas Southern University who works closely with communities experiencing environmental injustice like Manchester says that most people never experience industrial degradation beyond what they might read or see on the news or from behind the window of a passing car.
“A lot of times people might feel that, if it’s not in my backyard, it’s not important,” King told me. “But it’s very important for us to think about the communities that are significantly impacted by poor air and water quality. It’s important to think about it holistically and make sure all residents have access to a healthy life.”
The bullet that Houston dodged with Hurricane Laura ripped into the flesh of Lake Charles, La., just 150 miles to the east. Winds tore parts of the city to shreds. The already volatile petrochemical threat is made even more acute by hurricanes. BioLab’s chlorine plant in Westlake burst into flames. That fire forced residents of Mossville, a community founded after the Civil War by people who had been enslaved, to evacuate or shelter in place, with no power and air conditioning to beat back the heat wave that followed.
They also didn’t know what they were breathing. The Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality failed to keep Lake Charles-area residents adequately informed about dangerous air pollution in the aftermath of the storm, says Kim Terrell, director of community outreach at Tulane University’s Environmental Law Clinic. “There was no ambient air monitoring for a full seven days after the storm hit, aside from the handheld monitoring that was done around the BioLab facility for chlorine gas, specifically,” she told me. “This illustrates either a lack of preparedness or a lack of willingness to respond appropriately. This is the type of natural disaster that we along the Texas Gulf Coast are entirely familiar with. If anyone is surprised by this, then they haven’t been paying attention.”
We must pay attention. The demands of modern life — parenting, paying bills, caring for our own elderly parents — can seem endless, but the Gulf Coast is everyone’s backyard. What happens happens to us all. The chemical pollution that makes some children sick makes our shared home sick.
It’s human to feel discouraged, but there is hope. King stressed that a new generation of civic leaders is bridling for change. “I think enlightenment is happening,” she told me. “We’re seeing more opportunities for environmental justice. We’re seeing more resilience and climate plans. I think attitudes are definitely changing.”
King said these new leaders recognize that, in the midst of a climate emergency that poses an increasing existential threat to our health and safety, business as usual won’t cut it anymore. Everyone, she said, should join the fight.
Coleman is the communications strategist for Public Citizen’s Texas office.