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Politics on the Spot

Politics on the Spot: The Houston Ship Channel

Michael May

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The Texas Petrochemicals flare
(Bryan Parras)
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We've heard a lot about the economy this general election season. Not so much about the other big E-word: the environment. Unless you count the mantra "Drill baby, drill." That drilled oil - offshore or otherwise - has to go through refineries before it gets to your gas tank. And many of our nation's refineries are located in the city of Houston. For the final installment of our series Politics on the Spot, we head to the industrial heart of the city, the Houston Ship Channel. Houston has no zoning codes at all, which means anything can be built next to an oil refinery or chemical plant. On top of that, Texas has some of the weakest environmental enforcement in the country. As Weekend America's Michael May reports, it all adds up to a bad situation for families and children living right on refinery row.


One day I was driving over the huge Fred Hartman bridge, suspended over the Houston Ship Channel. The view was so breathtaking, I had to pull over to the shoulder to get a better look. The Houston Ship Channel is an epic, alien landscape. Miles of smoldering oil refineries and chemical plants extend to the horizon. I could have stood there and counted smokestacks for hours.

What I couldn't see was the all the tiny homes tucked into this industrial labyrinth. And down there, next to three huge chemical plants, is Cesar Chavez High School. Inside, Juan Parras is talking with a group of students at Chavez High.

"When you come to school here, what do you see that you don't see in other schools?," he asks.

The students respond: "It stinks." "When I come to school in the morning it makes me want to throw up." "Yeah, sometimes I wake up in morning and my stomach hurts and my head hurts from the smell. It's really bad."

As someone who lives near here, Juan Parras understands. He runs a small environmental nonprofit called TEJAS. He tried to stop the school from being built here eight years ago. The nearest plant to the school is Texas Petrochemicals, which produces a volatile chemical called butadiene, used in rubber tires. Butadiene is also known to cause cancer. There are three large plants near the school, all emitting toxic chemicals.

"I was repulsed," says 17-year-old student Carolina. "I thought, 'Wow, I can't believe they would put a bunch of teenagers in an area like that.'"

Carolina lives several miles away from the plants, but takes the bus here each morning. From the school grounds, it's hard to see through all the thick leafy trees. But just beyond the football field, you can see the tall flare where Texas Petrochemicals burns its waste. Sometimes the flare illuminates the field, like Friday night lights.

"I hope none of these plants explode, because that means I'm dead," says Carolina.

A Texas state law discourages chemical plants from opening within 3000 feet of a school, but there's nothing to stop the reverse from happening. So the Houston Independent School District found cheap land here and built a school. Juan tells the kids the neighborhood is an environmental dumping ground.

"Why? Because we don't vote," says Juan. "And we don't have the money to fight the companies. So the only way we are going to accomplish a lot of things is by getting together, doing demonstrations, like a lot of us did during the immigration marches, when hundreds of thousands of us got together. That's what you need."

As an activist, that's what Juan needs - but what he's got is a different story. Most residents here don't seem to care, even with mounting evidence that the people along the channel are getting sick and dying from the fumes. People here have more pressing worries. Like Carolina. Her mom is supporting the family alone on minimum wage.

"It's hard," she says. "She can't always pay the bills, but she always manages. You only live once, and you don't want to worry about bills, you need to have fun. We don't get to go out as a family because we don't have money."

The kids in this classroom are directly affected by many of the policies debated in this election, but of the dozen or so 18-year-olds here, only two say they will vote - and both are undecided.

We leave the school and turn down a small side. Juan starts knocking on doors of houses backed right up to the chemical plants. He's gathering support for a class action lawsuit to make the plants clean up their emissions. We find Luciano Barron working in his enormous back yard. He just bought the land two months ago.

"After the hurricane, all the trees fell and I could see everything there," says Luciano. "And I thought, 'Wow! I had no idea the plants were behind us.'"

Luciano runs a landscaping company and needed enough land to park his trucks. He found the best deal right here. "We think we're lucky, but I don't know. I don't know if that's lucky or not. But we're here, trying to live with it."

Right now Luciano's family lives across town. But he wants to fix up the large home on the property. "And probably come back to live here," he says. "But if there's going to be any problem I don't want to bring my kids here. No way."

"They're the worst polluters of benzene and butadiene," says Juan, "which are cancer-causing chemicals. If you bring your family here, just know you're going to be breathing those chemicals day in and day out."

Juan's soft-spoken persistence seems to be paying off. At the end of the day, 27-year-old Jesus Macias, a TEJAS volunteer, invites us in for pozole, a traditional Mexican stew. After dinner we turn on the final presidential debate.

Jesus just became a citizen and will be voting for the first time - for Obama. But as the debate goes on, he seems disappointed.

"There's nothing for our community," says Jesus, "They talk about clean coal technology, but the plants that are here aren't clean, they're dirty. Gotta work on the ones that are here in our communities."

But Jesus isn't holding his breath. He's got a college education, a good job and plans to move far away from here as soon as he can.


NOTE: We contacted Texas Petrochemicals, the plant directly behind Chavez High School. In 2005, they signed an agreement to cut their emissions of Butadiene by 50 percent. At the time, they were releasing 104,000 pounds a year. According to a spokesperson, Texas Petrochemicals has met all their emissions targets and has made the plant safer overall.

More stories from our Politics on the Spot series


  • Comment | Refresh

  • By Kirk Fielder

    From Baltimore, MD, 10/26/2008

    I have heard many stories of the health of neighborhoods around this area and this is a travesty and all of America should stand up against this disregard for citizens.

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