HOUSTON – Living in Houston, air quality is a concern for nearly everyone, but research shows some communities are hit harder by the dangers of persistent pollution.
“Poor Black and brown communities are experiencing more of the burdens of environmental injustice, which we call environmental racism as well,” said Zoe Middleton with Texas Housers, a non-profit focused on solving housing and community development issues.
The group mapped industrial hazardous waste sites and sources of air pollution and found they were concentrated in low-income, historically Black, and Hispanic communities.
Many believe it’s no accident.
“Facilities intentionally place themselves in communities where they will not, in many cases, not all cases, But in many cases, will not get pushback from the communities. And when they do get pushback from the communities, it still doesn’t stop them from placing themselves there,” said Bakeyah Nelson, executive director of Air Alliance Houston.
Nelson adds that residents are often unaware that a facility is coming to their neighborhood because facilities are not required to notify people directly.
Residents of Fifth Ward and Kashmere Garden, where two cancer clusters have been discovered since 2019, are among those pushing back.
State health investigators believe the higher incidents of cancer in adults and children in the area are the result of air and water pollution connected to creosote, a cancer-causing chemical that was once used at a nearby rail yard.
Sandra Edwards, president of IMPACT 5th ward, a neighborhood-led group, is fighting for residents to be relocated, have their healthcare costs covered, and for the area to be declared a Super Fund site.
“We are talking to people, we are writing letters, and we still get no recognition, we still get no attention, we still get no results, and this is frustrating,” Edwards said.
Accountability is hard to come by said local environmental groups.
According to a 2017 report from the Environmental Integrity Project and Environment Texas, from 2011 to 2016, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality fined only 3% of air emissions violators.
“When you consider that we’re not enforcing the existing laws, there’s no incentive for companies to then follow the rules,” said Grace Tee Lewis of the Environmental Defense Fund.
A coalition of groups working toward environmental justice says residents need stronger protections to help them keep industries like chemical plants, batch concrete plants, and others out of their neighborhoods. They also say elected officials need to be willing to make polluters pay.
“How can we make those solutions, prioritize those communities that have been suffering the most,” said Carmen Cavezza with the Coalition for Environment, Equity and Resilience.
Houston’s lack of zoning also factors heavily into the problem. Several state legislators are working on bills that would prevent certain industries from being placed close to homes and schools.