From science to action in environmental justice


On the east side of Houston, Texas is the Ship Channel, a narrow vein that gapes into the bay just north of the Gulf of Mexico.  Through this waterway, freighters carry Western oil to sea.  The banks are tangled with refineries, docks, pipelines, and rails.  Fuel tanks stack the shore like poker chips, and when the air is heavy, it lowers over the channel in a dull, gray haze.

It is the classic battleground for environmental justice advocates.  Four years ago, the University of Texas School of Public Health found that children living within 2 miles of the Houston Ship Channel have a 56 percent greater risk of acute lymphocytic leukemia than those more than 10 miles away.  Years before that, a study by Rice University found high concentrations of two carcinogenic chemicals in the air along the channel, and a recent investigation confirmed ten more.  That didn't stop the city from building Cesar Chavez High School in a Mexican-American community on the channel's southern edge, within breathing distance of two petrochemical refineries and a Good Year Tire plant.

An ExxonMobil refinery on the Houston Ship Channel at sunrise. Photo courtesy Flickr user Louis Vick.

And that's precisely what makes Juan Parras frustrated.  "The studies are done.  They're scientifically proven.  Then they sit in the library, and nobody addresses the solution.  What's the solution?" A leader in Houston's Mexican-American community and director of the environmental justice advocacy group T.E.J.A.S., Parras has been invited to meet with EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson five times in the past few years.  "I think the EPA has made a lot of strides," he says.  Since Obama took office, the agency has cracked down on the state's loose enforcement of the Clean Air Act.  "Still," says Parras, "in our situation, those decisions have not had any impact yet."

Many low-income communities are now in a similar situation to Parras'.  The problems they face aren't adequately addressed by current regulation, and for a long time, they've lived beside the country's most toxic industrial operations.  Now, the EPA is paying attention.  But while impacted communities are waiting on government funds to treat their pollution-related health problems or relocate to cleaner neighborhoods, the EPA is still collecting data.

On January 11, the agency granted $7 million to public health researchers to study the cumulative impacts of chemical and non-chemical stressors on individuals in low-income communities. One study will investigate how air pollution--specifically, fine particulates--interacts with food insecurity, worry about violence, lack of acculturation, and other psychosocial factors to increase the risk of cardiovascular disease among Mexican-Americans living in Houston's east side.

The EPA has typically studied the health effects of one pollutant at a time, and so Parras is pleased the agency has decided to investigate the impacts of multiple chemicals acting together.  He understands administrators need a large body of scientific evidence to support their policy decisions.  But he's wary of where the data will guide them.  "One study leads to another," he says.  "It's a vicious cycle."

Parras echoes Suzie Canales, an activist from Corpus Christi who stood up at the White House Forum on Environmental Justice last December to say, "We need to stop being studied to death."  After the EPA announced the $7 million in grants, Canales wrote in an email, "It's obvious that any additional stress--chemical or not--is going to compound the environmental burden we face every day.  To spend millions of dollars to answer a question we already know the answer to is pretty much running around in circles.  The money should be spent on exploring ways to relocate fence-line communities to safety, in a way that's fair to them."

Some like Canales wonder if the EPA's research investments will ever produce the sort of change they've sought for decades.  Last year, Richard Jackson, the Chairman of the Environmental Health Sciences Department at the University of California-LA, told Mother Jones, "Communities are often led to believe that a scientific investigation will lead to some answers.  But my own experience is that oftentimes an enormous amount of resources is put into an investigation, and at the end of it we really don't know much more than we did at he beginning…[In some ways,] to give them an epidemiological study rather than care is really not the right thing to do."

Sierra Crane-Murdoch is an HCN intern.

High Country News Classifieds