Backyard Talk

Shelter In Place Can Be Very Different Depending on Where You Live

The Center for Health, Environment & Justice team and I send our compassion, support and affection to those whose health and livelihoods may be affected by COVID-19. This is a worldwide crisis on a scale we have not seen in our lifetimes. We are thinking of you, your family, friends and neighbors.
As you know our team has always been about families, communities and people and at all times working on issues from the grassroots to the White House not the other way around. For the first time, the entire country now has a better understanding of the horrors of “sheltering in place.”  Hundreds of our member’s communities, maybe you live in one, have been told to shelter in place because of an explosion from a pipeline, refinery, chemical plant and other releases.
I feel safe in my home, even though I’m in the high risk age range. I am also grateful that I have a place to stay with food, water and clean air, until the public health crisis is over. I can work from home, hold virtual meetings, talk with my friends through the phone, Facebook or e-mail. As terrifying as this virus is I still feel safe, maybe I shouldn’t.
Unfortunately, safe is not how so many of communities CHEJ works with feel, when asked to shelter in place because of an environmental release or explosion. There are a number of reason for their fears.
–No one told them something was going to happen and they should seek safe shelter, stock up on food, water and toilet paper.
–There wasn’t days of news castors telling folks what scientists think the real dangers are, what health symptoms people should look out for or the speed of the poison touching communities as it moves across the world.
–No federal or state health agency was working around the clock to ensure everyone exposed would receive critical health care if needed, regardless of whether they’re insured.
I invite you to read or reread the article we reprinted on our web from the New York Times authored by Ana Parras a local activist in TX.
In Texas and across the country, the E.P.A.’s gutting of the Chemical Disaster Rule is a matter of life or death.
While families across the country celebrated Thanksgiving with their loved ones, more than 50,000 people in Port Neches, Tex., were forced to evacuate from their homes and spend the holiday in makeshift shelters. The reason? Two explosions at the Texas Petroleum Chemical plant sent flames into the sky, injured eight people, and released plumes of butadiene, a carcinogen, into the air.
The disaster erupted six days after the Trump administration gutted Obama-era regulations meant to improve safety at 12,000 chemical plants around the country.
It’s too soon to say whether these now abandoned rules would have made a difference in Port Neches. But there is no question that the communities that surround these thousands of plants are less safe now.
This regulatory rollback gives chemical plants across the country a free pass, in pursuit of greater profits, to operate in a way that endangers families and workers.
There are over 2,500 chemical facilities in the Houston area. Manchester, the neighborhood where Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services works, is among those most affected by this negligence. There are 30 chemical plants and waste sites in the Manchester area that report to the Environmental Protection Agency. When an explosion happens, nearby neighborhoods, mostly Latinx and people of color, are exposed to this toxicity.
And these toxic blasts are not infrequent. The last chemical explosion in Houston to garner national attention was in March at the Intercontinental Terminals Co., a few miles east of Manchester. This explosion led to high benzene levels in the air, school closures and community shelter-in-place orders for days: stay where you are, turn off air conditioning. Some advisories told people to put a plastic tarp over their windows, sealed with duct tape, to prevent air from coming in.
Federal regulations were supposed to protect us. For years, organizations like United Steelworkers, Greenpeace and dozens of other community and environmental organizations pressured the E.P.A. to make chemical disaster prevention a priority.
The turning point happened in 2013 when an explosion at a fertilizer plant in West, Tex., 200 miles northwest of Houston, killed 15 people and injured over 260.
Later that year, President Barack Obama signed an executive order calling on federal agencies to create a task force. What emerged was the Chemical Disaster Rule, a proposal to improve plant safety and protect surrounding communities, which the former E.P.A. administrator Gina McCarthy approved one month before President Trump took office.
Two months later, the Trump administration blocked the regulations from taking effect, and now the E.P.A. has released a final rule that eviscerates the Obama-era requirements. The agency rescinded major accident prevention provisions, including requirements to consider safer technology, audits of accidents by outside parties and “root cause” analyses of accidents.
While Texas has the largest number of chemical facilities in the country, Illinois, California, Iowa and Louisiana are riddled with them, too. As The Houston Chronicle has documented, no state is spared from having at least one facility that could have toxic or flammable chemical accidents with consequences that extend beyond the site.
The E.P.A. calls these communities — areas that could be affected by a release from a chemical accident — “vulnerable zones.” One in three children in America attends a school in a vulnerable zone. This means that over 19 million children are at risk of exposure to the harmful chemicals that these plants use, store and can emit when they produce plastics, pesticides, adhesives and other products.
Our neighborhoods in Houston are a case in point. The oil and gas facilities and chemical plants along the 52-mile Houston Ship Channel have turned the air in Harris County into a public health hazard, significantly increasing the likelihood of residents’ developing cancer and respiratory problems — and shortening the lives of children. Children living near the Houston Ship Channel are 56 percent more likely to develop leukemia than those who live more than 10 miles away.
To me this issue is personal. Yes, explosions from chemical facilities can be deadly. But the long-term impact of exposure to toxic chemicals also kills. In 2016, I was found to have hypersensitivity pneumonitis, a rare autoimmune system disorder that arises from breathing in dust or toxins repeatedly. The doctors blamed indoor air, but I am convinced that exposure to chemicals in Houston led to my condition. In this town, there’s little distinction between the air indoors and what’s outside.
When traveling — I am now at the U.N. Climate talks in Madrid — I bring a portable oxygen machine in case I need it. I am unable to walk long distances, and I move slowly because of my shortness of breath. Public speaking is difficult, as is any exertion. My life expectancy is not long (10 years, one doctor told me). I hope it is more.
In my family, lung diseases are the norm. My diagnosis came the same year that my father, Gregorio V. García, died of lung cancer at 79. He worked in the Asarco Refinery in Corpus Christi, Tex., and was a member of United Steelworkers for 30 years. Workers in these refineries are the first exposed to toxic substances. Many, like him, have died of cancer.
Plants like the nearby Valero facility emit a slew of poisonous chemicals like benzene and hydrogen cyanide into our neighborhoods. Far too often, they fail to meet Clean Air Act requirements.
During Hurricane Harvey in August 2017, I felt what it was like to breathe in a concentrated amount of toxic air. On the day of the worst flooding, my husband and I drove his pickup truck into Manchester to document what was happening at the Valero refinery. We saw water running from Valero into Hartman Park, where children gather to play baseball and soccer, and down the streets we knew well. As we drove, we had to cover our nose and mouth with our hands. My lips turned numb. The odor was so strong that it made me nauseated.
Three days later we found out that we had driven into one of the largest benzene spills. Benzene is clear, colorless and flammable. To date, this spill has not been adequately addressed by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.
In Houston, we struggle to get chemical facilities to follow the law. We ask our state to protect us from chemicals that no one should breathe. Now the federal government is ending safeguards that the E.P.A. only a few years ago said the industry needed to protect the lives of workers, emergency medical workers and communities like mine.
My life should not be a pawn for leveraging industry profits. Nor should those of my neighbors and their children. Families and workers in these neighborhoods deserve to be safe.
As disasters continue to happen, we — those most affected, those who breathe and live and play in toxicity — condemn the E.P.A.’s decision to repeal the Chemical Disaster Rule. We are denied basic health protections simply because the industry does not want to invest in our safety.
Families and workers across the country should not have to pay the ultimate cost of this administration’s refusal to do its job: our lives.
Ana Parras is a co-executive director of Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services (@tejasbarrios).


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