The following CENHS predoc fellows contributed to this post: Maureen Haver, Kevin MacDonnell, and Eliot Storer
We recently sat down with Bryan Parras, co-founder, with his father Juan Parras, of Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services (T.E.J.A.S) to discuss its founding and reflect on Houston’s roots in the environmental justice movement. Those roots run deep, thanks to the groundbreaking work of Texas Southern University’s Dr. Robert Bullard and groups like T.E.J.A.S, that have been at the forefront of the movement. As an activist, storyteller, and media maker, Bryan’s advocacy is wide-ranging. In the Texas border-town of Eagle Pass, he filmed and documented local concerns for and opposition to a 6,000 acre open pit coal mine that extracts coal deemed too dirty for current U.S. standards and sends it across the border to Mexico. Bryan and other members of T.E.J.A.S. were also members of two frontline delegations present at the 2016 Paris climate talks: Gulf South Rising and Defenders of Mother Earth. He currently serves as a Bridge the Gulf Fellow, where he is helping launch a new interactive website, where communities along the southern Gulf Coast share their stories through digital media. His local work centers around fence-line communities like the Houston neighborhood of Manchester. These typically marginalized neighborhoods are situated next to refineries, chemical plants, and industrial waste sites and acutely experience the toxic encroachment of industry and pollution into their daily lives. He is also an active member of the Society of Native Nations, which is currently leading a protest against a pipeline project in west Texas.
In our interview, Bryan reflects on the 1994 executive order, signed by President Clinton, establishing federal actions to address environmental justice in low-income and minority communities, which was inspired by the principles of environmental justice that were written at the First National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit in 1991. While EPA action on environmental justice has never been fully sufficient, those provisions have been crucial tools for frontline environmental justice communities. Now, twenty-three years later, the fate of the entire EPA is in question, and a “radical shift” is expected with the recent confirmation of Scott Pruitt as director of the EPA. Especially concerning is the current administration’s proposal to cut 78% of the EPA’s environmental justice program budget, a move that prompted the abrupt resignation of Mustafa Ali, the program’s longtime leader. It is predicted that for many communities these shifts will be measured by “illness and death.” From pipelines to pollution to action on climate change, the fight for environmental justice has become more challenging, but people are persisting and resisting. And while the battle lines are being redrawn over the Dakota Access pipeline due to the new administration, what happened at Standing Rock has inspired a resurgence in collective resistance and action that cannot be denied.
In the second half of the interview (16:38), we turn to one such example when Bryan talks about his current work to help stop the west Texas Trans Pecos Pipeline, another project of Energy Transfer Partners—the company building the Dakota Access pipeline. We were fortunate to sit down with Bryan just before he left for Two Rivers Camp, which has united indigenous leaders, eco-activists, and property owners in their opposition to the pipeline. Here, we discuss the differences and similarities between Standing Rock and Two Rivers, and the practical challenges facing the Two Rivers Camp. Like Standing Rock, Two Rivers requires support and amplification on social media. In the short time since we interviewed Bryan, there have been multiple arrests for nonviolent direct action taken against the pipeline, resulting in nonviolent protestors facing felony charges that activists say are an effort to chill dissent. Resistance is growing despite heavy-handed tactics from law enforcement. From Keystone XL to Standing Rock to Two Rivers, pipeline construction projects are emerging as pivotal sites of contest that bring into sharp relief questions of indigenous sovereignty, energy transition, climate change, and environmental justice. How those questions will be answered remain uncertain, but it is clear that the fate of these proposed pipelines intersect with multiple possible futures that are contingent on these answers.