Elizabeth Diaz and Jo Fax report on Juan Parras’s Toxic Tour of Houston’s East End

Posted by on May 3, 2013
Elizabeth Diaz and Jo Fax report on Juan Parras’s Toxic Tour of Houston’s East End

It started when Yudith Nieto spoke to our student-taught class at Rice University about her life growing up in Manchester, a mainly Hispanic community located in Houston’s “Toxic East End.” She referred to the contamination by oil refineries and other industries, and the impact that the Keystone XL pipeline will have on her community.  She spoke about living every day with polluted air, water and soil, and not having the option to move somewhere else.

As a Rice student living on campus for almost four years, I (Elizabeth) had never explored the east side of Houston. Neighborhoods like Eastwood, Magnolia or Manchester were unheard of to me until Nieto’s visit. In order to learn more about them, we organized a group of Rice students to participate in the “East End Toxic Tour,” an educational tour that includes the East End communities, the Houston Ship Channel and the Manchester area.

On Sunday April 21st, about 25 Rice students from a myriad of academic and extracurricular backgrounds biked over to Guadalupe Plaza Park to meet with the leader of the tour, Juan Parras. He is the executive director of Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Service or T.E.J.A.S.

Figure 1 Students taking a break during bike tour


Parras founded T.E.J.A.S. in 2006 but had been working on environmental justice long before in Baton Rouge and New Orleans, LA and Houston, TX. He started these tours to show Houstonians and visitors that when we hear about Houston being the “energy capital of the world,” this includes sacrifice zones where predominantly low-income African-American and Hispanics live.

T.E.J.A.S. does not charge for these tours since they are meant to educate and inform the public rather than gain a profit at the expense of these communities (“poverty tourism,” as it is known and practiced in the favelas of Rio.)

Our tour started very close to downtown, just a few blocks off Minute Maid Park and on the other side of Buffalo Bayou. We stopped by abandoned normal-looking lots, but Parras informed us that they were Brownfields or ex-Superfund sites. According to the EPA website, a Superfund site is an “uncontrolled or abandoned place where hazardous waste is located” which requires a long-term cleanup response. Brownfield sites also have contaminants but their cleanup should not be as complicated as that of a Superfund site. When we visited the Superfund site shown below, Parras explained that when the area floods, lead contaminants that lower your IQ run off into an elementary school built only a block away. The school had to be closed and relocated to another site within the neighborhood.

Figure 2 Many Diversified Interests, Inc. Superfund site located in Fifth Ward.

            Some Rice students participating in our tour volunteer every week at Cesar Chavez high school through D.R.E.A.M: an engineering outreach program created by several Rice students and a faculty member. We learned that Chavez is also located in an area known for high levels of Butadiene and Benzene. 1/4 mile from the school are two petrochemical refineries, a Good Year Tire and Rubber plant and Texas Petrochemicals Plant. This was easy to verify through Google Maps.

Figure 3 Point A is Chavez High School, Point B is the Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company: Houston Chemical Plant and the white areas are the industries and refineries along part of the Ship Channel. Image courtesy of Google Maps.

Chavez high school was built in this location in the year 2000 even though T.E.J.A.S. had protested the siting of the school. The school is now an Environmental Magnet school where kids are in a “live lab” and will end up suffering from the close proximity to the contaminants that they study.

Respiratory diseases and different types of cancer, including leukemia, are among the health impacts that many of the community members experience.

Our tour continued through beautiful tree-filled areas along the Buffalo Bayou trail that clashed with the metal-crushing facilities just on the other side of the channel.

Figure 4 Sims Metal crushing facilities along Buffalo Bayou on the east bank

The last stop of our Toxic Tour was the community of Manchester. In all directions we either saw smoke stacks, 20-foot tanks or unidentifiable facilities. We stopped in front of this man’s house, completely surrounded by tanks; he refuses to be bought out off his land, holding that he and many others were here long before the industry came along.

Figure 5 The tanks are not part of the backyard. House in Manchester.

            And it’s not just Manchester, the rest of communities along the Ship Channel are also experiencing this expansion of refineries and petrochemical plants.

But in the end, why should we when we live in the clean and privileged parts of Houston?

Why should we care? … When most of us will end up working for these refineries and polluting industries, indirectly or directly through government or private enterprises?

I guess many people will not care, even if they go on this tour because they might believe it does not affect them.

But hopefully, knowing about this environmental injustice (or “situation”) just six miles from Rice University will make us feel uncomfortable and compel us to help cleaning up the air in Houston since it will benefit all of us, regardless of where we live.

When we hear politicians bragging about Houston having the most jobs and being the energy capital of the world, I hope we feel discomfort inside our chests, and not just because we are breathing polluted air, but because we have come to accept these living conditions.

When we hear Houston public officials boast about our booming economy, I hope we understand that this contributes to these peoples’ diseases and suffering.

Hopefully, this experience helped participants understand that this pollution overwhelmingly affects certain racial and socioeconomic classes that do not have the resources to mobilize and confront oil companies or to lobby politicians. As Parras pointed out, the Ashby High Rise saw immediate and outstanding opposition from West U residents who are still fighting, but the community members of Manchester and other communities simply find out that another refinery is being built once construction has begun.

This is an environmental justice problem – with poor people of color disproportionately burdened by the negative health impacts.

Why are environmental groups in Texas not jumping onto this case? Why has our municipal government not acted to protect these vulnerable communities?  A root analysis would implicate government and businesses. Thus, we see little support for enacting any change.

While many studies, blog posts, and news articles have been written on this issue, no concerted action has been taken to systemically address the situation. The communities are starting to organize but government policy and action is crucial. Since the city is so intertwined with these polluting facilities, a national approach is necessary.

For those that care and now know, disseminating this information will help foster a broader discussion on the environmental racism in Houston’s “Toxic-East End.”

Figure 6 Mural of a playground surrounded by refineries and chemical plants, painted by children in Manchester’s Harmann Park

Special Thanks to Juan Parras and Angie Bautista-Chavez.

Read more about T.E.J.A.S.

Read more about Chavez high school

Read more about the Tar sands Blockade, the Keystone XL pipeline and community organizing