Houston’s Environmental Challenges, 28 August 2013 at the Museum of Fine Arts

Posted by on Aug 26, 2013
Houston’s Environmental Challenges, 28 August 2013 at the Museum of Fine Arts

Panelists will speak on environmental challenges facing Houston’s region over the next 25 years from different perspectives and answer questions from the audience:

Environmental Justice: Dr. Robert Bullard
Water, Flooding, and Competing Land Uses: Jim Blackburn
Urban Growth and Agro-Ecological Infrastructure: Dr. John Jacobs
Air Quality and Urban Growth: Larry Soward

Moderated by: Thomas Colbert


Notes from the Event: 

Framing: It’s a prosperous time for Houston, so we should have the resources to plan for the environmental long term. This is about imagining what it could be like in 25 years if we make the right or wrong choices and plans.

Larry Soward,

Population growth will bring environmental costs. 40% growth expected for the Port of Houston after the expansion of the Panama canal is complete. The Port plans to triple its container capacity. This impacts the entire region, because of all the additional heavy transport moving through it. Opposition to coal terminals in the Pacific northwest means huge up-scaling in this area. Western coal will be exported from the Port of Houston for the first time. Environmental, public health, and citizens groups have rasied concerns about increased rail traffic, which brings pollution from diesel fumes and coal dust.

The Keystone pipeline would move over 700,000 barrels a day of Alberta crude to Houston. Thus there are concerns about increased pollution from the tar crude, which requires dirtier processing, with 17 % more greenhouse gas emissions. Meanwhile, every major chemical company in the region is planning expansion to utilize the extra petrochemical resources. More oil refining always means increased production in the plastic and chemical industries that use its by-products.

There will be plenty of new jobs and revenue, but lots of new air pollution in areas already heavily polluted. Harris County’s 2.8 m motor vehicles expected to double by 2040.

The American lung association gave Houston a failing grade for ozone pollution, and for particulate pollution too. Toxic air pollutants continue to be problematic around plants. Harris county leads all counties in the nation in C02 emissions, and Texas leads all the other states. In this context, low income people are at higher risk from air pollution because of the segregation of rich and poor into different areas.

We have a long way to go with our cleanup. We’ve already picked the low hanging fruit. Industrial sources have reduced ozone output by 80%. We need to focus on the car culture.

John Jacobs

The importance of the connection between city and country. Jacobs is channeling Raymond Williams. Houston’s surrounding ecosystem, when undeveloped, can be described as the prairie pothole/pimple mound complex. The difficulty of convincing people to preserve Texas ecosystems often comes down to this: it’s no Yosemite.

What we’ve lost, what’s left, what we can do:

We’ve lost 4-5 % of the wetlands, 35 % of Palustrine Emergent Wetlands in Harris County

Our agro-ecological infrastructure consists of the farmland and the surrounding natural areas.

Everything that’s left in Harris County is under threat now. We need big pieces, more than 10,000 acres, to maintain functioning ecosystems. Jacobs has named prairies in the area to make them more visible and raise awareness. Katy is only the biggest and best known. The Columbia corridor has a high density of prairie zones that should be preserved.

We have prime farmland, really good dirt. Suburban Houston is  growing into it, because it’s all to the west and south. Thus, we’re messing in our nest. We should save some of that farmland for when fuel’s too expensive to import food.

4 million people are coming to Houston over the next 25 years, and 1000 square miles will be lost if we continue to develop at this population density.

We need to convince people to pay for wetland mitigation, and it’s going to cost money. We’re getting second rate mitigation now, which is a travesty. This is our land and we deserve more.

What we need to do is honor what we take with what we build through mitigation. And we can work on convincing people that the lifestyle associated with 40 dwelling to the acre density can be better than what comes with 1 house to the acre density. Even at 40, we’re hardly Manhattan, and there’s a comfortable amount of space for all.

We need to build real places and build more trains. Need to convince people about the benefits of urban density. Need the better urban and natural place. ‘A things is right when it tends to preserve the integrity and beauty of the biotic community,’ as Aldo Leopold said, and we’re part of that community.

Jim Blackburn

The dangers of flooding in Harris County, especially from Hurrican surge. Ike just missed being one of the most devastating floods in US history, destroying the ship channel with a 20 ft. surge. 20 feet isn’t a lot for the ship channel. 25 feet would be a likely number for the next big Hurricane. 1400 oil and chemical tanks would be inundated. Just one tank was enough to evacuate 1000 homes during Katrina.

The Army Corps of engineers found that the dams at Addicks and Barker are at risk of catastrophic failure. This would flood Buffalo Bayou. We need the Katy prairie and area as a buffer. Between Addicks and Barker and the ship channel, we have the potential for massive calamities. We can only evacuate 1.2 million from the area in 38 hours. Our floodplain is growing because we don’t mitigate wetlands. We assume that undeveloped property is well drained for the mitigation calculation, but it’s not.

We keep having 100 year floods, one hears about them frequently. This is because 13 inches isn’t our 100 year flood anymore, it’s 19.

Robert Bullard

Environmental justice in Houston. Today Houston has about 6 million people, and will be adding for million more by 2040. Are we planning for changing demographics? Vulnerability in Houston maps neatly according to race and class, especially for pollution. An environmental justice atlas could include maps and charts tracking pollution hotspots, environmental health disparities, food deserts, access to greenspace, tree cover, “sick schools,” access to clean energy. 25 years ago Bullard did a study on Houston looking at the location of solid waste facilities. 100% were located in black neighborhoods. People of color face the worst effects of pollution, and Houston is 7th most polluted city in the country when it comes to ozone. 2013 Am lung association report: African Americans and Latinos 3x more likely to die from asthma. Within those groups, the most vulnerable population is children, because of their developing bodies and because of the pollution from sick schools. Texas as a state has some of the worst funding for education in the country. 68 % of all schools have at least one harmful building feature. African American and Latinos are disproportionately without cars. Richer people pollute and it’s harder on the poor. Thus environmental justice require a truly regional transport system. Who could benefit from having transit? People who don’t have cars. They would have access to jobs that are now inaccessible, and there would be more opportunities for minorities and the underprivileged.

When it comes to race and class, you can easily predict who lives in a given area based on where the trees are, where the pollution is, and where the food is. We haven’t planned well for building healthy communities.

Question period:

What can individuals do? Vote

Common sense can prevail, especially with these drainage problems. Don’t let people tell you you’re wrong when you’re not. Counter misinformation campaigns.

What land use policies do we need to protect our health and quality of life?

Maintain conditions as they were. Have a run off control requirement.

Put place making at the top of the list. Design good communities. Make good development easier than bad. Right now bad is the easiest. We need midtown-like density, or at least a few more units per acre. Developers aren’t paying the full cost of development.

We need zoning, but don’t have it. So we need to get more involved in the siting of some of the industrial facilities.

RB: Communities along the ship channel are living in a sacrifice zone. In Baton Rouge, it’s called cancer alley. If people are in a position where they can’t re-locate, the only thing to do is regulate. Unrestrained capitalism is what produces the problems we’re seeing.

RB: A lot of people see public transportation as socialism, and something for minorities and losers. Houston turned down federal money for public transport. But air is a good unifying issue. There’s no Hispanic air or white air, there’s just air.

JB: We need to change who runs this place. It’s not unplanned, it’s been planned well by the wrong people.

Houston’s run by major corporations. How can we make them responsive to these land use and public health issues?

JJ: Municipal government has as much power here as anywhere in the US. It’s the opposite at county level. And it’s the local level of government that people are more willing to accept regulation from. So vote locally and put pressure on local politicians for regulation and good policy. This is more likely to work in Texas than federal or state level intervention.

RB: There’s more inequality today in Houston than 25 years ago. Income inquality has increased. Demographic breakdown has changed too. Houston the most diverse nation in the country, according to the recent Kinder Institute study.

Who are your environmental heroes?

Rachel Carson and Aldo Leopold.