Shared from the 4/20/2020 The Denver Post eEditionBy Ellen Knickmeyer The Associated Press
HOUSTON» Danielle Nelson’s best monitor for the emissions billowing out of the oil refineries and chemical plants surrounding her home: The heaving chest of her 9-year-old asthmatic son.
On some nights, the boy’s chest shudders as he fights for breath in his sleep. Nelson suspects the towering plants and refineries are to blame, rising like a lit-up city at night around her squat brick apartment building in the rugged Texas Gulf Coast city of Port Arthur.
Ask Nelson what protection the federal government and plant operators provide her African-American community, and her answer is blunt. “They’re basically killing us,” said the 37-year-old, who herself has been diagnosed with respiratory problems since moving to the community after Hurricane Harvey in 2017.
“We don’t even know what we’re breathing,” she said.
The Texas Gulf Coast is the United States’ petrochemical corridor, with four of the country’s 10 biggest oil and gas refineries and thousands of chemical facilities.
Residents of the mostly black and Latino communities closest to the refineries and chemical plants say that puts them on the front line of President Donald Trump’s administration’s rollbacks of decades of public health and environmental protections.
Under Trump, federal regulatory changes are slashing requirements on industry to monitor, report and reduce toxic pollutants, heavy metals and climate-damaging fossil fuel emissions, and to work transparently with communities to prevent plant disasters — such as the half-dozen major chemical fires and explosions that have killed workers and disrupted life along the Texas Gulf Coast over the past year alone.
And that plunge in public health enforcement may be about to get even more dramatic. Last month, Environmental Protection Agency administrator Andrew Wheeler, a coal lobbyist before Trump appointed him to the agency, announced enforcement waivers for industries on monitoring, reporting and quickly fixing hazardous releases, in cases the EPA deems staffing problems related to the coronavirus pandemic made compliance difficult.
Since then, air pollutants in Houston’s most heavily industrialized areas have surged as much as 62%, a Texas A&M analysis of state air monitor readings found.
The EPA says it is balancing public and business interests in trimming what the Trump administration considers unnecessary regulations.
“Maintaining public health and enforcing existing environmental protections is of the upmost importance to EPA,” agency spokeswoman Andrea Woods said by email. “This administration’s deregulatory efforts are focused on rooting out inefficiencies, not paring back protections for any sector of society.”
But environmentalists call the EPA’s waiver during the coronavirus crisis the latest in a series of alarming moves.
said Mustafa Santiago Ali, head of the EPA environmental justice office under President Barack Obama.
On the Texas Gulf Coast, African-Americans under segregation were shunted to low-lying coastal areas prone to high water — literally on the wrong side of the tracks, Port Arthur activist Hilton Kelley says. As Texas towns grew, refineries, interstates and other, dirtier industries moved to those areas.
Stopping at the site of a razed public housing project where he was born in a bedroom looking out on the refineries, Kelley recalled, “always hearing about someone dying of cancer, always smelling smells, watching little babies using nebulizers.”
In Houston’s Hispanic Galena Park, a developer this year fracked an oil and gas well just hundreds of yards from a school. In another Hispanic community, Manchester, chemical storage tanks tower over single-story frame homes, encasing all but their porches and driveways.
Before dawn one day last month, a headache-inducing chemical stench suffused the neighborhood as a child waited for a school bus. An Immigration and Customs Enforcement vehicle rolled by. Latino residents, afraid of attracting official attention, lay low and don’t often complain, resident and activist Juan Flores says.
Even before the Trump administration began the rollbacks, Houston’s urban freeways and industries were pumping enough poisonous refinery chemicals, heavy metals, and diesel and car exhaust to “almost certainly” be to blame for some respiratory problems and early deaths, as well as an “unacceptable increased risk” for cancers and chronic disease, concluded a landmark city task force, which was started in 2005 to study the health impacts.
Residents of some predominantly minority Houston neighborhoods face at least three times the cancer risks of Americans overall, according to a 2014 EPA assessment, the most recent available.