Texas Organizer: Harvey Disproportionately Affects Low-Income People of Color
While ‘some of the city may return to normal, an entire different section just won’t have that capacity,’ says organizer Yvette Arellano
DHARNA NOOR: Welcome to The Real News. I’m Dharna Noor, and joining you from Baltimore. The U.S. National Hurricane Center is calling Tropical Storm Harvey, which is still ravaging Texas and Louisiana, the biggest rain storm on record. At least 31 people have been killed and over 17,000 people are in shelters. Those numbers are expected to rise. With us to talk about Harvey and its devastating effects is Yvette Arellano. She’s the research and policy liaison at Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services. Thank you so much for coming on today.
YVETTE ARELLANO: Thank you for having me on.
DHARNA NOOR: Yvette, you’re joining us from Houston right now. I was happy to hear you say that your family and your loved ones were relatively safe. Talk about what kinds of effects your community is seeing.
YVETTE ARELLANO: Well, actually within the TEJAS office, we had some water creep into the offices, which is why we headed over earlier this morning, but the east side of Houston, the waters have receded. What we’ve been seeing is multiple reports now being released over not only leaks but releases that have happened all along the Houston ship channel. There were three or four notable ones. Exxon-Mobil was having issues at their facility and they’re the second largest refinery in the entire nation. Shell also had reported leaking happen along with the Kinder Morgan terminal on the east side, which was leaking from a 6.3 gallon gasoline fuel storage container into the east side where residents reported having a strong odor of gas. Although the waters have receded, the east side is still seeing effects. A number of the facilities and the refineries and the chemical plants shut down during the hurricane natural disaster, and now they’re starting up which is going to allow them to re-release chemicals and toxics into the air.
DHARNA NOOR: The mayor of Houston, Sylvester Turner, said that he’s pressing for the city to return to normal as quickly as possible with airports reopening and schools expected to start on September 5th. Talk about the devastation Hurricane Harvey has left in its wake. Is it going to be possible for everything to actually return to normal so quickly?
YVETTE ARELLANO: The entire city of Houston is fairly resilient when it comes to going back to working order. Do I think that every community will be able to return to work and back to normal? I don’t. We’ve said it time and time again, although the entire city was affected by storms like this one, there are communities that were disproportionally affected and unfortunately our low-income communities of color are some of those communities. There were national reports over and footage that was seen where you had boats and emergency vehicles coming to communities and actually allowed for evacuation. You didn’t that same type of footage come out of these low-income communities of color, and the reason why, and I spoke to some of our community members is because we don’t have boats. We don’t have super high vehicles. Although some of the city may return to normal, an entire different section just won’t have that capacity.
DHARNA NOOR: Talk about some of the challenges that there have been in getting shelter and aid for people in Houston.
YVETTE ARELLANO: The American Red Cross does a lot of wonderful work and never to speak ill of the Red Cross, but unfortunately there are focuses that don’t necessarily go to our environmental justice communities or in low-income communities. They’re told to go ahead and scurry over to shelters that are found in the center of the city or somewhere nearby. Then, another big point is some of these community members don’t have a way to get there. Either their vehicles have been submerged or there isn’t currently … the city isn’t offering transportation to and from these emergency shelters.
DHARNA NOOR: We know that Houston is the leader in the oil and gas industry as you touched on, and that petrol chemical sites are polluting the air. You talked about the extreme stench that residents said that they were experiencing. The people who live near these sites again are disproportionately low-income people, people of color. What threats does the proximity to these petrol chemical sites pose to nearby communities?
YVETTE ARELLANO: A lot of the toxics that were released not only during this disaster but on a daily basis, many of them are cancer-causing chemicals. When those chemicals get into the water, they have an even larger span of exposure, and when everything dries up, that doesn’t mean those chemicals disperse and disappear. They basically become evaporated in the air. TEJAS along with a union of concerned scientists which is a network of over 17,000 scientists and academics alike who release a report called Double Jeopardy. Within the report, discussed seven of the highest and most dangerous chemicals that are released on a daily basis.
Now, this is on a daily basis, and they included chemicals like the one-three of Benzine, Ethel Benzine, Styrene, Siylene. Many of them have effects when it comes to reproductive issues, either smaller ovaries that are … then go through natural development, respiratory issues, cancer-causing agents, and so there’s an entire slew. Some of them actually come out and look like flu and cold symptoms or sinuses and allergies when in fact they are symptoms of chemical exposures. These are again, these are some of the very … this is a very limited amount of chemicals that we’re talking about. Seven out of 200 that are monitored by the EPA, and we know that thousands of chemicals go into the production of not only oil and gas but petrol chemical products that produce anything from synthetic rubbers to plastics. Houston is home of the largest petrol chemical complex in the entire nation.
DHARNA NOOR: What can be done to prevent the scale of devastation from further disasters like Harvey? We know that the mainstream media, the corporate media, is largely ignoring how climate change is fueling storms like this one.
YVETTE ARELLANO: Right. Well, our governor, the governor of Texas is a climate denier. A lot of our states and senators are climate deniers. This is devastating to our communities because unlike other states that do accept climate change as a very real issue and they are going through mitigation tactics and they are showing resiliency efforts, Houston is not doing the same or even an adequate job of responding to this. There’s a report that came out through Rice University and the SSPEED Center that talks about the potential of having a 23-foot surge that will wipe through the 52-mile stretch of petrol chemical complex into the city of Houston, exposing communities not once but twice. Although this was a devastating event, it can be potentially that must worse.
TEJAS was part of two lawsuits, one of which brought the refinery rules standards up to play, and there was one refinery rule hearing in the entire nation. That refinery rule hearing was here. It was in Manchester. It was in the east side of Houston. One refinery rule hearing for the entire nation, and folks came from all over, speaking on behalf of their communities, talking about the importance of 24/7 monitoring because as we know, within Texas or the TCEQ allowed these facilities to shut down their air monitoring systems because this was considered an emergency event. We need monitoring during emergencies, during maintenance and start-up and shut down, which is the exact same loophole that the industry has fought against. There was a 90-day stay after the refinery rule hearing was done. Now, the 90-day stay has turned into a stay until next year. Now, these are the things that don’t allow us to push forward with not only knowing what our communities are being exposed to but how to adequately approach any sort of services to mitigate them.
Another one is that the refineries along the ship channel are asked to produce an emergency response management. There’s a plan, RMP plan, that’s supposed to come into play that takes into account community voices and the states and these agencies and these entities, and it just hasn’t happened. The city of Houston has been never met the federal air quality standards and has also never been sanctioned for that because there’s been this entire effort to maintain not only the economy but the industry, because this is the industry that they see as upholding the entire city. All of those efforts as of today we have not heard any industry body step forward and offer any relief or recovery efforts. You’re talking about millions of dollars that are produced and the sacrifice zones that are not taken into account during these disasters that are exposed that much more, that aren’t going to receive the adequate amount of relief.
DHARNA NOOR: Finally, Yvette, for our viewers, what’s the best way to give aid to hard-hit areas? We know that you said the you never wanted to speak ill of the Red Cross, but many people are weary of giving to the Red Cross because of their response to crises in Haiti and elsewhere. As you said, industry leaders are not taking this upon themselves. Where should aid go? Where should people be donating, and where should people be putting their resources?
YVETTE ARELLANO: There are recovery efforts with community organizations like TEJAS. If you visit tejasbarrios.org, there’s a link to donate there. We also encourage people to donate to other environmental justice communities, faith based groups that actually they actually know and have the knowledge of those groups doing just recovery work, and to really take into account who they’re donating to. Making sure that these groups are one, legitimate, that they have their 501(c)(3) status, or that they are faith based and giving back to their communities. We encourage all of that. Also, this is not just an event that’s going to affect us this week.
The effects of this storm are going to carry on throughout weeks, even months. Please make sure to keep that into account. If you’re giving today, please make sure that you check in with the recovery efforts a month from now, because resources come and go. We see that happening all the time. The Red Cross will drop in and they’ll service and they’ll show support to communities for a limited amount of time, and then they pick up and leave along with a lot of other large green organizations that do the same thing, to be frank with you. Take all that into account and continue supporting. The best thing that folks can do I would say is show manpower because our communities need that. TEJAS is a very small organization along with a lot of grassroots groups. Having capacity and having hands and boots on the ground is what we need.
DHARNA NOOR: All right. Yvette, thank you so much for coming on. I hope that you and your family and loved ones stay safe.
YVETTE ARELLANO: Thank you so much for having me on.
DHARNA NOOR: Thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.