HOW TOXIC EMISSIONS POISONED MY HOUSTON HOMETOWN

By Jose Art Chapa, LCV Member

I grew up in the east side of Houston, one of the most ozone-polluted cities in the nation. My neighborhood, in Manchester, was surrounded by industrial facilities that spewed out toxic emissions.

The Houston Ship Channel was located directly to the east, which housed refineries and chemical plants. North of my neighborhood was another chemical plant, and south of my neighborhood was State Highway 3.

There was a strong sense of community and kinship in my neighborhood. The neighborhood kids grew up knowing almost everyone as we attended the same school and participated in the same summer sports. We all walked, rode bikes, or bussed to school together. Most families were middle-class and owned their homes. We were not poor, but not rich. 

My community has been victim to various environmental injustices and it is time for our voices to be heard. These chemical emissions impacted numerous aspects of our daily lives — like our health, our homes, and our environment — but, at the time, we did not even know it. When we had visitors, they would always comment about the foul smell that lingered in the air. Accustomed to it, we failed to notice. When I look back on it, I’m appalled to remember that it was common for folks’ windows to be blown out by explosions because of the negligent chemical plants.

The worst part of it all was losing my Aunt Gloria and Uncle William Diaz to cancer. We also lost our neighbor, Consuelo Alvarez, to cancer that was linked to the dangerous amount of the toxic particles emitted into the atmosphere. 

It is now known that nineteen industrial facilities released toxic air pollutants in Manchester. This included toxins like butadiene, ethylbenzene, toluene, and styrene — just to name a few. High levels or long-term exposure to these chemicals can cause anemia, cancer, an increased likelihood of leukemia, and can impact reproductive systems.

As my neighborhood friends got older, most of them relocated. The chemical plants bought out all of the homes that were up for sale because my neighbors either died or moved away. Eventually, there were entire streets with just one or two houses. I believe that the chemical company was conscious of their air quality violations and their goal was to protect their reputation. In doing so, they removed all of the evidence (cancer victims or potential litigation) associated with their harmful emissions of toxic chemicals.

The elected officials in the city of Houston failed their duty to protect my family, my community, and the citizens overall. Allowing these companies to self-police their emissions is a dangerous and unethical strategy. It is totally wrong!

I now live in South Texas. This island is currently threatened by the same types of dangerous chemicals from the same industry that does not care for the welfare of the community. For polluting industries, the almighty dollar for the investor is more important than the lives of the locals who are unable to move elsewhere. If you are poor, you are out of luck. Everyone has a right to breathe clean air without fear of getting sick. Our elected officials must be held accountable and chemical plants need to put people over profits in order for something to change.  My community deserves justice and clean energy is the solution. 

I spent 11 years of my childhood in Manchester, and I was never truly aware of the horrible impacts of pollution until my neighbors and family members were affected in the worst ways. For me, clean energy means that future communities will not be torn apart by relocation and cancer. Clean energy means that communities will not have to worry about living near highly pollutive sources. Not only will the elimination of toxic emissions benefit the climate and combat rising temperatures, but it will protect the health of communities like mine all across the nation.

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