Houstonian activist-organizer Bryan Parras on environmental racism, grassroots action, and the challenges of rebuilding Houston sustainably in the wake of Hurricane Harvey.
Republished with permission by the author
As originally published on Taylor & Frances Online
Well, the other story now that the storm is gone and past, the really sad thing is a lot of the folks who live here, just by default, assume the risks. They think it’s part of living here in Houston, part of being working class. Even when people’s kids get sick, of cancer, they ask themselves, ‘I wonder if it’s connected to all of these industries and the chemicals in the air?
In a recent conversation with NACLA, Bryan Parras, a long-time community organizer, recalled his own experiences growing up on the Eastside of Houston. Parras grew up in a Mexican-American community there, with deep roots and tight connections. His extended family and ancestors hail from West Texas and northern Mexico, the grand region known as the Apachería, where both “Mexicans and Indians” were long targeted for erasure by white Texas, as he describes. Today, Houston is reeling from Hurricane Harvey. But the struggle against the toxification of people deemed expendable has a much longer history—much tied directly to the long-term destruction waged by the city’s fossil fuel industry.
On t.e.j.a.s: The Roots of a Struggle in Houston
Parras cut his teeth in organizing working with his father and others who started the organization t.e.j.a.s (Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services.) The flashpoint back in those days, the early 2000s, was a school slated for construction in the barrio “about a quarter mile away from Exxon Mobil, Goodyear Rubber, Texas Petrochemical—and a wastewater treatment plant … Plus there was a railway there carrying hazardous cargo and gas pipelines underneath all of it. And it was right off of a little bayou called Sims Bayou, that put the school in a flood zone,” Parras explains. Bryan’s father tried to organize to fight the school location even as the city sought to woo leaders and cultivate support by naming it after César Chávez. But the school went through. “It still carries that name of César Chávez, named after a hero, never mind that it flies in the face of everything he fought for.”
César Chávez High School, with some 3,000 students, is indeed located in the epicenter of toxic Houston. The Koch Industries refinery, now called Flint Hills, is one of several within a mile, all lined up along the toxic waterway called Buffalo Bayou. Valero, Pasadena, and others maintain refineries along the Bayou. Close-packed residential areas surround the tank farms, an illustration of the ways that the creation of industrial toxic cityscapes go hand-in-hand with the class and racial segregation of the city.
The school fight was a lesson for Parras and fellow organizers that illustrated the close collusion between fossil fuel and related industries and the government. The government refused to budge on the school site, arguing that if they changed the location it would set a precedent for demands that other schools be moved. In fact, Parras recounts, it was one of many moments that made clear that the industries even carry more power than the government. “They treat us as if we are expendable.”
As it was, a number of Houston schools that serve poorer Latinx communities are in toxic zones. The Houston Ship Channel, for one, is a leukemia zone. Decade-old research has shown connections between the channel and leukemia, a two-mile zone of the channel that extends north and south, well beyond César Chávez High School.
Yet in the years since, Parras, says, t.e.j.a.s has seen a big victory: “You can see a huge increase in research on the toxics, from when we started working in the mid-1990s, right at the emergence of the environmental justice movement in 1994, and to now. There is a significant increase in the focus on public health. That’s a testament to the work that we’ve done. And a lot depends on our leaders. When Mayor [Bill] White was running the city [from 2004-2010], he even helped arrange a reduction of benzene at the Valero Plant. But once he was gone there was a shift. We worked to get an executive order on chemical security during the Obama administration. But now, unfortunately, all of that is getting [rolled back] again. This is the weakness in our political system. And this is terrifying too, because even as the political system goes slow, or moves backward, the real problems are speeding up.”
More recent research on the Latinx communities of Galena Park and Manchester, both in east Houston, have documented plumes of cancer-causing benzene emanating from refineries and from underground pipelines that underlay the city. Benzene is a component of crude oil and car gasoline and a known carcinogen. It is also found in coalmines and used in fracking fluids. As early as 1948, the American Petroleum Institute itself acknowledged that the only safe exposure level to benzene is zero. Yet here in Houston it flows up out of the earth because of old and decaying infrastructures. Even before Harvey, researchers had set up community air quality monitors and detected plumes and releases that had escaped the narrowly constrained monitors of the EPA.
On Resignation and Resistance in Latinx and Working Class Communities
When Harvey hit, benzene was one of many chemicals released by refinery accidents. Valero’s refinery, near the César Chávez school, was one of them. In the high-risk zones along the ship channel through east Houston, the Union of Concerned Scientists has documented cancer rates more than 20% higher than the Houston average, and 30% higher than the average among affluent white Houstonians.
“There are several communities, folks who either just feel like that’s their lot in life,” Parras said. “Or [that] it is not worth the effort to fight against such a large conglomerate of corporations, politicians … they think it is easier just to work around the things that they can. We have a beautiful culture here, these are tight-knit communities that go back decades; we have a very strong identity. But for most of us, this is all we know, this is normal.”
Parras says that some may feel that because they live in a big city like Houston, rather than in Latin America, they are lucky. “Maybe they are thinking, ‘we do have access to first world living conditions,’ so it’s confusing, there’s some dissonance. That’s why I think folks assume ‘this is the trade-off.’ But for me, there should be no trade-off for your health and quality of life.”
Others have attested to the resignation and exhaustion of communities, even those tired of watching socalled “toxic tour buses” and researchers come through the neighborhoods.
And apparently even the wealthy oilmen of Houston are content with dirty air. Houston has had a nonattainment status—below the standards of air quality deemed acceptable—since the Clean Air Act went into effect in 1975. Meanwhile, the EPA’s monitoring system is weak, both in terms of infrastructure as well as political power, technically allowing polluters to pollute, to contest readings, and to postpone systemic changes. The collective sense of resignation, according to Parras, is hard to change.
On The Impacts of Hurricane Harvey
“The storm went beyond that baseline of ‘normal.’ It was all there for all to see and smell. So right now these people are really thinking a little harder about these impacts, and also about the way the industry and the city and state governments look at them as, as ‘expendable.’” The companies, Parras says, refer to these storm-related toxic releases as “upsets” and “fugitive emissions,” but they do not want to invest in upgrading their facilities. There is still a sense, Parras says, “that not much will be done. But some may have taken note. It played out with the leaks and spills [during Harvey], like the one at the Arkema plant.” Arkema’s petrochemical plant in Crosby, northeast of Houston, exploded during Harvey.
On television, he says, we “saw the company waffle and withhold information, even from the first responders, the law enforcement. It was like the company was seeing who was really the boss and letting it play out on national television. They had to rush several firstresponders to the hospital because they inhaled really nasty stuff, and the company would not even say what they might have inhaled. This is the kind of corporate power these people wield here.”
“People, not just folks here on the East Side, are looking at the last three years: we’ve had two 500-year floods and a 1000-year flood. Rain levels have doubled each time. We know climate change is real. And the speed at which the storms and impact are getting worse is accelerating. The storms are coming much faster than folks can even recover from the last one. And the size, the swath of the storm is growing, exponentially from the storm last year. But most of the people in our barrios are working people, in a disaster they want to get back to normal, get back in my house, get back to work, get back to my daily routine. It’s just a coping mechanism. Maybe the climate is changing but everyone is just trying to get back to normal.” But as Parras said several times in our interview, “normal” is a toxic normal.
Nonetheless, “it is on folks like myself and organizations and our leadership to provide some alternative mechanisms, so that we’re not just acknowledging that there’s a problem but actually doing something about it. That’s even more productive in dealing with trauma, if you can sort some action into individuals’ hands, that is healing and positive, such a beautiful opportunity.”
“Oil men and politicians”—On Texas’ Power Brokers
Parras says that the prospects for alternatives are dim, however, given current power structures in Houston. “Look at our leadership. They just appointed a former Shell CEO [Marvin Odum] as the Recovery Czar of Houston.” The incestuous world of Texas power-brokers—oil-men and politicians who move through revolving doors from one room to the other—now appears set to take advantage of the disaster, as corporate elites did after Katrina in New Orleans. In Houston, Odum will work alongside the city’s Resilience Officer, a position created last year given the onslaught of flooding.
It is perhaps unnecessary to point out the paradox, but in case this too is taken as normal: Shell is one of the top industrial contributors to global-warming, and here we are naming its agents to positions of overseeing recovery. Not only are Houston’s Eastside communities resigned to a toxic normal, it appears that elected officials are equally subjected to the whims of the oil industry. Odum lives far west of Houston, not in its cancer corridor where Shell’s refineries are located.
On Building Resistance
This incapacity to act from within may be significant as the fossil fuel industry maintains a grip on government and a population resigned to the status quo. In many areas impacted by fossil fuel development, characterized by economic dependence, low-intensity toxic violence, and political subjugation, we are hard-pressed to find strong nuclei of resistance. Resistance often must come from the outside. Parras says his own experience probably derived not just from fighting a school on a toxic site with his father, but from having left Houston to go to school in Austin. “It took both of us doing some learning outside of the city. That’s been the difference for me and my dad that has helped us to look at this area in a different light … Coming back I was able to recognize the difference in my own health and also just visually, and in day-to-day living conditions. I had never breathed clean air before. I didn’t know what that was. So, getting out and getting educated let me think a lot about this place, I asked a lot of questions. And when I got back, I started teaching elementary [school] kids and it all just came together.
“Back then climate change was starting to become a dialogue. And I was reading The Atlantic, Harpers, starting to see conversations about it, learning about these systems that regulated the planet, [that] it was alive, almost like it had its own internal heating and cooling system. And this resonated with me, connected me to deeper roots, about how the world operates, about spirituality, and our responsibility to each other and the planet. And now humans had gotten so big that they were able to completely alter the environment, the atmosphere. It was just incredible, now it is terrifying … . It’s scary, really scary, because nobody [in these fossil fuel zones] is thinking about where the [oil and gas] come from, about what we’ve done to the planet, about what it does to the places where it’s extracted, to the people, or to the animals,” he said.
“So with t.e.j.a.s we have done a whole lot to raise the level of awareness. Nature has helped us too by proving us right and giving us clear examples of the dangers. So we have worked with schools and even had some impact at the federal level. We realized that working at the local level wasn’t going to change. Communities weren’t ready yet. The politicians weren’t going to do anything. We needed federal support and federal action. And really this is the basis of environmental justice principles. We are not just fighting for ourselves, we are fighting for everyone. Because change has to happen everywhere or they will just move to another location.” Parras spoke to the importance of making “continental connections with our first nations and indigenous relatives.” He says that t.e.j.a.s has “begun to look internationally, reaching out to join our relatives on these international struggles. We have been to Peru, to Ecuador. We have been to the tar sands … This is important, so that the entire world is on the same page, working toward an end to fossil fuels, more sustainable lifeways, recognition of indigenous rights—these issues are not independent of housing, education, healthy food, all of those things.”
On The Trans-Pecos Pipeline
Parras has translated some of this into a cross-continental form of activism: he has been involved with cross-border struggles to raise awareness and create spaces for direct action around the export of oil and gas from the United States to Mexico. One of these was the Trans-Pecos Pipeline. Built by Energy Transfer Partners, the same company that pushed the Keystone XL Pipeline extension, the Trans-Pecos pipeline bisects the deserts of West Texas, moving surplus oil and gas, invariably from fracking operations. “It is a lot more profitable for them to just export it,” he says, “and these companies are not going to stop ‘til every last little drop or molecule of petrol or fossil fuel is sucked out of the earth.”
Like many pipeline struggles, according to Parras, this one grew around a coalition of white environmentalists, Native peoples, and deeply rooted Mexican and Mexican-Indigenous families across the region. Though inspired by Standing Rock, the conditions in West Texas were challenging. “It’s one of the largest shale [oil and gas] fields in the country. It has been poked and prodded for a hundred years. Look at it on a Google map, and it looks like a computer circuit board. All the drilling pads.”
Parras’ parents’ families are from the West Texas region, now full of towns like Odessa and Midland that have been marked by oil for decades. Yet the movement gained some traction in the town of Alpine, hit less hard by oil and hoping for a different economic future. Locals reached out to the Society of Native Nations and staged a rally in Dallas.
But as the case of the César Chávez High School, the acceleration of the fossil fuel industry, in close collusion with governments doing away with regulatory oversight, was too much and too fast to battle. “There were literally just a few months and the company was set to start digging. And Texas is big. A lot of the folks live in Dallas and Houston, and out to the camp was a trek, a long way. And the property where we set up the camp was even more desolate. It was difficult, tough terrain, the heat, the water, it’s brutal.”
However, the movement was not in vain. “What did come out of it was a closer relation to our relatives in West Texas and the rest of the state. It brought a lot of folks together like Standing Rock. It reinvigorated some anti-fossil fuel sentiment in that part of the state. That’s the heart of Apachería, even though there are no recognized tribes in Texas. The Apache are still considered enemies of the state.” Here Parras was drawing attention to a deeper connection— which we see from north to south. As in Lorena Riffo’s piece on fracking in Argentina in this volume, the territories affected by these incursions are marked by genocidal histories, steeped in racist settler colonialism and its subsequent violences.
The connections between dispossession and destruction—between settler colonialism in the past and oil and gas extraction today, steeped in the logic of a white right to conquer the ever-expanding frontier—are not lost on these communities of resistance. This is why the oil industry and the state collude to erase and destroy a great deal of history. Parras connected this to the struggle against the Dakota Access Pipeline at Standing Rock.
“You know, Standing Rock was really compelling, it was young people moving the elders. It was a history of resistance and betrayal, of the treaties, that made a big difference. That’s hard to replicate anywhere and definitely hard to replicate in Texas.”
On The Future of the Movement
Going forward, Parras hopes that grassroots movements like t.e.j.a.s can find more support from communities and also the “big green institutions” like Sierra Club. As an organizer for a Sierra Club-backed campaign called Beyond Dirty Fuels, Parras acknowledges a shift. “I think [larger NGOs] have recognized a need for supporting grassroots groups, hiring local organizers on the ground. We are building a network of allies from fishing communities to Native Americans, African American communities, immigrant communities, all over the Gulf Coast. It is ground zero for fossil fuel extraction and production and that means plastics, fertilizers, cosmetics, and all of the derivatives—and illnesses—that go hand in hand with the oil and gas industries.
“A lot of folks on the ground feel like they’ve been treated as a lost cause. But now with the storms, with New York getting hit, with Sandy [in 2012], maybe that’s changing. It is not too big to fight any more, and we have to support the folks who have been fighting on the ground, all of the Davids with their stone throwers. We have got to make pathways for the young students to start thinking about this, to demand clean soil, clean water, clean air, we need to learn how to fight these industries. We need to think about a whole new way of living.”