In the shadow of some of the world’s biggest oil refineries, Storm Harvey’s floodwaters have brought dangerous toxins to poor black and Hispanic communities.
Houston is both a centre of the world petrochemical industry and a low-lying region saturated with creeks and rivers. Yet almost uniquely in the US, the city has no zoning laws.
This means homes and even schools, parks and hospitals are routinely built on flood plains, in the refineries’ danger zones—or both.
A series of leaks have released toxic chemicals into the floodwaters. Chemical plant shutdowns have burned more than two million pounds of pollutants into the air.
These include chemicals known to cause cancer or respiratory diseases. As they saturate the local environment after the storm, the health effects could be devastating for years to come.
Yvette Arellano is a researcher for Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services in Manchester, a south-eastern Houston suburb where a mostly Latino population is surrounded by chemical plants.
She told Socialist Worker, “People and communities are scared. There are chemical leaks but they can’t evacuate—they have been told to shelter in place.
“People reported smelling a heavy gas odour after a chemical container leaked in Pasadena near Manchester. In another incident a storage unit burst into flames, struck by lightning.”
She added, “We have been warning for years that this should be a nationwide priority. These containers sit right along the Houston Shipping Canal and they are very vulnerable.”
Alongside leaks, refineries shut down during the storm have diverted gases to be burned off in flares. Yvette said, “During Harvey monitoring was completely shut down. There is no accountability for anything they let out during the storm.”
The people of poisoned places like Manchester are victims of class in two senses.
Firstly, the chemicals don’t affect everyone equally.
Yvette said, “There are communities that are disproportionately affected—predominantly Latino communities, large African American communities and generally low income communities.”
And the pollution reveals the contempt that some of the world’s biggest companies have for the people near them.
Yvette said, “There are billions of dollars flowing into this industry, but there is zero money coming out of it for disaster relief. We are certain that after this disaster they will face little to no penalty, but that they will ask for tax relief.”
Those companies were willing to put their hands in their pockets for lobbying to block attempts to impose round the clock monitoring of their toxic emissions.
They had the active help of the Republican governor of Texas, Greg Abbott. Yvette said, “Abbott continues to deny climate change—and that’s not just dangerous, it’s catastrophic.
“We know that this will only be the first such storm. As bad as this disaster was, if a storm hits the shipping canal and the chemical plants directly it will be far worse. Denying climate change means that we can’t prepare for that.”
US president Donald Trump has tried to project an image of taking the disaster seriously. But people in Manchester feel forgotten.
Yvette said, “There is a national outcry over how gas prices will surge. But the mainstream media really isn’t reporting the toxins being released.
“These sacrifice zones are being left out of the conversation.”