By Howard Witt
Tribune senior correspondent
July 29, 2007
It was an ideal neighborhood, except for the coughing spells, the nosebleeds, the burning odors and the acrid smoke.
Marroquin's family, like most everyone else in the neighborhood, did their best to ignore all that, because few could afford to move anywhere else. And they tried not to notice the dozens of oil refineries, petrochemical plants and waste disposal sites expanding all around them, their towering smokestacks and huge storage tanks lining the Houston Ship Channel, the city's principal outlet to the sea.
But then the cancers started to appear. First the neighbor in back, then another across the street, then a boy down the block. And finally, in 2003, Marroquin's son, Valentin, came down with leukemia at age 6.
The reality of living in the city's most toxic industrial zone -- in the middle of the largest concentration of petrochemical plants in the United States -- grew inescapable.
"The factories say they were here first, and I understand that," said Marroquin, 27, an apartment leasing agent who has lived in Manchester her whole life. "I understand that we need all this industry for our nation's economy. But when you look at the pain of a child in the hospital, why can't these plants do something better, invest more money in pollution controls?"
That is a question that Houston officials, environmental activists and neighborhood residents are grappling with in the wake of an alarming public health study released this year by the University of Texas School of Public Health. The study showed that children living within 2 miles of the heavily industrialized Houston Ship Channel, like Valentin Marroquin, have a 56 percent greater risk of contracting acute lymphocytic leukemia than children living farther away -- a risk that epidemiologists found was associated with some of the toxic pollutants released by petrochemical plants in the area.
A national trend
But such health risks are not just a local issue. Some environmental experts say the affected Houston neighborhoods, which are more than 90 percent Hispanic, illustrate a discriminatory national trend they call "environmental racism" in which hazardous polluting industries are routinely located closer to minority neighborhoods than white ones.
"All communities are not created equal," said Robert Bullard, director of the Environmental Justice Resource Center at Clark Atlanta University, who has been documenting racial and environmental disparities for more than 20 years. "If a community is low-income and comprised mostly of people of color, it generally gets more than its fair share of those things that people don't want."
For example, one analysis of data collected by the federal Environmental Protection Agency, conducted by The Associated Press in 2005, found that blacks are 79 percent more likely than whites to live in neighborhoods where industrial pollution is suspected of posing the greatest health danger.
Another study, released by Bullard in March, ranked the top 10 metropolitan areas in the U.S. with the largest number of minorities living in neighborhoods that contain hazardous waste facilities. Houston was second, behind only Los Angeles, featuring 10 such neighborhoods where the total population is more than 78 percent minority. (Chicago ranked fifth, with nine neighborhoods containing hazardous waste facilities where the total minority population is nearly 72 percent.)
The very concept of environmental racism is vigorously disputed by officials of the petrochemical industry, who say that in many cases, the plants were there long before residential neighborhoods grew up around them.
"The petrochemical facilities in the Houston Ship Channel region were established during World War II in areas that were very unpopulated at that time," said Christina Wisdom, general counsel for the Texas Chemical Council, an industry trade association. "There is no evidence that industry has intentionally targeted those neighborhoods, and frankly, it's not true."
But environmental justice activists say that communities like Manchester end up hosting so many refineries, petrochemical plants and other hazardous industries largely as a function of economics and politics.
The presence of such industrial sites in a neighborhood sharply depresses residential property values, which attracts families earning the lowest incomes. And the presence of low-income families, many of them minorities who often lack political clout, in turn makes it easier for hazardous industries to locate or expand nearby without opposition.
That is particularly true in Manchester, which the Census Bureau puts at 25,174, but which local residents say is larger because of the presence of uncounted illegal immigrants.
"It's very easy for industry and the politicians to wear down these communities because they don't believe they have a right to anything better, and many people are afraid to come forward and complain," said Rosalia Guerrero-Luera, community outreach coordinator for Mothers for Clean Air, a Houston environmental group. "But it isn't like this is a normal problem and it will just smell for a little while. This will affect these children living here for their whole lives."
"Normal" for children in Manchester means an elementary school where the principal routinely locks the children inside to "shelter in place" when the air outside grows too foul, and a new neighborhood high school built a few hundred yards from the flaming smokestacks of a petrochemical plant.
Yet fighting the toxic health threats along the Houston Ship Channel is made even harder by the fact that most of the industrial plants are not breaking any state or federal pollution laws. Neither the federal EPA nor the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality has established emissions limits for many of the toxic air pollutants, such as benzene and butadiene, that are released by the refineries and chemical plants in the area and that epidemiologists suspect are causing the increased cancer rates.
"In the absence of federal ambient air standards for toxics, states are allowed to set their own," said Elena Marks, director of health and environmental policy for the city of Houston. "Many states have done that. Texas has not."
Frustrated by the state's refusal to set and enforce new pollution limits, Houston Mayor Bill White wants to fill the void by expanding the city's nuisance laws to impose stiff fines on industrial plants that do not reduce their toxic emissions.
"Nobody should have the right to chemically alter air they don't own, breathed by other people, in a way that poses significant health risks," said White, a popular Democrat who is running uncontested for his third two-year term.
Industries fight back
But White faces strong opposition from the petrochemical industry, whose leaders point to progress they have made in recent years in voluntarily reducing emissions of some carcinogens. And state and regional officials question Houston's jurisdictional right to regulate the plants, some located just outside the city's borders.
As a compromise -- and a way to avoid what would likely be years of legal challenges to any new ordinance -- White agreed to the formation of an industry-government commission to study more voluntary emissions reductions. The commission is due to issue its report soon, but White warns that he will resurrect his proposed ordinance if the voluntary plan lacks teeth.
Dan Wolterman, president of Houston's Memorial Hermann Hospital and chairman of the commission, said the group has discovered through its research that reducing toxic emissions, though expensive, is well within the technological capabilities of the plants.
"It's very clear if you look at best practices by these same organizations that they have some better emissions results elsewhere in other states," Wolterman said. "So we asked them, what would it take to get the Houston region to the place where you would do here what you do elsewhere?"
Rosario Marroquin, for one, says she's not going to wait around to find out.
Valentin, who is now 10, is in remission after intensive chemotherapy for his leukemia. But his mother worries that every time the boy and his young siblings drink water from a tap in their home or breathe the air outside, they face dire risks.
"We have to get out," said Marroquin. "We are not going to be able to afford it, but we have to leave. I don't want the tiniest particle triggering his leukemia again."