What Portland’s smoky summer can do for air quality equity across the country

Environmental advocates in Houston and Detroit are striking a balance between acting fast and making lasting change.

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SOURCEYes! Magazine

September in Portland, Oregon, usually brings a slight chill to the air and an orange tinge to the leaves. This year, it brought smoke so thick it burned your throat and made your eyes strain to see more than 20 feet in front of you.

As historic wildfires burned more than 1 million acres and displaced more than 40,000 people in Oregon, photos of the red haze cloaking the Pacific Northwest were spotlighted on national newscasts and ogled on social media. Portland’s air quality was the worst in the world for several days, peaking at an Air Quality Index of 486 on Sept. 13. In comparison, the mean AQI in September in Beijing, known for its smoggy skies, was 77. Just a year before, in September 2019, Portland enjoyed an average AQI more typical for the city: 22.

The hazardous air of the 2020 fires brought a new awareness of air quality issues in areas that don’t normally have to think about them. It prompted fresh conversations about climate change, too: A Multnomah County news release called the wildfires a “full-on disaster siren that climate change is fully here.”

But when the rain finally came on September 19 and cleared the air, Portlanders rejoiced in the ability to breathe deeply again. The climate conversation and talk of air quality slowly but surely fell out of the news cycle, replaced with the election and the pandemic.

But what about the communities whose air is filled with dangerous emissions every day without the drama of an apocalyptic glow? What about the people who don’t get the reprieve of a breath of fresh air? Poor air quality can be seen in metro areas across the U.S., but the distribution of that burden overwhelmingly falls on communities of color.

Communities in Texas and Michigan are home to some of the most polluted air in the country, but they are also home to groups that are fiercely fighting for—and making—change.

Manchester United

Houston is known as the energy capital of America, but that title comes with industrial refineries and chemical plants that release toxic emissions into the air. Having grown up in East Houston, near smokestacks and petrochemical plants, Bryan Parras knows this particular toxic air well. He now works for the Sierra Club as a healthy community organizer and environmental justice advocate. His job is to identify local issues and leverage Sierra Club resources to address them most effectively.

A petrochemical plant in La Porte, Texas, a city east of Houston, on March 18, 2019. Photo by Paul Harris/Getty Images.

“In some ways you’re like a triage doctor, stopping the bleeding and dressing wounds,” Parras explains. “In that process, you learn about the policy decisions that have led to things to begin with. You begin to understand the dynamics that people are dealing with, and you get a deeper grasp of the intersections of housing, environment, immigration status, and all these things.”

Those intersections are clear in an ongoing case against Valero Energy, a midsize oil refinery that produces 235,000 barrels of oil and petroleum products per day in Houston’s Manchester neighborhood. Valero applied for a permit to emit poisonous hydrogen cyanide in its refining process in March 2018. To fight back, Manchester community representatives are seeking party status during the permit hearings with the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. According to the CDC, exposure to this chemical asphyxiant interferes with nearly every organ in the body, especially the brain, heart, and lungs, and can be fatal in high concentrations.

The toxin is better known in other contexts. Hydrogen cyanide has been used for lethal injection and is the primary component of Zyklon B, the gas used for mass murder in Nazi WWII gas chambers. Parras says Valero has long been emitting hydrogen cyanide into the air in the Manchester community, but the amount is unclear because the emission was only discovered, or revealed, after a change in EPA requirements during the Obama administration.

The permit request is for 512 tons of hydrogen cyanide per year. To put that number in context, community leaders and elected officials in Denver were appalled when the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment imposed a new limit that allowed nearly 13 tons of hydrogen cyanide to be emitted in 2018.

The permit request in Houston caught the attention of Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services (t.e.j.a.s.), an organization aiming to provide Texas communities with environmental and legislative expertise to advocate for environmental justice. The group’s co-directors, Juan and Ana Parras, founded the group in 1995. Bryan Parras is their son and a member of the t.e.j.a.s. board of directors.

“[Valero] were releasing without a permit for over 10 years,” Ana says. “These people are just being dumped upon.”

The Valero Energy oil refinery near the Houston Ship Channel, part of the Port of Houston, on March 6, 2019, in Houston. Photo by Loren Elliot/AFP/Getty Images.

Houstonians Can’t Breathe

Manchester is one of Houston’s oldest neighborhoods. It is surrounded on three sides by a chemical plant, synthetic rubber plant, oil refineries, and a car-crushing facility, all of which belly up to the Houston Ship Channel, one of the busiest seaports in the world. The fourth side is a train yard.

2019 study commissioned by Air Alliance Houston, an environmental advocacy organization, found that the city’s polluting facilities are routinely clustered in and around communities where most of the residents are people of color, or where more than 30% of households are considered low-income. Manchester qualifies as both. As of 2015, 82% of Manchester residents are Hispanic, 14% are Black, and 3% are White. Some 41% of residents make $25,000 or less per year.

The Valero Energy plant is just two blocks from nearby residential homes—or “fence line communities” as Ana and Juan Parras describe them. A 2016 study from the Union of Concerned Scientists found that 90.2% of the Manchester population lives within 1 mile of at least one regulated industrial facility. The EPA estimates that each year, these types of facilities have about 150 catastrophic releases, which can be fires, explosions, or emissions that pose immediate and significant danger to people and the environment.

The same study also found the Manchester neighborhood’s respiratory hazard index to be 2.56. That far exceeds the EPA’s acceptable level, which is less than 1.0. In comparison, Portland, Oregon, has an average respiratory hazard index of 0.57.

T.e.j.a.s and two other community representatives have received standing in the administrative hearings for the Valero permit moving forward. But Ana Parras anticipates the case lasting well into 2021, and all the while, Valero continues to emit hydrogen cyanide unrestricted.

Pushing Back Against Discrimination

On a faster track is the Title VI language justice case t.e.j.a.s. filed against the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.

Title VI prohibits discrimination based on race, color, and national origin in programs that receive federal assistance. Many of the notifications for the community hearings for the Valero case were in English only, even though 70% of Manchester residents speak Spanish at home. Also, because there weren’t adequate translators, Spanish-speaking parents would bring their bilingual children—some as young as 7 years old—to the hearings to translate for them. 

In this case, t.e.j.a.s. is asking that all notifications be translated into languages congruent with the community demographics, not just the first notification as stated under the current rule.

“In an unprecedented two weeks, we had a hearing,” Ana says.

The case has the potential to change the national EPA rules, in addition to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality rule.

“The system is hard to change,” Juan says, but if t.e.j.a.s. and other organizers stop fighting these systemic environmental ills, he says, the fence line communities will suffer even greater losses. “Community is always first.”

Environmental Justice Hot Spots

In Michigan, organizers with the Michigan Environmental Justice Coalition are using scientific research to find and calculate the impact of environmental racism in their state’s fence line communities. For years, MEJC members had been showing up to permit hearings for industrial polluters, mobilizing and providing support for the various communities that were at risk. After a while, the coalition realized a flaw in the permitting system.

“We recognized that these permits were not being considered in relationship to each other,” says Jamesa Johnson-Greer, the climate justice director at MEJC. “So, when an air permit is considered for nitrous oxide, for example, that’s only considered for that one entity, and that’s not considering the fact that these polluting facilities might by near other polluting facilities that are also emitting the same nitrous oxide.” Those facilities are often concentrated in and around low-income neighborhoods of color.

The Marathon Oil Refinery close to the southwesternmost border of Detroit. In 2013, state representative Rashida Tlaib independently tested a toxic substance that was polluting the air and Detroit River called petroleum coke, or petcoke, proving it was harmful. As a result, the then-mayor of Detroit, Dave Bing, stepped in and made Marathon properly store the petcoke piles so they wouldn’t continue to pollute the neighborhoods and river. Photo by Nick Hagen/The Washington Post/Getty Images.

The coalition commissioned a cumulative impact study by the University of Michigan School for Environment and Sustainability. Researchers assigned an environmental justice score for each census tract in the state based on social, demographic, and environmental data.

In 2019, the researchers reported hot spots of environmental injustice—communities around the state experiencing compounding impacts from 11 environmental factors, including the respiratory hazard index, diesel exposure, air toxics cancer risks, nearby hazardous waste facilities and regulated industrial facilities, as well as traffic proximity. Unsurprisingly, those hot spots were disproportionately clustered in communities of color that had higher levels of poverty, unemployment, and educational attainment (the percent of the population over 25 without a high school diploma) than the statewide average.

The report confirmed some of what MEJC already knew, such as the intense air pollution in southwest Detroit, particularly the 48217 ZIP code, which is surrounded by more than two dozen industrial polluting facilities. The environmental justice scores around Detroit were as high as 87 out of 100. But there were also surprises, according to Johnson-Greer, like the fact that Grand Rapids, Michigan, had the highest EJ score in the state: 93.99. And despite the egregious water issues in Flint, Genesee County, where the city is located, didn’t even make the top 10% of census tracts.

“That actually influenced the way we did our work this year,” Johnson-Greer says, “recognizing that we needed to go and talk to people in those areas who have been doing work around environmental justice or social justice and see what the issues were on the ground.”

Volunteers help distribute water at Asbury United Methodist Help Center in Flint, Michigan, on Oct. 20, 2020. Authorities say Flint’s water meets federal safety guidelines, outperforming comparable cities. Residents remain unconvinced. Photo by Seth Herald/AFP/Getty Images.

By developing relationships with environmental advocates in Grand Rapids, MEJC learned that the town has a long history of logging and paper mills, considered one of the most polluting industries in the world because of the high concentration of chemicals in the wastewater. Johnson-Greer says that recognizing the patterns and similarities across the EJ hot spots throughout the state can help highlight the weaknesses—and, thus, the starting points for equitable environmental transitions—in statewide and national environmental policies.

In particular, she points to the importance of “prioritizing those communities that are most vulnerable and recognizing that those are the communities that we need to start resourcing immediately, because they have probably also been most under-resourced and have also been left behind in past policies.”

A Shift in the Collective Consciousness

For Bakeyah Nelson, the executive director of Air Alliance Houston, putting the most affected communities’ needs first means using a diversity of tactics. Air Alliance Houston supports community interests by advocating for long-term legislative solutions, like developing industrial zoning laws in Houston, and by responding as-needed to threats against local communities’ air quality, such as monitoring permits for new concrete batch plants so they can alert the nearby residents of their options to fight the permit.

“In advocacy, I would say there is no one size fits all,” Nelson says. “It can be proactive; we can work with groups and coalitions to put forth state level legislation to try to prevent concrete batch plants from being placed near neighborhoods. But, on a day-to-day basis, it’s more reactive in that we are tracking the permits; we see a permit and then we respond.”

With limited time and resources, striking an effective balance of reactive and proactive responses can be a challenge, says Bryan Parras of the Sierra Club. But Parras is inspired by the community he serves, as well as the overall shift in public conversation he’s seen around pollution and climate change over the past few years. While affluent White communities are typically untouched by environmental racism, they are now facing the unavoidable sign of climate change, as was the case with Portland in this year’s wildfires. That can prompt powerful empathy and is moving the needle toward action on environmental justice.

“Despite all of the problems, you see some real change happening in the collective consciousness,” Parras says. “There is a growth, a renaissance of activism and participation in civic life that is really beautiful to see.”

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