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Petro Metro: A Toxic Tour of Houston From Refineries to Superfund Sites in Wake of Harvey

A “toxic tour” of Houston’s fenceline communities.

In Texas, the devastation from Hurricane Harvey continues. At least 63 people have died, more than 40,000 homes have been lost, and as many 1 million cars have been destroyed. Meanwhile, the long-term environmental impact of the storm is just beginning to be felt. The Center for Biological Diversity reports flooded oil refineries and chemical plants released as much as 5 million pounds of pollutants into the air during the storm. On Friday night, another large fire broke out at the flooded Arkema chemical plant in Crosby, Texas. Then, on Sunday, authorities set fire to six remaining containers of chemicals in what was described as a controlled burn. The company continues to refuse to inform local residents of what chemicals burned at the site. For more, Democracy Now!’s Amy Goodman, Renée Feltz and Hany Massoud take a “toxic tour” of Houston’s fenceline communities, led by environmental justice organizer Bryan Parras.


AMY GOODMAN: We turn now to Texas, where the death toll continues to rise from Hurricane Harvey. At least 63 people have now died in the unprecedented flooding. The damage caused by the storm is staggering. More than 40,000 homes have been lost, as many as a million cars destroyed. Meanwhile, the long-term environmental impact of the storm is just beginning to be felt. The Center for Biological Diversity reports flooded oil refineries and chemical plants released as much as 5 million pounds of pollutants into the air during the storm. On Friday night, another large fire broke out at the flooded Arkema chemical plant in Crosby, Texas. Then, on Sunday, authorities set fire to six remaining containers of chemicals in what was described as a controlled burn. The company continues to refuse to inform local residents what chemicals burned at the site.

Well, this weekend, Democracy Now! headed to Texas. I went there with Democracy Now!’s Renée Feltz and Hany Massoud — both are from Houston. We went to get a closer look at the environmental and public health impact of Hurricane Harvey and related flooding. Houston, the Petro Metro, is home to a quarter of the petroleum refining capacity in the United States; include the entire Gulf Coast, and the percentage increases to half. Some of the major refineries in the region are run by ExxonMobil, Valero and the Saudi-owned Motiva. This weekend, we took a “toxic tour” of the facilities along the Houston Ship Channel, where plants spewed toxins into the air of nearby neighborhoods, so often poor communities of color. Our guide was Bryan Parras, organizer with the Sierra Club’s Beyond Dirty Fuels campaign and t.e.j.a.s., Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services.

Our visit came as the number of people who have died from Harvey rose to at least 63, including the first reported death of a volunteer rescuer, who was also a recipient of DACA, the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. The body of Alonso Guillén was found Friday, after he disappeared Wednesday when his boat hit a bridge and capsized. His mother told the Houston Chronicle she tried to come from Mexico to the US to bury her son but was turned away by Border Patrol agents. She said, “When we are with God, there are no borders.”

As we begin our toxic tour in Houston, we stop by a fundraiser that was set up to pay for the funerals of four undocumented rescue volunteers who were killed when their small boat was swept away by churning floodwaters last Monday and ran into downed power lines. They were electrocuted — brothers Yahir Vizueth and Benjamin Vizueth, their uncle Gustavo Rodríguez-Hernández and their friend Jorge Pérez, electrocuted when they fell into the water. Another brother, José, survived, along with two British Daily Mail journalists who were also on the boat to document the rescue missions. All of them suffered severe burns. They clung to trees until they were discovered the next day, some 18 hours later. At Sunday’s fundraiser, we spoke to family member Stepheny Jacquez.

STEPHENY JACQUEZ: On Monday, around 3 p.m. — well, started that morning — they were out rescuing people, a group of five men. They went out on a different part of town to save families affected. There wasn’t enough, you know, boats on the water. They had a boat. They said, “Why not? We can help. We want to help.” They saved a total of seven people, two families.

Then they heard that on the east side of town, towards Normandy and Wallisville, it was getting flooded horribly. So they said, “Well, now we’re heading that way to see what we can do and how we can help.” On the way over there, they were trying to cross a bayou, and they lost control of the boat. I’m not exactly sure the details, but they lost control, of what we’ve heard, and wrecked with an electricity pole. They had to jump out of the boat. And when they jumped in the water, they all got electrocuted. Three of them were saved the next day at 11 in the morning.

AMY GOODMAN: And those three were the — José, the brother —

STEPHENY JACQUEZ: José Vizueth was saved. Two reporters from the Daily News U.K. were also saved.

AMY GOODMAN: Daily Mail?

STEPHENY JACQUEZ: Daily Mail. They were saved. They were also on the boat. Within the next day or so, we heard news of Yahir being found, one of the other brothers, one of the three brothers on the boat. Jorge was also found. And we were still missing two. They were found on Thursday. We took it upon ourselves. We gathered a search group, the family. There was around a hundred people in that search. Around 3 p.m., we found Gustavo behind a neighborhood. And the search continued. We were still missing one more, and he was found by boat.

ELIZABETH BARNABY: Hi. My name is Elizabeth Barnaby. These four guys were undocumented. You know, they didn’t have papers. That’s true. And they didn’t care. They still risked their lives, and they saved a lot of lives.

RENÉE FELTZ: So, we’re going to leave this fundraiser and get back in a car and head out on our toxic tour with Bryan Parras.

BRYAN PARRAS: So there are some relatives that are undocumented. And, you know, we’re fearful of any attention that they would draw to themselves by asking for help. And we’re in Texas. You know, people are very proud, don’t like to ask for help. But we need it. We all need it right now. Yeah, so, we’re in Denver Harbor right now, and it’s just north of Buffalo Bayou.

AMY GOODMAN: So, we’re going to continue from here, from this just terrible story of four young — four heroes who were killed as they were trying to save people, for you to take us on this toxic tour of Houston.

BRYAN PARRAS: Yeah. I mean, you know, this isn’t normally a stop. You know, I think this is emblematic of the very, very strong part of these neighborhoods.

We’re just driving on 610, and this is the on-ramp. We’re going north right now. And what you’re looking at is Manchester. This is the beginning of the Petro Metro, Amy. You know, this goes on for 30-plus miles, all the way to Galveston Bay, and then it even wraps around Galveston Bay to Texas City and then to Baytown, another, you know, onwards to Port Arthur, Beaumont.

AMY GOODMAN: And can you talk about what’s happened to this industry in the midst of Harvey?

BRYAN PARRAS: Yeah. So, a lot of these plants had to go into emergency shutdown prior to the storm coming. And that’s a precautionary move, but it’s one that they know is going to happen, particularly if a hurricane is coming. And over the years, they’ve done nothing, you know, to prevent the toxic release of the chemicals that are sent out while these shutdowns are happening.

AMY GOODMAN: This area didn’t get flooded?

BRYAN PARRAS: This area, I don’t believe, got flooded. Yeah, it was OK. But the smells from all of the burn-off from many, many refineries is something that they had to contend with. And it’s something, you know, I could smell, even two miles from here.

This is Westway, yeah, and these are storage tanks. And I’m not sure what they have in here, you know? A lot of times it’s really hard to know what these facilities are doing. As we saw with the Crosby situation, they oftentimes claim that because of terroristic threats, it’s better to not inform the community. Yeah, we have folks who don’t really know what all of the threats are. And throughout the day, you know, they have to hear alarms and bells, and things go off that worry them. You know, they cause undue stress and anxiety.

We just passed by a house completely surrounded by tanks. And across the street is Hartman Park. And this is the only green space for the neighborhood here. And so, across from the park, literally, one street, is Valero, Valero refining.

So I’m going to stop here. And this is a friend of ours. Yudith Nieto’s grandmother lives here. And during the storm, I was getting messages from her aunt, because they were really concerned about the Crosby plant and how that might affect things here. And, of course, they were having to deal with the toxic fumes, as well. So I promised I would bring them some masks.

AMY GOODMAN: The smell here is pretty intense.

BRYAN PARRAS: Yeah, this is — this is every day, too. And this isn’t even as bad as it gets. You know, it’s intense. Yeah, and this is why I said, Amy, you know, this is the everyday poison that people have to breathe.

AMY GOODMAN: Is this every day, the smell in the air?

MARIA NIETO: [translated] Yeah, it’s very normal. Lately, they’ve been feeling it more so with the — in the nose, and the eyes get teary. It’s very normal for that type of reaction to occur with them. So they usually wear store-bought masks that are not necessarily as prepared for this type of exposure.

AMY GOODMAN: Did they warn you when they closed this plant down that more toxins would be going into the air?


MARIA NIETO: [translated] No one from the refineries or the spaces have told them. They found out during the TVs that they watch and family members that are on the lookout and let them know.

AMY GOODMAN: So, you just delivered masks to the Nietos in the shadow of Valero, this massive plant here in Houston.

BRYAN PARRAS: Yeah. You know, it’s shameful and really, really upsetting to think that families who live here have to make modifications and change the way they live, to shelter in place in your own home, Amy, to have masks on hand and to have painful reactions to just breathing, you know, the itchy eyes, the throats, the headaches, and that that’s an everyday experience.

RENÉE FELTZ: We’re going to exit our car here and approach some men who look like they’re working on fuel pipes that go over a bridge.

AMY GOODMAN: So, we’re going down to where they’re fixing the bridge and pipelines right around these facilities. Hi. You guys working on the pipeline or the bridge?

PIPELINE WORKER 1: The pipeline.

AMY GOODMAN: The pipeline. Getting it ready to go back online?

PIPELINE WORKER 1: Yes, ma’am.

AMY GOODMAN: What does it look like. What kind of damage did it have?

PIPELINE WORKER 1: Just real minimal, but we can’t comment.

AMY GOODMAN: What happened? What was the damage?

PIPELINE WORKER 1: We really can’t comment. I apologize. It was all from the storm, though.


PIPELINE WORKER 2: Storm water.

AMY GOODMAN: So, what role do you think climate change has to do with all of this?

PIPELINE WORKER 3: How much we sweat.


AMY GOODMAN: Do you think that would be a good place to start, to start dealing with?

PIPELINE WORKER 3: Nah. Save your money.

AMY GOODMAN: Are you guys working for Valero?

ENTERPIPE CONTRACTOR: No, for — we’ve been a contractor for Enterpipe, and we’re working with some job for Enterprise.

AMY GOODMAN: What’s wrong with the pipeline? What happened?

ENTERPIPE CONTRACTOR: Oh, well, just the water goes too high, and we moved the pipe over with the — over the — this pipe, we’ve got to set up. We move it over, and we’re trying to put it back in place.

AMY GOODMAN: Oh, because the water pushed it over?




AMY GOODMAN: Are they going to be able to turn back the pipe — turn the pipelines back on soon?

ENTERPIPE CONTRACTOR: Oh, yeah, pretty soon, maybe in an hour or two. We’re going to be —

AMY GOODMAN: In an hour or two?

ENTERPIPE CONTRACTOR: In an hour or two, we’re going to be the same like it is before.

RENÉE FELTZ: We’ve heard that the factories and the refineries you’re showing us shut down, and that was dangerous, but now they’re starting it back up. Is that also dangerous?

BRYAN PARRAS: Yeah. The same thing that happened during the shutdown is going to happen again during the startup. And I don’t know how long that startup process lasts. But if you can imagine all of the liquids that are in the pipes that feed into the facilities, you know, all that’s going to have to get turned back on, and it’s going to take a good while for, you know, the system to be properly sort of running as it normally does. A lot of these facilities are not meant to ever stop. They just keep going. And so, that’s what causes, you know, the dirty burns and the problems — not to think that it’s safe at all when it’s running, you know, normally. It’s still putting toxins into the air. But when these other events, shutdowns and startups, happen, it’s even worse.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Bryan Parras of the [Beyond] Dirty Fuels campaign of Sierra Club, taking us on our toxic tour of the Houston Ship Channel, which continues in a minute.

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