Earth Day 2022: How TEJAS fights for environmental justice in the Houston borough of Manchester

HOUSTON, Texas (KTRK) – The Houston borough of Manchester is east of the 610 Loop. According to the Texas State Historical Association, the community was established in the early 1860s, and by the 1970s the area became fully industrial. It now sits on the 52-mile Houston Ship Channel and is surrounded by refineries.

Nallali Hidalgo, who works as an education liaison with Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services (TEJAS), explains what the area used to look like.

“It was more than likely an open field with native plants and trees, a beautiful ecosystem where you could only hear the birds and wildlife outside. Now you can hear the train tracks and noises from the facilities. There’s so much noise pollution,” she said.

Juan Parras founded TEJAS with his wife Ana in 1995 to advocate for environmental justice in marginalized communities. They work closely with Manchester residents who are predominantly Hispanic and live within walking distance of these chemical plants. After decades of working as an activist, Parras says not enough is being done to protect these residents in the event of a deadly blast.

“Low-income communities, communities of color, are always dumped if they want to build a refinery, a chemical plant, or anything that pollutes a community. They generally go into what they call ‘areas of least resistance,'” he said. “There are schools nearby that we are seriously concerned about. On a personal level, I would say my wife is affected. She has breathing problems and occasionally has to step on an oxygen tank.”

Parras is also concerned about the health hazards these chemical plants may pose to Manchester residents. According to a University of Texas study, children living within two miles of the Houston Ship Channel have a 56 percent higher risk of developing leukemia than children living within 10 miles.

Hidalgo says many are choosing not to move from the area because they either don’t have the resources to do so or don’t understand the seriousness of the risks.

“So often it is not perceived as a dangerous place. You don’t grow up thinking that your home or your surroundings are harmful,” she said. “Nobody should be outside in a playground sitting in a dangerous zone. It is therefore important to advocate for reforms and policies such as the RMP rule that would force facilities to look at new technologies and processes that do not involve hazardous chemicals.”

Some of TEJAS’ accomplishments include TCEQ’s implementation of translation services and their partnership with Furr High School to make it the premier environmental justice school in the United States. According to Hidalgo, TEJAS focuses on public education efforts and works with research organizations to provide the community with data-backed information and empower them to speak up.

“We advise community members not to let this normalize. If you live in a heavy industrial location, you can get used to the smells or the incidents that happen,” Hidalgo said. “There are often barriers that don’t allow these communities to fully engage. One is language and another is status. Will there be any impact on you and your family if you have industry connections?”

She says they also spend a lot of time lobbying elected officials for change and lobbying environmental agencies for policy and reform.

“Leaders and groups often react to a situation, particularly in chemical and natural disasters, rather than deal with it proactively and meaningfully. We want to prevent these incidents from happening in advance,” she said.

But Parras says this is something he and his wife can’t do forever. That’s why they’re building the next generation of environmental activists like Hidalgo.

“I don’t want to call myself a leader. But once the leaders of the institutions fight for justice… once we leave, everything just dies out, right? And the environment will never end. So we have to make sure that someone else will carry the torch and fight for environmental justice,” he said. “What gives us hope is that we see other communities across the country that are successfully tackling their environmental problems, the industry too pull themselves together and say they will change the way they operate.”

Parras says their goal isn’t to shut down those refineries for good. But they are pushing for a switch to safer chemicals. They also want environmental agencies to implement a resettlement plan for those living on the border of these facilities. Hidalgo says they would like refinery workers to be fairly trained and transferred to cleaner, safer jobs, rather than being fired once their job is no longer needed.

For more information on the Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services, visit their website.

For more on this story, follow Rosie Nguyen on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

Copyright © 2022 KTRK-TV. All rights reserved. Earth Day 2022: How TEJAS fights for environmental justice in the Houston borough of Manchester

Dais Johnston

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