TEXAS VIEW: Houston knows Beto O’Rourke is rightTHE POINT: Environmental racism is real here and throughout America.

Democratic presidential candidate and former Texas Congressman Beto O’Rourke raised a few eyebrows recently by claiming that, “Race is the No. 1 indicator for where toxic and polluting facilities are today.”
Politifact Texas rated the claim “mostly true,” citing several studies that say race is a stronger indicator than income or property value in determining who is more likely to live near hazardous waste facilities and plants coughing out pollution.
In too many Houston neighborhoods, residents don’t need a study to tell them they fit O’Rourke’s description. They know their health is at risk because they can smell it in the air they breathe. That includes residents of the Harrisburg/Manchester community, just south of the Houston Ship Channel, where 97% of residents are people of color and 37% live in poverty.
The Environmental Protection Agency says 90% of Harris/Manchester residents live within a mile of a facility considered at high risk for a “catastrophic” industrial accident.
The advocacy group Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services, or TEJAS, includes Harrisburg/Manchester in its “environmental racism” tours of Houston. Julianne Crawford, a Stanford student who took the tour, described the small neighborhood of about 55 homes as “desolate, wrought by pollution and poverty.”
Twenty years ago, labor organizer Steve Lerner coined the term “sacrifice zones” to describe communities such as Harrisburg/Manchester, where residents of low-income and typically brown and black communities are disproportionately affected by pollution, contamination, toxic waste and heavy industry.
A connection between race and environmental hazards was further confirmed by research published in March by the National Academy of Sciences, which concluded that on average, non-Hispanic whites encounter far less air pollution, relative to their consumption of goods and services, than blacks and Hispanics, respectively.
The recent fire at the Intercontinental Terminals Company storage facility in Deer Park illustrated the danger to largely minority communities nearby. A smoky, black cloud lingered for three days. Complaints of headaches, dizziness, confusion and vomiting gave way to fears of cancer, nervous system deterioration, memory loss and brain damage.
Sometimes, environmental complaints are countered with the argument that the industrial sites arrived in a neighborhood first, before the suffering residents made it their home. Even when that’s true, it’s not as important as asking how or if they should continue to be neighbors. Now that they do have human neighbors, the industries need to operate safely, no matter how long they’ve existed. It’s the job of government regulators to make sure they do. Unfortunately, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality too often has failed to adequately regulate the petrochemical industry and at times has impeded local efforts to protect public health.
O’Rourke was right to remind us that the fruit of TCEQ’s languor, intended or not, has been racist, given that minorities have suffered from the pollution disproportionately. Fortunately, correcting the problem does not require a race-based remedy. It requires a stronger commitment by TCEQ to police dangerous facilities anywhere that break environmental rules. It requires local governments’ continued insistence that they help protect residents everywhere from environmental lawbreakers when the TCEQ won’t.
If we can’t count on TCEQ or other regulators to keep neighborhoods safe, regardless of residents’ race or proximity to industry, then America will have to reassess its continued reliance on those chemicals and fuels whose production puts the health and lives of too many people at an unreasonable risk.