In April, shortly after the third fire at a Houston-area petrochemical facility in 17 days, a woman called me. She was distraught after driving near a dark plume that looked to be from “a war zone.” She had questions about her health, her safety, her community, but could not get answers from officials. Making matters worse, “everyone is acting like this is normal,” she told me.
The tragic reality is that chemical fires and explosions, rogue pollution releases and shelter-in-place orders are all too common in Houston. Our leaders have accepted this as the price of economic prosperity. They say everything is OK, but it’s not. We know it. We feel it. And it keeps us awake at night as we try to come up with answers to our questions, since officials rarely tell it to us straight.
Are we safe? Is it going to keep happening? Is living in Houston worth it?
The frequent disasters force unnecessary mental anguish into our lives, and many have not — and might never — escape it. The physical and mental trauma linger well past the day when the last drop of floodwaters have receded or the smoke has cleared.
The series of chemical fires and explosions clearly inflicted a heavy emotional toll on a city and region already reeling from three 500-year floods in four years. Imelda was the fourth such flood, and like Hurricane Harvey, it caused a separate storm of harmful air pollution, swamped highly contaminated Superfund sites and carried bacteria into homes and schools. The frequency of these threats to our health and safety is not normal, and it is a consequence of the decisions made by elected officials.
It doesn’t have to be like this. We can bring change. It starts by holding leaders accountable. That requires us to seize this moment, organize, and demand change from the people we elect.
We need leaders who will stop the runaway development that places homes in harm’s way and destroys prairies that can act like a sponge during heavy rainfall.
We need leaders who will be tough with the industrial polluters who threaten the health and well-being of our communities.
We need leaders who will end the disproportionate siting of hazardous facilities near the most vulnerable — communities of color, low wealth and recent immigrants — and place them instead far from the places where our children learn and play.
We need leaders who recognize the immense distress communities are feeling because of frequent episodes of trauma — many of which are preventable.
We need leaders who will act on climate change, not deny science.
Simply put, a dark cloud will remain over Houston as long as elected officials protect the status quo.
Hundreds of young Houstonians made that clear with the recent Climate Youth Strike on the steps of City Hall. They called for large-scale and immediate change and demanded that their hometown lead the United States into a carbon-free future.
A day later, I had hoped to hear the mayoral candidates articulate a vision for Houston at the Coalition for Environment, Equity, and Resilience’s forum on environmental justice. The coalition, formed after Hurricane Harvey wreaked havoc across the Texas coast, is working to transform how we think about pollution, place and public health. With the exception of a few insightful comments, the common sentiment has been that the candidates supplied a heavy dose of lackluster platitudes about the actions they would take.
We need more from them because the problem is so large, so systemic. Everyone suffers when our representatives make shortsighted decisions rather than take bold actions to prevent — or at least, reduce the damage from — future disasters. But these events always bring longtime inequities into sharper focus and highlight the need for accelerating efforts in communities of color and low-income neighborhoods — the places where there is the greatest danger from the health impacts of air pollution. It is long overdue that we cast our ballots only for those who demonstrate a commitment to our health and environment.
It’s time for Houston to work for everyone — every color, every income, every faith, every child, every family, every community — and that starts with actions that respect our shared home.
The threats posed by climate change and industrial air pollution to the future of our health, our environment and to our economic prosperity, impact all of us. And they’re here. We have always been able to come together as Houstonians when faced with a crisis. Now’s the time.
This article originally appeared in the Houston Chronicle.
Nelson is executive director of Air Alliance Houston.
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