Galena Park High School teacher Andree Torres says his students "have tools now where they can take pictures and tell the world, 'This is what we’re breathing.'"

The sirens of Galena Park

January 13th, 2020

Galena Park High School teacher Andree Torres says his students "have tools now where they can take pictures and tell the world, 'This is what we’re breathing.'"

The best way in and out of Galena Park is Clinton Drive.

But towering petrochemical facilities lurk next to the busy four-lane road. Their flares lick at the sky. One facility, owned by National Oilwell Varco, is soon suspending operations and laying off 85 employees.

Still, this is the largest concentration of chemical manufacturing refinery facilities in the nation. Dirty delivery trucks move back and forth here between the Ship Channel and the oil and gas support businesses. The smell of sulfur knocks you back.

And you also hear a constant clatter of shrill bells, men’s voices blaring from old speakers hung behind fences, the hiss of steam escaping pipes, the scrape of metal on metal.

Life is loud. When you’re young, you’re more attuned to a world that’s happening around you, happening at you. Students in Galena Park have phones that are always notifying them — a study date, a college visit, a friend who wants to talk, a parent who needs to know where you are. Then there are the actual drills — how to outsmart an active shooter, how to shelter in place when a plant explodes.

“But there are a bunch of sirens, and we don’t know what any of them of them mean,” says Madison Haddaway, president of the Environmental Youth Council at Galena Park High School, pointing toward the plants. “We’ll hear them when it’s raining, when it’s sunny, in the morning. We never know.”

After at least five devastating chemical explosions in the Houston region in 2019, any sound coming from a plant might seem worrisome. Maybe they’re meant simply to be alerts for workers. But Galena Park has to live with them, all the same.

Slow progress

The city of Galena Park, just nine miles from downtown Houston, has been home to generations of families since the 1880s. It was once populated largely by Ship Channel workers. But technological advances (cranes and robots) and a switch to contract labor has brought an end to that.

But the community those workers established is here, living where it was planted. Today, about 10,000 people call these five square miles home. They gather at the Alvin D. Baggett Community Center. They jog in the morning, mow the grass. They worship at more than a dozen churches. They attend Galena Park Elementary, MacArthur Elementary. Then GPHS. They watch football games and go to playgrounds, all with flaring pipes in the background, like wallpaper.

Beyond the risks they represent and the sirens they might set off, there’s a lot else working against this community, as data compiled by the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) shows.

Dr. Grace Tee Lewis, an epidemiologist who works for EDF, clicks on pie charts on her laptop to show me data from nearby Census tracts. A quarter of Galena Park’s residents live below the poverty line. There is no public transit residents could take downtown or to the Texas Medical Center.

Because Galena Park is so close to the Ship Channel, flooding is a problem. It’s also a food desert with some chain restaurants and convenience stores, but nowhere to find fresh produce. One study funded by the Houston Endowment found that nearly 25 percent of children here have asthma.

For nearly 20 years, Galena Park was on the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality's watch list for high concentrations of benzene, which is known to cause cancers like leukemia and aplastic anemia. Though it was removed from that list in 2017, it still lives with alarming spikes.

Dr. Denae King has spent 10 years studying environmental exposures in Galena Park, which used to be an all-white community barricaded from its neighboring black community, Clinton Park. Dr. King, the research program manager at Texas Southern University, tells me that there’s lingering segregation between whites and blacks, though, and the barricade is still in place, creating dead-ended streets.

Those dead ends seem to show up everywhere. The sky is blocked. Lungs don’t fill as deeply as they should.

In Galena Park, you hear a constant clatter of shrill bells, men’s voices blaring from old speakers hung behind fences, the hiss of steam escaping pipes, the scrape of metal on metal. Photo: Allyn West.

Today, Galena Park is 80 percent Hispanic. But none of the city’s safety information is published in Spanish. The city’s website is in English, so in many cases words aren’t even making it to their intended destination.

Dr. King has seen progress move here about as slowly as a barge on the Ship Channel. The silence of leadership stands in contrast with the wailing of the sirens and the clanging at the plants. “The previous mayor, R.P. Bobby Barrett, had been in office for 18 years,” she explains. “No matter what you proposed, nothing would change. This same group of people had been in charge forever, and they would have these meetings where they would decide everything behind closed doors and then come out and announce what they had decided to the people attending the meeting.”

'People do care'

Hurricane Harvey, in 2017, might have been a turning point for residents who were finally fed up, Dr. Tee Lewis tells me. The largest reported spill caused by Harvey happened here at the nearby Magellan Midstream terminal, where 460,000 gallons of gasoline poured into the Ship Channel.

“They were flooded into their neighborhood, and they had some of the highest benzene releases from the nearby facilities,” Dr. Tee Lewis says. “It was an awful combination."

That led, in part, to the grant, which is also helping three other communities in Houston — Pleasantville, Fifth Ward, where a cancer cluster was recently discovered, and Sunnyside. “We’re trying to help them use data and planning tools to be proactive about breaking the cycle,” Dr. Tee Lewis says.

And Dr. King explains that residents are working to revitalize the nonprofit, Environmental Committee Advocates for Galena Park. “They’re working with groups like Air Alliance Houston to do more research projects.”

Some residents have even run and held office to help their community. Dr. King calls that a “paradigm shift.”

“People do care,” Haddaway says when I ask her what she thinks her peers think about their environment. “People with power come to our meetings. The fact that the Youth Council has grown makes me hopeful. I’m proud of the town hall we held last year. A lot of people came and listened to us talk about our concerns.”

Galena Park has chosen not to be paralyzed by fear, fighting on the front lines against the petrochemical industry’s recklessness, as residents deal with lifetimes of exposures that accumulate in ways still not fully understood.

“I hope we can do at least something to help and leave a tiny legacy,” Haddaway says. Next year, she hopes to attend the University of Houston to study television production.

Andree Torres, who teaches Haddaway at GPHS, says that social media is the key for this generation to make a difference locally. “They have tools now where they can take pictures and tell the world, ‘This is what we’re breathing right now,’” Torres says.

“Their parents didn’t have that.”

“I have a lot of kids who are, like, ‘Well, look at them, they’re big companies, and we're really small,’” says Amber Khan, who teaches environmental science at GPHS. “It’s hard. But my job is to teach my kids to not be hopeless.”

When you’re an adult, the noise can be more severe inside your mind, trying to make sense of money, jobs, responsibilities, having to drive miles just to shop for something that won’t kill you for dinner. None of it’s easy. But what’s it going to take to get leaders in Houston and legislators and regulators in Austin to stop and listen to young people like Haddaway?

All the noise might drown them out. But their sirens are blaring right back.

Cress is a writer in Houston. She writes poetry about the news for a project called Breaking Poems. Her work has been featured on NPR’s All Things Considered, KUHF’s Houston Matters and in the Houston Chronicle.

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