'A sword and a shield': A conversation about accountability with Harris County Attorney Christian Menefee
The same summer Harris County Attorney Christian Menefee was busy suing Governor Greg Abbott and Attorney General Ken Paxton about voting restrictions and mask mandates and testifying to the Environmental Protection Agency about the need to strengthen chemical safety rules, he became a father.
How, I asked him, will he explain what he does to his son? “Every day, I'm either protecting people or holding others accountable,” Menefee said. “I like to think of the office like a sword and a shield. A shield for Harris County residents and government and a sword for when others take advantage of them, and they need an advocate.”
Menefee, who grew up in Houston, was elected in 2020. (His office is separate from the county district attorney and practices civil, not criminal, law.) He’s charged with defending the shared values of people in Harris County. Here, he talks about challenging the Texas Department of Transportation over their proposed $9 billion expansion of Interstate 45, which is being investigated by the Federal Highway Administration for violations of civil rights laws, and confronting the corporations that consistently threaten the region with costly chemical fires and industrial disasters.
This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
AW: The very first thing you list on your website that you’re fighting for is environmental justice. When you think about that, when you think about our environment, what does that mean to you? And how does that definition guide you?
CM: Some of it comes from my upbringing. My grandmother raised my father and his siblings in Fifth Ward, which as many people know, when you think of an environmental justice community, an underserved community that is plagued with all of these environmental ills that have health impacts, Fifth Ward is probably the first one that comes to mind, right? So, it's just kind of in my roots.
And I grew up in Houston, and I don't think that there's any adult in Houston who didn't grow up within a few miles of a facility that emitted some harmful chemical.
So, when I think about environmental justice, I think there are several different stages of doing the work that is intended to protect communities, particularly underserved communities, from the ills that befall people. For example, we get involved at the permitting stage. Before any of these facilities can emit any type of contaminant, they have to go through the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality [TCEQ] and get a permit. Sometimes, they're asking to emit super harmful stuff like hydrogen cyanide. Typically, TCEQ will play ball, and so our office steps in and challenges those requests for permits to either get them to agree not to emit a certain thing, or get them to agree to substantially decrease the amount of contaminants that they're putting into the air each year.
The second is compliance. That's your Harris County Pollution Control and fire marshal. We work hand in hand with them as they go in and investigate facilities when there are leaks to see what went into the air and any malfeasance that led to it.
Then enforcement is going into the court to make a company stop operating until they can fix the issue or make them fix the issue on an expedited basis. Or asking the court to give the county money as penalties because of some major environmental issue.
The way that I like to think about the work is that the average Joe and Jane is not going to have the resources or the knowledge about the system to make sure their community is protected, so we try to do that for them.
AW: I'm sure you saw that the Texas Transportation Commission wants to keep funding for TxDOT’s I-45 expansion. And Judge Lina Hidalgo’s counterpart up in Montgomery County sniffed at the idea that anyone in Texas even uses the term “environmental justice.” That's only something you hear in Washington, he said. That breakdown is instructive, right? Because he's obviously wrong, and environmental justice is the primary reason why the Federal Highway Administration is doing their investigation of the project. And it’s the crux of the county lawsuit. What environmental injustice do you see with this project?
CM: First, I would say in response to that county judge out in Montgomery County that the reason why folks don't know anything about that term is because he's not one of the people who lives on the side of I-45, right? He's not going to be displaced by it. I guarantee you he doesn't live in a neighborhood with a concrete batch plant across the street, so it would make sense that that word doesn't mean anything to him.
So, it’s been interesting. TxDOT has been designing and doing the initial scoping and environmental impact processing for this project for over 15 years. They've invested hundreds of millions of dollars into that.
Along the way, the City of Houston and Harris County went out and did their own community engagement to ensure that the community's voice is being heard. TxDOT landed on a project design that will do a few things, but the most important thing is it's going to widen the highway in certain segments, including in and around the downtown area, which, of course, is predominantly Black and brown, so that will have the impact of displacing a bunch of folks.
But it also puts more cars on the road, and more lanes closer to neighborhoods, so there are potential flooding runoff issues and the environmental impacts to the air, the smog, the noise. There are schools that are just off of this freeway, and now they're going to be closer.
Right before we filed our lawsuit, the federal government stepped in and told TxDOT to pause the project, because we've heard from some community organizations and Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee, and we want to investigate whether your project complies with federal civil rights laws.
Then we filed our lawsuit, and TxDOT continued basically to violate the halt the federal government had asked for.
We sent another letter, and they feds said they were now investigating the environmental laws that are the basis of the lawsuit. They said they wanted to reaffirm that they want TxDOT to stand down.
TxDOT in that recent meeting said we're giving the feds 90 days. Otherwise, we're going to put this back to a vote whether we're going to keep funding for it or remove it.
The goal of our lawsuit was to get TxDOT to come to the table, so that we can do a couple of things. The main one was to ensure that the voices of the community are being properly heard, and TxDOT isn't casting them aside. We've done highways a certain way in this state for decades, and there are folks of the opinion that that just isn't going to cut it anymore.
But, that said, I think that we've done things a certain way for decades has caused TxDOT not to play that well in the sandbox. TxDOT was not considering the concerns of local governmental entities who are going to be most impacted by these changes and the communities they represent. The lawsuit was designed to halt this so that we can have serious conversations and make sure that this project moves in a direction that's a win-win for everybody. I'm hopeful over the next couple of months that negotiations will continue.
But if we're being frank, there's a segment of the community that doesn't want the project to happen at all. There's a segment that wants it to happen, but wants it to look very different. There's a segment that wants it to happen and wants some minor mitigation to address their specific concerns. And then there's a segment that wants it to continue as is.
It’s a very complex issue. Ultimately, I think folks want infrastructure changes. Because I-45 is an incredibly dangerous highway, but folks want TxDOT to consider the right things and proceed in good faith. Who knows if we're going to end up there, but I think it was a fight worth having, because these communities that are impacted, it's a big deal to them. And it's going to put the highway closer to their schools, and it's going to put more cars closer to their homes, and it's going to make some of them have to move out of the area.
And I think that that's something that TxDOT should be properly considering.
AW: So there’s the threat of everyday pollution from freeways encroaching on, like, a Bruce Elementary [in Fifth Ward]. But what we're seeing with Ida, and industry in Louisiana, there's an additional risk from disasters, primarily for communities that maybe had been redlined, maybe have been starved of resources because of structural racism. In Jefferson County, TPC Group’s plant blew up twice before Thanksgiving, and 50,000 people evacuated. Now they're trying to expand in the East End, which is even more populous. I was hoping you could riff on your earlier metaphor. In Houston and Harris County, you have to have a really sharp sword to get industry to behave. And you need a really thick shield, because of the cumulative impacts from all the threats.
CM: That’s a challenge I had anticipated a bit when I got into office, but I didn't know how strong it would be, having a state government that is so industry-friendly and so hostile to holding it accountable. I can't imagine what it would have been like under my predecessor's administration, where you have that state government and a presidential administration that was hostile.
The Trump administration rolled back the Chemical Disaster Rule, which set in place all of these things designed to prevent large-scale chemical disasters, mitigate the effects once they happen and ensure that the communities and first responders are properly informed. This lawsuit was brought by several state governments, one city, and then Harris County. And of course we were the only county, and the only governmental entity in the state of Texas, to be in it, fighting against the Trump-era rollbacks of the Obama-era rules.
The Biden administration, instead of just reinstating the Obama-era rules, decided to go on a listening tour so that [they] can decide whether it makes sense to go even further. I spoke on the listening tour. We also submitted written comments. Look, I told them. You guys are going to hear from a lot of different folks from a lot of different places, but let me tell you about Harris County. We're a big place. We're the third-most-populous county in the country, the most populous in Texas, we have 2,900 chemical facilities in our borders. We're home to Houston, which is widely considered the energy capital of the world and the Ship Channel, which is the largest petrochemical complex in the United States.
I painted this picture for them of a massive industry footprint, with the additional fact that we're on the Gulf Coast and also deal with a 100-year-storm every five years. So that creates an even greater vulnerability. Now take that, and also take in the fact that we have no zoning, and we have neighborhoods like Fifth Ward, which is home to six state and federal Superfund sites and has higher rates of COPD, heart disease, cancer and strokes than the rest of Houston.
Considering all of this, I told them, it’s imperative that at the very least you reinstate the Obama-era rules. When these large chemical disasters happen, or when we have major weather events that trigger them, it can set back communities decades.
And it has the ability to impact our entire county in one fell swoop. We asked them to reinstate the rules and consider some additions. We want them to require these chemical facilities to evaluate the risks for extreme weather and implement measures if necessary to mitigate those risks. That's not just hurricanes. We just had a terrible winter storm. And we saw that our state and the oil and gas industry, the power generation industry and the electricity industry were wildly unprepared for that, despite the fact that something similar had happened in 2011. We want these facilities to be prepared for these types of eventualities given what we know about climate change.
We wanted the federal government to expand the list of chemicals that would be covered by the rule, so that it includes the types we've seen blow up here in Harris County, like organic peroxides, which was the substance that was involved in Arkema. I only had three minutes, so I ran through it, but the final thing I emphasized is information flow.
When there's a large-scale issue, our fire marshall is on the ground, our pollution control department is on the ground. You’ve got fire departments, first responders, mayors, other leaders. Information is going all over the place. If we don't have a centralized repository and processes in place to ensure that that information is disseminated as efficiently as possible, it can be life-and-death for communities, students in schools, first responders. We wanted to increase communication with those first responders and with the fenceline communities at greater risk.
West is a writer with One Breath Partnership. You can follow him on Twitter @allynwest.
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