With the EPA on board, it's time Texas took Houston's environmental justice problems seriously
We gathered in November in the Fifth Ward Missionary Baptist Church just north of Lyons Avenue. Dr. Robert Bullard, Dr. Denae King and Dr. Earthea Nance at Texas Southern University joined nonprofit and grassroots leaders and community members. So did Michael Regan, the new administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency.
He was there to listen, he told us. Taking notes, he heard from Ms. Sandra Edwards about the creosote contamination from the railyard now owned by Union Pacific. She told him about house after house on Lavender Street where someone had died of cancer. I spoke with him about the pain community members face day-to-day. I spoke about polluted water and air and other environmental justice issues.
Later, he told me that’s why he came. "I want to hear from boots on the ground," he said.
That's not a term we always hear on a regular basis from officials, especially ones from Washington, D.C. Everybody has a spiel. They tell us, “This is what we are going to do.” That's wonderful, but they don’t ask, “What do you need me to do?”
People know their needs. They know better than Washington, better than the state, better than the city, because they live it every day. Later, I took a pulse with Ms. Edwards and other community leaders. “How did you feel?” I asked. We are very optimistic, they told me, because Mr. Regan brought something we normally don't get. We get tellers, not listeners.
That terminology needs to be used more. They’ve kept reiterating it for months after the visit. Yes, we have to continue. There has to be a plan, and there must be action. But the residents are very optimistic.
President Biden appointed Mr. Regan, the first Black man to lead the EPA. A visit like this has not happened before. He stopped in communities dealing with environmental justice issues like Mossville, in Louisiana. And like Fifth Ward and Kashmere Gardens, right here in Houston.
I’m the Super Neighborhood president for Kashmere Gardens. I love helping people. It's a passion, and it's a seven-days-a-week thing. I came back to Houston after 27 years in New York City because Houston is my roots. It’s one thing to visit. It’s another to live here. I wanted to be part of the solution and serve my community that helped raise me. Now, I get calls on Sunday nights because the garbage has not been picked up at someone’s house for a couple of weeks or because someone else needs information for resources. People call me because they need help, but they don’t need help only from 9 a.m. on Monday to 5 p.m. on Friday. Everyone knows to put up the umbrella when it’s raining. What are we doing to help on a day when the sun is shining? We must become proactive for all people, and not reactive for some.
In Fifth Ward and Liberty Gardens, it’s not only the creosote contamination. We’re landlocked by freeways and railroads, so we are exposed to transportation emissions. People don't realize that freeways can cause floods, too. When 52 inches falls over your head, 52 inches also falls on the freeway. Where does that water go? So, we’re dealing with the emissions, the railroad exhaust, the flooding, the houses that still need fixing five and a half years after Hurricane Harvey. We have seen progress, but there are many, many more left waiting. We don’t feel we can count on our environment. Many of us feel that the problems are outliving us. After Harvey, during this age of COVID, how many people have died waiting on resources? There's generational disappointment in a lot of our communities, because there have been promises made, promises unfulfilled.
But Mr. Regan gave us a reason to hope. He said he would step in to make sure states were protecting the health and safety of all communities. Soon after, he named Dr. Nance as the regional administrator of the EPA for Texas and Louisiana. Dr. Nance has focused on the kinds of issues we’re living with every day in our communities.
Mr. Regan’s visit, and the announcement shortly thereafter of his administration’s plans to address the specific kinds of environmental injustice in community after community, is a sign that the federal government heard us. Now, we need the state to step up, too. The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality is much closer to these issues than Mr. Regan or Dr. Nance can be. The ongoing sunset review gives all of us a chance to keep shining the light on the darkness.
We’re doing our part. Ms. Edwards put an air monitor from Air Alliance Houston on her home. We have four now and are looking to install more. We created an information network. Grocery stores don’t come, so we have our own farmers market. We are volunteers who work together. Residents pay taxes, and all residents need to be represented. We're going above and beyond to try to address what people getting paid should. We can show TCEQ what we’re breathing. We can tell them what our needs are. It's on them to meet us where we are. It’s on them to do their part, too, work with us and treat our communities the way they want theirs to be treated.
This essay originally appeared in the Houston Chronicle.
Downey is the Super Neighborhood president of Kashmere Gardens.
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