Residents in Houston's Sunnyside community came together to install their own air monitoring network to collect data they can use to demand accountability.

'We all breathe the same air': A conversation about equity with Grace Tee Lewis

August 17th, 2022

Residents in Houston's Sunnyside community came together to install their own air monitoring network to collect data they can use to demand accountability.

Editor's note: This interview appears in a slightly different form in More City than Water: A Houston Flood Atlas, 2022, published here with permission from the University of Texas Press.

Before beginning her training as an epidemiologist, P. Grace Tee Lewis served as a Peace Corps volunteer and taught math and science in Zimbabwe. Now a health scientist with the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), Grace studies the health impacts of air pollution, focusing specifically on environmental justice issues in the Houston region. She serves on the Regional Air Quality Planning Advisory Committee for the Houston-Galveston Area Council (H-GAC) and is a member of the executive committee, where she tries to advance education and priorities about improving our regional air quality. I spoke with Grace over Zoom at the beginning of 2021 about air quality, public health and the links between flooding and air pollution. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

LMJ: What can you tell me about air pollution in our region?

GL: I think that air pollution is one of the problems people don’t give as much attention to as they should. Unfortunately, we happen to live in one part of the United States where air quality is impacted by the petrochemical industry that is replete around us. The air that we breathe, the clean water that we need, all of those things impact our health in general. Living close to a facility that produces air pollution can affect the development of lungs in children and may exacerbate or contribute to the development of chronic health conditions — such as respiratory diseases, asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease for older populations, heart disease, diabetes, strokes, preterm births, babies with low birth weight and neurological deficits in older adults. We see that air pollution has long-term implications for our health. We see differences in life expectancy, certainly, for different parts of our city, where you have sometimes up to a 30-year difference in life expectancy for more affluent communities in comparison to lower-wealth communities of color in our region.

That’s not acceptable. And it’s likely a reflection of historical systemic inequities that impact communities. Obviously, the history of redlining not only defined where communities of color could live but also established what are known as “sacrifice zones” — places where developers would freely allow industry to be located right next to residential areas. These areas were home to populations of people who were disenfranchised in their ability to advocate for themselves politically and prevent this type of industry being put into their communities, whether the industry was hazardous waste sites or garbage pits and whatnot.

I think Robert Bullard’s work in mapping all of those hazards in our region has been fundamental to our understanding that these overburdened African-American communities were the host sites for all of the waste and other unwanted industry that fueled our city’s growth and development. Really, prosperity was born on the back of these communities of color, reflecting how the city prioritized industry over community health in certain areas. The purposeful, systemic sacrifice of these communities in favor of white or more affluent communities really laid the foundation for inequities of environmental exposures in transportation, in education, in investments in the infrastructure and in the development of these communities, and that is reflected in the health disparities of Houstonians.

I think nothing brings that more to light than the COVID pandemic, where we see that those communities that have been overburdened in the past with inequities and environmental injustice are also those same communities that are being hardest hit by the pandemic.

LMJ: And each exposure does not exist in a vacuum, right? It’s generational, it’s cumulative, and the effects are cumulative as well.

GL: Yes. There is a compounding overburden to these communities — layer upon layer of disenfranchisement, lack of investment in their communities and policies that are purposely intended to try to relegate them to exposures that others do not want. It’s exactly as you’re saying; it’s generational. If we stop and think of some of these communities — like the Fifth Ward and Sunnyside and Pleasantville — these are the areas where African-American communities were first founded after slavery was abolished and people began to populate the region independently.

So when we talk about environmental injustice, we’re talking about the unequal distribution of environmental hazards. We’re talking about how different communities and different populations are exposed to an increased amount of pollution that’s unequal in comparison to other parts of the city. You have these spatial differences in where pollution is located.

Environmental injustice is born out of systemic environmental racism and the structural, historical effort to create sacrifice zones in different parts of different cities, where industry is heavily concentrated and these communities bear the greatest burden of environmental exposures in comparison to other parts of the same region.

LMJ: When we’re working and advocating for environmental justice, what is the outcome that we’re seeking?

GL: Obviously, equity, in my opinion, to try to ease the burden. Industry is going to go someplace, but we don’t have to concentrate it all in communities of color. We need to think about how we can equitably distribute or share the burden of the industrial development and growth that is needed to maintain a strong economy. I don’t think those two things are mutually exclusive. I think we need to concentrate it in areas where there’s less population being exposed and there is less potential cumulative burden to a community.

We don’t have to cluster every single concrete batch plant, metal recycler and medical waste facility within a half-mile of one another. We need to think about where we can relocate these businesses so that we’re not disproportionately impacting the health of Black and Brown communities, and so that we’re not destroying a community by running a freeway through it and cutting it off from a neighboring community just to put up a freeway or to locate a new industrial facility or to widen the ship channel at the cost of the integrity of a community that may have been there for one hundred years.

LMJ: How do flooding events like Harvey or Imelda — or even the Tax Day or Memorial Day Floods — how do these types of flood events contribute to air pollution?

GL: These flood events, especially hurricanes and natural disasters, contribute to air pollution because if we know a hurricane is coming, most industries will shut down their production. In the process of shutting down, and then starting up again after the storm has passed, these facilities release a monumental amount of air pollution.

But also sometimes there are industrial accidents that release pollution into the air. During Harvey, the Arkema facility’s storage and safety measures were overwhelmed because of the inundation. Harvey showed us that storage tanks are particularly vulnerable, and we’ve seen that in subsequent hurricanes as well. They have not fixed that issue completely in designing storage tanks that are able to withstand these types of natural disaster events.

In Galena Park, for instance, we have a lot of industrial facilities that are located on the road across the street from the community. During Harvey, some roads were flooded, and as a result, the residents could not get out. There are just a couple of ways in and out of the community. Residents were trapped in their homes if they didn’t evacuate.

During that same time, the Magellan facility had a leak in their gas storage tanks, which released 2.5 million pounds of air pollution into the air. That’s an immense amount of volatile organic compounds. To give you context, the next largest release in our region was 745,000 pounds, also during Harvey. There was another facility, a pipeline facility at the Galena Park terminal, that also released 56,000 pounds of VOCs into the air. You’ve got several of these industrial facilities, in addition to the ones that were shutting down, having released all of their chemicals into the air, and during that time residents were not able to evacuate the area and they were out in their yards cleaning up after the hurricane. All of those chemicals — high levels of those chemicals — were in their environment, and so they were exposed to that.

LMJ: How did that release happen? Were those facilities flooded? Were they hit by the hurricane?

GL: In the case of those storage tanks for Magellan, they were damaged by the flooding. There was just too much water on the tanks. The design of those storage tanks can be better, and there hasn’t been any mandate to change the design of those storage tanks. A lot of times with accidents like these the roof collapses or the pipeline is impacted. Damage to the equipment is the cause of a lot of these disasters, but the storage tanks are particularly vulnerable.

We saw that for many places in Harvey the design of the storage tank and contact with water caused it to rupture. For Magellan, it was two storage tanks, which is why Galena Park got so much exposure. It wasn’t just one storage tank that failed; it was two storage tanks. And it wasn’t just that facility; it was several facilities adjacent to them where that happened.

LMJ: And when these releases happen, accidentally or not, there are rarely consequences for the polluter. So it seems there’s nothing preventing them from doing it.

GL: Right. There’s nothing preventing them. Plus the state turned off the air monitors and didn’t turn them back on for some time after the storm. The state didn’t have the technical capacity to quickly deploy equipment to monitor all of the compounds that were being released. We’re talking about benzene, a known carcinogen, in our environment. There’s no safe level of benzene exposure, and yet we’re unable to quantify how much is being released into a community where they’re flooded in. They can’t leave because of the flooding and they’re stuck with these massive amounts of air pollution. They don’t have air-conditioning; they’re forced to breathe this air pollution. That’s a travesty.

On top of that, the governor will often suspend reporting rules during a disaster, and the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) is less concerned about enforcement. There’s forgiveness for polluting, without any consequences, during these industrial events. Certainly, some of them are beyond their control, like if they’ve had a malfunction and they try their best to address it as quickly as possible, but even accidental releases still put people’s health at risk.

I think there’s a ripple effect, too. It’s not just occurring in our region. You have upstream producers in the Permian Basin and other places that couldn’t send their product into the Houston region for processing, so they’re flaring in these communities where oil and gas are being produced. That is an added impact of flooding in our region, because these other communities will have health implications from that flaring.

LMJ: Let’s go back to this question of turning off the air monitors for a moment. One of the major problems with this is that without the air monitors, these communities don’t know what they’re being exposed to and there’s no way to hold polluters accountable for what they’re releasing.

GL: Yes. When the state turns off the regulatory air monitors, it’s maybe to protect their equipment to be able to withstand the storm, but they certainly could turn them on more quickly than they do. Like after Harvey, the monitors were off for quite some time in areas like Manchester, where there were high releases of benzene. That leaves the community unable to quantify what the ambient air quality is like and what exposures they’re getting to potentially harmful volatile organic compounds and known carcinogens.

I think these projects in community air monitoring and low-cost air monitors that we’ve been working on, which are beginning to proliferate across the nation, are an important way to have an understanding of what air quality is like and not be beholden to the regulatory agencies to say, “There’s no problem in your community.”

In our case, what we’ve been doing is establishing a monitoring network that says, “Hey, we’re seeing these unusual readings.” While it might not be regulatory, it’s sufficient to ask for investigations by city and county officials. Communities will have the air quality data to understand the patterns in their neighborhoods. For instance, are we seeing releases in the middle of the night? We have seen that periodically, spikes that are happening between 11:00 p.m. and 4:00 a.m., or releases that are happening on the weekends or at times when people are maybe unaware of what’s happening.

These community air monitoring networks play a fundamental role in trying to increase accountability by industry and also to initiate investigations, so that we won’t have a situation where a community member reports something and the monitoring agency can’t come out until three days later and by that time the release is gone. Now, we have the measurements from these air monitoring networks. Although these are low-cost networks, and we don’t have the same precision that you have in regulatory instruments, there is, at least, data to show we saw the spike here.

It’s an incremental endeavor and, to be frank, why do communities have to bear this financial burden to provide evidence that the state or local government should be collecting to protect their public health to begin with? These are the same communities that have been advocating for improvements, and they shouldn’t be burdened with having to collect their own information.

LMJ: What are some of the obstacles to greater transparency, to greater accountability?

GL: These networks are expensive, which is one barrier. I think community-based organizations typically work with a volunteer base. They don’t typically have a large amount of money to allocate to put these things together. We’ve worked with Pleasantville, with Sunnyside, with Fifth Ward, and with Galena Park in our Data to Action efforts. We’ve had support from the Houston Endowment in the past, which has been great. But in general, community-based organizations don’t have the capacity to afford to analyze and communicate this information. That’s a real barrier.

Even low-cost equipment is not cheap, and to get more high-grade instruments, that’s even more expensive. They may not want to spend all their money on air monitors. Then what do they do with the myriad data points they accumulate? Who helps them digest and transform those into something that can be reflected in data visualizations or communication to their residents, to the city and to the county to show the patterns in their data? I think there’s a lot that needs to happen there, and certainly, people are willing to help, but it’s also a matter of finding those connections and putting people together and having willing academic partners to help them in the work, to provide the science that they need beyond the collection of the data.

LMJ: I think I’m also asking why the city and the county aren’t doing what seems like their job of monitoring the air? Why don’t the city and county have air monitors in these communities? The state does, but they turn them off. What obstacles are preventing the city and county from doing that work?

GL: Well, the city and the county happen to have a huge amount of land to cover, and there’s a large number of permits to navigate. I think a lot of times, they spend their time having to respond to stuff and they also don’t have a huge budget.

Until the county got that recent $11 million investment in pollution control services, they had been working on shoestring budgets themselves. To be fair, from my perspective, until Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo came into office, I don’t think there was a lot of dedication to enforcement beyond the requirements and there wasn’t a willingness to let community groups be at the table, to engage in a community air monitoring program. Until Judge Hidalgo came into office, that didn’t happen. Her willingness to have community partners at the table is a more recent evolution in transparency in government. That was not there in previous Republican administrations.

I also think there’s a lot of pushback from the state to have a more conservative approach, and that has a trickle-down effect on local agencies and how they can do their work. While local agencies might want to have improvements, they can’t necessarily do that without the support of the state or federal government.

We saw the Trump administration decimate the chemical disaster safety rule and other rules meant to protect public health. We saw less dedication to policing and enforcement of industry regulations and an effort to relax the rules to make it easier for businesses to pollute and to roll back some of our environmental protections that have been in place.

LMJ: What is one thing that you wish more people knew or thought about when it comes to air pollution or to air quality and public health?

GL: That we need stronger environmental protections. We need to take a different tack from what has been happening in previous administrations and try to right the wrongs and bring an end to environmental racism. That would ultimately help improve air quality and people’s health.

But most importantly, I wish more people understood that we all breathe the same air. I have often thought that people are purposely ignorant of the fact that air quality issues affect us all. I live in the Heights, but I know other people who live north of the city, west of the city, who don’t stop and think that we are all breathing the same air. I would love people to know that people who live on the east side deserve equity. They deserve to breathe the same clean air that we breathe on a regular basis.

Johnson is a Houston-based professor, curator, activist, and is author of the essay collection The Reckonings, the widely-acclaimed memoir The Other Side and Trespasses, and is editor, with the graphic designer Cheryl Beckett of More City Than Water: A Houston Flood Atlas. She teaches creative nonfiction at Rice University and is Founding Director of the Houston Flood Museum.


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