Experts concerned about impact of Deer Park Shell fire on people of color

Rosie Nguyen Image
Tuesday, May 9, 2023
Industrial accidents tend to affect the poor, people of color: Experts
Environmental justice groups argue that plant fires or chemical spills can lead to long-term consequences for people living nearby, most being low income families and communities of color.

DEER PARK, Texas (KTRK) -- Three days since a fire ripped through parts of a Shell plant in Deer Park, representatives from the company finally answered questions from the media in a press conference Monday.

They reported that a second, but smaller fire that kicked back up Saturday had been put out and the ignited product was gas oil. Once the hot spots cool down, they will begin their investigation into how the fire was caused in the first place.

Residents in nearby neighborhoods reported feeling rumblings and hearing loud noises following the fires. Shell issued a statement Saturday, explaining that their response to the fire would cause some flaring.

But despite fumes being sent into the air for hours, firefighting efforts, and rain sending contaminated water into the Houston Ship Channel, the company insisted that there is no ongoing threat to the community.

RELATED: Shell admits 'regret' over handling response to fire in the aftermath

Environmental justice groups refute that claim, arguing that these types of incidents are a cause for concern. They explain that whenever a fire, explosion, or chemical spills occur, it can lead to long-term consequences for the people living nearby, most being low income families and communities of color.

"It was very, very disheartening," Juan Flores, a community air monitoring program manager for Air Alliance Houston said. "They have to constantly breathe this in 24 hours a day for as long as they live there. It's long term (for their) lungs, cancer rates, and the asthma rates.'"

"What they have never acknowledged is the fear and the anxiety and the stress that people have to endure because of where they live. The multitude of plants that exist in the area does do harm in the community," Bryan Parras, the co-founder of Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Service said. "People have to live with headaches, nosebleeds, nausea, and fatigue on a daily basis depending on the air quality."

The sight of thick, dark plumes of smoke that could be seen for miles over the weekend is unfortunately not an uncommon occurrence for people living in Deer Park and Pasadena, the two cities closest to the Shell plant.

According to the 2021 American Community Service conducted by the U.S. Census, 71.7% of Pasadena's population are Hispanic and Latino. In Deer Park, it's 37.5%. Parras said the demographics vary, but are similar in other communities along the Houston Ship Channel.

"There are undocumented communities. There are Vietnamese immigrants and poor white communities that have lived in these areas for a long time too. As you get closer to Baytown, there's more African American communities that live adjacent to these facilities," he said.

Researchers explained that historical redlining and racial zoning have been the main reasons for environmental inequity in these diverse populations. Parras said that there is a low rate of families in these areas who are medically insured. So oftentimes, their health conditions may go undiagnosed and untreated.

Other elements he said are contributing to the severe impact on vulnerable communities include a high number of migrants working in service and industrial jobs, language barriers that limit residents from speaking out, and fear of retaliation towards family members who may work at refineries and plants.

READ MORE: Earth Day 2022: How T.E.J.A.S. is fighting for environmental justice in Houston neighborhood

That's why T.E.J.A.S. and Air Alliance Houston say they are working to educate, empower, and encourage residents to become more involved in the public accountability process. Advocates said their focus is to help residents understand the health risks, become knowledgeable about the laws that exist to protect them, show up to permit hearings, and document incidents when they happen.

"We hope that people will not normalize these events. This is not normal. This does not happen everywhere in the country, even places where there's a heavy presence of industry. We hope that folks show up when it's time to comment," Parras said.

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