Texas A&M Superfund Research Center’s Community Engagement Core Visits with t.e.j.a.s. (Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services) to Assess the Impact of Hurricane Laura

September 2020.  Hurricane Laura made landfall as a Category 4 storm at the Louisiana-Texas border in the early hours on August 27, 2020. Wide-spread property damage occurred in the path of the storm with wind and storm surge being the major impacts. In preparation for the arrival of Laura, multiple communities along the Gulf of Mexico shoreline in both Louisiana and Texas were on high alert. Major petrochemical and other industrial facilities in the Greater Houston area, including those in close proximity to several environmental justice neighborhoods in East Houston, were undergoing shutdown procedures known to be associated with massive releases of environmental pollutants.

Dr. Garett Sansom sets up air monitoring equipment in a local park.

Texas A&M Superfund Research Center (TAMU SRP) mobilized several teams of researchers who were on stand-by to deploy for environmental sampling and assistance to the residents. Fortunately, the storm spared most of the Greater Houston and Galveston areas of major damage. Still, Community Engagement Core personnel from the Center visited with t.e.j.a.s. leadership to assess the state of air quality and evaluate for any potential human health hazards in the Manchester and other neighborhoods in East Houston. Dr. Garett Sansom, Research Assistant Professor in the Department of Environmental and Occupational Health Sciences at Texas A&M School of Public Health and Ms. Leanne Fawkes, a graduate student in the same department, met with t.e.j.a.s. Juan Parras, Ana Parras, Yvette Arrelano and Nelleli Hidalgo on August 29, 2020. This visit afforded an opportunity to discuss ongoing, upcoming, and proposed collaborative projects between t.e.j.a.s and TAMU SRP projects impacting Houston, Galveston, and surrounding industrial areas.

A number of concerns from the communities are a subject of ongoing collaborations with TAMU SRP researchers. Following Hurricane Harvey in 2017 and the ITC Petrochemical fire in 2019, there was a renewed concern of benzene exposure within the environmental justice communities in East Houston. Research conducted by the United States Environmental Protection Agency and state officials, as well as research teams from Texas A&M University, confirmed elevated levels of benzene and total volatile organic compounds (TVOC) within the community.  In response to t.e.j.a.s.-organized community pressure and public meetings with the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ), several NGOs, and representatives from Valero, sixteen benzene air quality monitors were placed along the northern border of Manchester. There have also been complaints from residents of an increase in smells associated with benzene, this complaint was reported to t.e.j.a.s., these reports are consistent with complains also issued to the National Recreation and Park Association. There is concern that these monitors are placed in inadequate areas unable to collect data that would be of critical importance to the community.

In addition, while hydrogen cyanide gas is currently permitted to be released within the community of Manchester, there are no ongoing monitoring locations looking for this possible exposure. Community groups ask for assistance from TAMU SRP and other partners to provide ongoing evaluations of air quality assessing for hydrogen cyanide. Concomitantly, there is growing confusion over which areas within the neighborhoods are public or privately owned. This is exacerbated by the slow southern growth of industrial property. The residents would like an updated, as well as historical, understanding of land use/parcel data for their community.

Leanne Fawkes, MPH, prepares to collect samples in Manchester.

This meeting served as an excellent opportunity to discuss upcoming joint projects between t.e.j.a.s. and TAMU SRP. First, several workers unions and community organizations were approached in an attempt to better understand the working conditions and possible health implications of industrial exposures in the region. There is a desire for TAMU SRP to lead a worker-health study comparing their experiences with the communities. Second, the possibility of designing a longitudinal health study was evaluated. Unfortunately, complex hazardous exposures that may lead to a disproportionate number of adverse health outcomes in environmental justice communities remain poorly characterized. t.e.j.a.s. and TAMU SRP share a desire to initiate a long-term longitudinal project which would greatly enhance our understanding of the environmental impacts on human health.

 Importantly, t.e.j.a.s. community leaders expressed strong desire to advance the collaboration with TAMU SRP by not only conducting studies and obtaining valuable scientific evidence, but to also move into actual action, supported by the scientific evidence, in Manchester. Specifically discussed during this and other meetings, were plans to host a two-day conference/workshop dedicated to developing actionable items for positive change in the environmental health of the community. Planning is underway to develop a program and engage with other Houston-based environmental groups, representatives of Federal and State governments and congressional delegation.