Separate But Toxic

The Houston environmental magnet school that's an environmental catastrophe

Climb into Juan Parras’ rickety Jeep Cherokee, and he’ll show you around the neighborhood. He calls it his “toxic tour.” Parras lives in Houston’s East End, the poorer, predominantly minority side of town that borders the Houston Ship Channel. A former union rep, he now heads an environmental nonprofit in the East End called Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services (TEJAS) that wants the roughly 30 refineries and chemical plants in the East End to reduce their emissions. Clad in a green vest and cap, Parras steers the Jeep through a maze of back streets and overpasses to the environmental hot spots that worry him the most: two federal Superfund sites—one with chemicals still leaking from barrels; the bayous flooded with trash; an elementary school three blocks from the steaming Valero Energy Corp. refinery the kids call “the cloud maker”; and of course, the acrid-smelling Ship Channel, where supertankers sidle next to refineries and factories. “All the things nobody wants in their neighborhood, we got here,” Parras says as we drive past a house bracketed on three sides by freight rail lines. The tour’s final stop is the site that angers him most of all—Cesar Chavez High School.

Opened in 2000, Chavez is one of Houston’s newest and biggest high schools, a state-of-the-art building the community desperately needed for nearly 3,000 kids. Parras was all in favor of a new school. But he’s troubled by where the school district built it. Chavez sits within a quarter-mile of three large petrochemical plants

Parras parks the Jeep and leads the way on to the school grounds. He walks around the football field and climbs to the top of the metal bleachers for a prime view of the closest plant, owned by Texas Petrochemicals Inc. “Pretty darn close, huh?” he says with a nod. Indeed, it’s almost shocking to see the plant’s flame tower loom directly over the school, separated by a sliver of woods and a narrow bayou. From the baseball field, you could probably reach the plant’s fence line with a long home run. To Parras, it’s no coincidence that the student body is almost entirely Latino and black. This, he says, is environmental racism at its most extreme.

The Texas Petrochemicals plant is one of the oldest and most polluting in Harris County. Built in the mid 1940s, the facility was, until recently, one of the nation’s top producers of the controversial fuel additive MTBE. The plant is also one of the largest emitters in the Houston area of 1,3 butadiene, a known carcinogen used in rubber production. Next door sits a Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. plant, and next to that, an Exxon Mobil Corp. chemical facility. These two both spew tens of thousands of pounds of benzene and 1,3 butadiene into the air each year. Butadiene is especially nasty. The chemical contributes to ground-level ozone, and studies have linked long-term exposure to leukemia and infertility.

The health effects of these toxins received new attention in January when the University of Texas School of Public Health released results from an 18-month study that for the first time linked benzene and butadiene exposure to increased cancer risk. The study reported that children living within 2 miles of the Ship Channel had a 56 percent greater chance of developing lymphocytic leukemia, a form of cancer that attacks white blood cells.

Standing on the top bleachers, Parras says physical safety also is a major concern, with students so close to three petrochemical facilities, including the rusting, World War II-era Texas Petrochemicals plant. Natural gas and petroleum pipelines run beneath Chavez’s football field. “It’s pretty hard to evacuate 3,000 kids out of here if you had to,” Parras says. “You can’t get them out.” A major accident at any of the three plants, by the industry’s own estimates, would injure or kill many Chavez students.

It might seem impossible that a district could build a new school in such a place. Lawmakers have tried to protect school children from every conceivable danger: There are added criminal offenses for selling drugs near schools, and sex-offenders can’t live near schools. In fact, the state can deny air permits to a petrochemical facility built within 3,000 feet of a school. Strangely, no regulation prevents the reverse: A city can build a school as close to a chemical plant as it wants. In Houston, which lacks zoning laws, the school district found cheap land and did just that.

Parras says that after he complained about air quality at the site, the school district responded by designating Chavez an environmental magnet school. A small number of kids from other parts of Houston attend Chavez to complete an environmental-studies curriculum replete with an “outdoor classroom,” where students study plant life and the nearby bayou, but not air quality.

It appears the Houston Independent School District hasn’t studied the air quality much either. District officials have maintained for years that the site is safe for kids. Yet documents obtained by the Observer reveal that HISD performed only one cursory air-quality study before it built Chavez.

Still, for many years after the school opened, Parras and his family were the lone voices to complain. Parras has long advocated that the district move the school. “I told them they should put an administration building there,” he says with a devious smile. He hopes that moving Chavez would set a precedent for other schools in Texas and around the nation located in polluted areas. Though Chavez is a startling example, many other schools are near chemical facilities. The Refinery Reform Campaign, a national environmental group, says that roughly 200,000 kids attend Texas schools within 2 miles of a chemical plant. In West Virginia, a school sits directly below a leaking coal-sludge dam.

HISD and city officials long dismissed the idea of moving the school as impractical and too costly. Now environmental politics in Houston are changing. Dogged reporting by the Houston Chronicle and other media helped spur Mayor Bill White’s administration to crack down on industrial emissions along the Ship Channel. The recent leukemia study brought home the importance of clean air in Houston. Even the Greater Houston Partnership, the nexus of the city’s big-business community, recently formed an air-quality task force.

Most everyone—local residents, teachers, and even some city officials—concedes that, in retrospect, the school shouldn’t have been built beside three chemical plants (although an HISD spokesman did defend the location of the school, saying “We build schools where people live”). Yet the community seems resigned to it. Chavez offers a stern test of the city’s new environmental ethos. Moving the school seems unlikely. Parras acknowledges it won’t be easy, but he hopes the city will soon gather the political will to rectify what he calls one of Houston’s worst environmental injustices.

Juan Parras with his wife, Ana, and son, Bryan

The decision to build Chavez High at its present site was made in 1992, when the school district purchased the property. The district bought the more than 36-acre site for a bargain price, $4 million cash. Nearby neighborhoods needed a new high school to relieve overcrowded Milby High, which has educated East End kids for decades. The district decided to place the new school on the largest patch of land available in the area. Once the process began, no public official or community leader could muster the will to stop it. Parras and other activists were continually told it was a “done deal.”

For years, HISD maintained the school was safe. In the few news stories written about Chavez, district spokesman Terry Abbott rebuffed criticism of the air quality. He said the district performed two independent studies of the air and soil that turned up no environmental problems.

That’s not entirely accurate. The district completed at least three environmental assessments of the site, only one of which examined air quality, according to documents obtained by the Observer through open-records laws. HISD contracted for an initial environmental assessment in January 1992. The report concluded that the site contained numerous instances of industrial ground contamination, including possibly leaking storage tanks. That report didn’t mention air pollution.

HISD performed its only air-quality study of the site in spring 1992, according to district records. A consulting firm took air samples every other day for three weeks—eight years before the school opened. The study compared air samples from the Chavez site with samples from J.R. Harris Elementary School, which sits several miles away and is three blocks from a refinery. (Both the school and refinery were built decades ago.) The report concluded that the air at Harris was slightly more polluted, so the Chavez site posed little danger. The report noted that few toxics were detected in the air at the Chavez location—just a whiff of benzene. (Oddly, butadiene isn’t mentioned in the report.) The study did find elevated levels in the air of 1,1,1,2-tetrachloroethane, a toxic chemical used in degreasers and paint removers that’s rarely produced in the United States anymore.

HISD conducted one more study, in early 1998, before construction began on the school. The report focused almost exclusively on ground contamination, or lack thereof. It found no measurable toxins in the soil—the lingering ground pollution found in 1992 had presumably been removed. Air quality wasn’t addressed. In fact, the report doesn’t even mention the three chemical facilities nearby, not even in the section titled, “Current and Past Surrounding Land Use.” At the time, the Texas Petrochemicals plant, according to state data, was releasing 108,000 pounds of butadiene a year.

HISD concluded that air at Chavez was safe. In 1996, the district moved forward with plans to build two new high schools: one on the west side, one on the east side. The west-side school, bordering the Anglo suburb of Katy, would soon be surrounded by tony new subdivisions with nary a smokestack in sight. The east-side school wouldn’t be so fortunate.

A little league baseball field adjacent to Chavez High School and the Texas Petrochemicals plant

Parras grew up in West Texas—his mother still lives in Big Spring. He moved to Houston in 1969 and served as an organizer and rep for the American Federation of State and Municipal Employees for many years. His affable nature makes him a natural organizer. After brief sojourns to New Mexico (for union work) and Louisiana (for environmental activism), Parras returned to the East End in 1997 to work asa researcher in the environmental law and justice program at Texas Southern University, and to advocate for reduced pollution along the Ship Channel. On his drive to work, Parras sometimes passed the sign announcing the site of soon-to-be-built Chavez High School. Like many in the community, he didn’t take much notice. His wife, Ana, finally asked him why he wasn’t upset about the location of the new school. Parras began to investigate and soon was one of the school’s most vocal opponents.

Parras found a handful of other east-side community leaders who were equally upset. Working with a nonprofit called Mothers for Clean Air, a fledgling coalition began protesting the school site, printing T-shirts, writing letters, and calling district officials to complain. The going was tough. The communities in the East End have long been apathetic to environmental pollution, and everybody acknowledged the need for a new school. In July 1998, HISD broke ground on Chavez. “High School Groundbreaking fulfills 30-year Wish,” read the Chronicle headline the next day. The story recounted the area’s long fight for a new school, but made no mention of air pollution.

Parras couldn’t get help from national Latino rights groups. He says the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund and the League of United Latin American Citizens both refused, saying they weren’t focused on environmental issues. When the district announced it would name the school after Cesar Chavez, Parras reached out to the group Chavez famously founded, the United Farm Workers. They wouldn’t get involved either, Parras says. He found the refusal ironic, since Chavez led the fight to ban certain pesticides and other dangerous toxins.

For their part, school district officials have long argued that they had no other place to put Chavez. HISD contends there was a dearth of available land close enough to the community the school serves. (HISD Superintendent Abelardo Saavedra’s office didn’t respond to several interview requests for this story.) Parras thinks that’s nonsense. He even has another site picked out—an old bus depot owned by the district a few miles to the southwest. Parras suggested—and still hopes—that HISD move the bus depot to the Chavez site and place the high school a few miles farther away from the Ship Channel. “They always try to say it’s no big deal because everyone lives there, too,” Parras says. “My point has always been: [The kids] don’t have to be there—you put them there. People can buy houses wherever they want. But you put [the kids] there.”

After Chavez opened in 2000, sentiment finally stirred in the community to relocate the school, or at least do something about the air pollution. In 2000 and early 2001, Parras and Mothers for Clean Air began hosting well-attended community meetings. Officials from the Environmental Protection Agency attended some meetings to tell residents how to spot chemical releases and gather their own air samples. For a brief moment, Parras thought, a community that had traditionally reacted to air quality with a shrug was about to effect change.

Then the area’s congressman, Democrat Gene Green, stepped in. He wrote a scathing letter dated September 20, 2001, to EPA Region 6 officials. Green was especially irate that EPA had aided Mothers for Clean Air. “[I]t is my understanding that your office has been providing technical and financial assistance to non-community groups who believe there is some type of emissions problem,” Green wrote. “I find the actions of your office both outrageous and disturbing from a public health stand point…. Too many people worked for too many years to get this school built to now have it damaged by uninformed, non-community groups.”

Asked about the letter, Green says, “I met with their group a number of times, and I said, ‘The problem you have is that the community supports this school.’ And that’s what generated that letter. The neighborhoods around where Cesar Chavez is now were very supportive of the school. At that time, except for Juan, they didn’t bring in any of the local community.” Green says he’s asked that the House Committee on Energy and Commerce to hold a field hearing in Houston on the health effects of toxins in the air. He was reluctant to endorse moving the school without more air pollution data. “Is there some way we can mitigate [the air pollution] without closing the school? I’m not big on closing the school because it took literally decades to get a new school in East End,” he says.

After Green’s letter, though, EPA folks stopped coming to meetings. Support for Parras’ coalition began to melt away, and as kids began attending school at Chavez, apathy once again settled over the community. “I would go to people and ask, ‘How come you’re not fighting this anymore?'” Parras says. “They’d say, ‘It’s a done deal.'”

Building a school next to petrochemical facilities does offer one possible advantage—you can get the companies to pay for it. At least that’s what HISD tried to do. The city set up a Tax Increment Reinvestment Zone around the school and chemical facilities. Typically, governments use these zones to spur growth in poor or und
veloped areas. A municipality will bu
ld public infrastructure—a park or trail or, in this case, a school. If land values rise, the increase in property taxes the city earns is reinvested in the area to spark development. In this case, whatever increased property taxes the city earned from the chemical plants would pay off the nearly $90 million debt for the school.

That was the plan. Problem was, with just the school and petrochemical plants in the zone, there was no place for development. Worse yet, beginning in 1997, the property values of the chemical facilities began a steady decline. The three companies successfully appealed to the Harris County Appraisal District at least eight times to have their land value reduced, sometimes as much as 40 to 50 percent, according to county records. Their combined taxable value fell from $391 million to nearly $190 million. In seven years, the zone around Chavez hasn’t earned the school district any money. It’s the only one of Houston’s 22 tax reinvestment zones that hasn’t brought in a single cent.

Seven years after Chavez opened, the effect of airborne toxins on students’ health is difficult to ascertain. The school nurse refuses to discuss student health, citing privacy concerns. Several teachers are hesitant to talk with a reporter, and Principal Dan DeLeon declined an interview request. But mounting evidence suggests that exposure to high levels of butadiene and benzene can have debilitating long-term effects on developing bodies.

A block away from Chavez, a short residential street dead-ends into the Texas Petrochemicals plant fence line. Huge, golf-ball shaped chemical storage tanks rise behind the houses. Residents say releases from the plant occur several times a week from the nearby flame tower’s burn-offs that rattle windows and light up the night sky. “You see that flame, it’s like daylight here,” says Juan M. Amaya, 70, who’s lived next to the plants for 10 years. Every morning, Amaya washes a layer of bright brown dust off his pickup. He says his wife has developed a terrible cough since they’ve lived on the street. His neighbors describe respiratory and skin problems, including psoriasis. Across the street, Jose Rodriguez wakes in the early morning to begin his route as a dump-truck driver. The smells early in the morning are almost unbearable, he says. Since they moved here 14 years ago, Rodriguez says, his wife, Sandra, has developed asthma. There are other stories of leukemia in the area. (The best-documented case is that of Valentin Marroquin, who developed leukemia after attending J.R. Harris Elementary. He’s now in remission.)

It’s difficult to determine exactly how much benzene and butadiene lurks in the air near Chavez. The three plants next to the school spewed 114,806 pounds of butadiene in 2005, according to the EPA’s Toxic Release Inventory. Texas Petrochemicals, the closest plant to the school, emitted 104,540 pounds of butadiene. Houston’s Bureau of Air Quality Control consistently measures concentrations of butadiene around the Texas Petrochemicals plant above 1 part per billion over the course of a year. Those levels could be dangerous. A 2002 EPA study on mice found that extended respiratory exposure to butadiene above 0.9 ppb can cause serious health problems.

It’s worth noting that releases of butadiene can begin to dissipate within two hours on clear days, and how much exposure kids at Chavez receive on a given day depends on wind direction. The recent University of Texas study, however, offers stark warnings. The report found that children living in areas with heavy butadiene concentrations saw a 40 percent higher risk for all forms of leukemia. The city health department will soon begin a door-to-door health study in the East End that may better document the prevalence of leukemia and other forms of cancer.

In 2005, the Chronicle published an investigative series by reporter Dina Cappiello called “In Harm’s Way.” The paper set up its own air monitors in some of Houston’s most polluted neighborhoods and found dangerous levels of toxins with potentially devastating health effects. While East End communities remain apathetic, the series and subsequent articles by Cappiello did have an effect at City Hall. The depth of the series’ political impact was such that, when interviewed for this story, City Council member Carol Alvarado, who represents the East End and Chavez High School, even invokes the series’ name. “The debate is over. We’re in harm’s way,” she says. With little enforcement coming from the state, Mayor White’s administration has used what legal remedies it has to crack down on industrial emissions along the Ship Channel.

In late 2005, the city convinced Texas Petrochemicals to sign a butadiene-reduction agreement for its plant beside Chavez. After the agreement, the plant reduced butadiene emissions by 58 percent, according to city officials. Several recent releases at the plant, including a major upset last September, undid much of that progress. Under the agreement, Texas Petrochemicals has until the end of 2007 to bring its butadiene air concentrations below 1 ppb.

Meanwhile, the politics of air pollution in Houston continues to shift. The city is working to pass a benzene-reduction plan that would target Harris County’s top seven benzene producers. (The plan has come under attack from mayors and state lawmakers outside Houston.) Alvarado says she, too, is serious about the problem. Alvarado grew up not far from the future site of Chavez High, but Parras and others in the community have long been frustrated with what they say is her inaction on air pollution. Parras says Alvarado refused to help him fight the location of Chavez High. Asked about the school after a recent council meeting, she says, “[Air quality] does need to be a criteria in the future for new schools. In the future, schools should not be in a 2-mile proximity of a chemical facility.” She has no legislation pending on the subject and says she would have to research whether the city or state or district can determine placement of schools. Asked if she thinks the school should be moved, she hedges, “That’s a discussion we have to have with HISD. You have to look at who pays for it.”

For Parras, it’s obvious—or should be obvious—that schools shouldn’t be built in such places. Late on a crisp February afternoon, Parras wraps up his toxic tour. He walks down off the Chavez bleachers and heads toward the parking lot. Before leaving, he points out one of the new additions to the Chavez campus—a course for the cross-country team. The trail cuts through the woods and leads north from the school, above the pipeline easement, and toward the flame towers, where students run along the fence line.

Dave Mann is a former editor of the Observer.

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Published at 12:00 am CST