HOUSTON (AP) — Danielle Nelson’s best monitor for the emissions billowing out of the oil refineries and chemical plants surrounding her home: The heaving chest of her 9-year-old asthmatic son.
On some nights, the boy’s chest shudders as he fights for breath in his sleep. Nelson suspects the towering plants and refineries are to blame, rising like a lit-up city at night around her squat brick apartment building in the rugged Texas Gulf Coast city of Port Arthur.
Ask Nelson what protection the federal government and plant operators provide her African American community, and her answer is blunt. “They’re basically killing us,” says the 37-year-old, who herself has been diagnosed with respiratory problems since moving to the community after 2017′s Hurricane Harvey.
“We don’t even know what we’re breathing,” she says.
The Texas Gulf Coast is the United States’ petrochemical corridor, with four of the country’s 10 biggest oil and gas refineries and thousands of chemical facilities.
Residents of the mostly black and Latino communities closest to the refineries and chemical plants say that puts them on the front line of the Trump administration’s rollbacks of decades of public health and environmental protections.
Under President Donald Trump, federal regulatory changes are slashing requirements on industry to monitor, report and reduce toxic pollutants, heavy metals and climate-damaging fossil fuel emissions, and to work transparently with communities to prevent plant disasters — such as the half-dozen major chemical fires and explosions that have killed workers, frightened residents and disrupted life along the Texas Gulf Coast over the past year alone.
And that plunge in public health enforcement may be about to get even more dramatic. Last month, Environmental Protection Agency administrator Andrew Wheeler, a coal lobbyist before Trump appointed him to the agency, announced enforcement waivers for industries on monitoring, reporting and quickly fixing hazardous releases in instances where the EPA decides that staffing problems related to the coronavirus pandemic have made compliance difficult.
Since then, air pollutants in Houston’s most heavily industrialized areas have surged as much as 62%, a Texas A & M analysis of state air monitor readings found.
EPA says it is balancing public and business interests in trimming what the Trump administration considers unnecessary regulations.
“Maintaining public health and enforcing existing environmental protections is of the upmost importance to EPA,” agency spokeswoman Andrea Woods said by email. “This administration’s deregulatory efforts are focused on rooting out inefficiencies, not paring back protections for any sector of society.”
On the Texas Gulf Coast, African Americans under segregation were shunted to low-lying coastal areas prone to high water, Port Arthur activist Hilton Kelley says as he tours his industrial neighborhood. As Texas towns grew, refineries, interstates and other, dirtier industries moved to those areas.
Stopping at the site of a razed public housing project where he was born in a bedroom looking out on the refineries, Kelley recalls, “always hearing about someone dying of cancer, always smelling smells, watching little babies using nebulizers.”
During the Obama administration, Kelley traveled to Washington for signing ceremonies for rules tightening regulations on pollutants and other health threats, and requiring industries to do more to report hazardous emissions. These days, Kelley’s trips to Washington are to protest rollbacks relaxing those rules.
”That’s a death sentence for us,” Kelley says, driving past the the sickly yellow light of a refinery burning off methane gas.
In Houston, one of the country’s largest cities without zoning rules, the exposure to toxins is compounded. In Hispanic Galena Park, a developer this year fracked an oil and gas well just hundreds of yards (meters) from a school. In another Hispanic community, Manchester, chemical storage tanks tower over single-story frame homes, encasing all but their porches and driveways.
Before dawn one day last month a headache-inducing chemical stench suffused the neighborhood as a child waited for a school bus.
Even before the Trump administration rollbacks, Houston’s urban freeways and industries were pumping enough poisonous refinery chemicals, heavy metals, and diesel and car exhaust to “almost certainly” be to blame for respiratory problems and early deaths, as well as an “unacceptable increased risk” for cancers and chronic disease, concluded a city task force, started in 2005 to study the health impacts.
Residents of some predominantly minority Houston neighborhoods face at least three times the cancer risks of Americans overall, according to a 2014 EPA assessment, the most recent available.
Last year, state health officials confirmed a cancer cluster in one African American Houston neighborhood where residents had for years complained that creosote from a former rail yard was killing residents. One woman drove around with a mock human skeleton in her passenger seat to try to draw attention to the deaths.
Among other health harms, Houston’s African American families, many of them in neighborhoods near one of the nation’s largest clusters of petrochemical plants, report twice as many asthma cases as the city’s white families, according to a federal government study.
One recent day, 50-year-old Felicia Lacy hummed a hymn as she nuzzled her 4-year-old granddaughter, Kdynn, who lay in bed with a plastic oxygen mask on her face. Lacy wakes the girl at 5:30 a.m each morning for an hour of asthma treatment.
Lacy blames Houston’s polluted air for the asthma-related pneumonia that killed a son at 27, and for the little girl’s asthma and her own. She takes her own turn at the nebulizer after she gets the child off to preschool.
Lacy doesn’t often allow Kdynn and another grandchild play outside, no matter how much they plead.
“I can’t have it happen to them,” she says, referring to her son’s asthma death. “Not on my watch.”