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Category: Environment

View from Hartman Park, Manchester, Houston. Photo: Paul Hester.

Still ‘In Harm’s Way’? Ten Years of Struggle to Reduce Air Toxics in Houston

In 2004, Dina Cappiello, a reporter for the Houston Chronicle, investigated air pollution in Manchester and other neighborhoods along the Ship Channel. The article, “In Harm’s Way,” won national accolades, including the Kevin Carmody Award for Investigative Reporting. Then newly elected Mayor Bill White took on air pollution as one of his signature efforts. Ten years later, the question is, did he succeed? Are Houstonians still in harm’s way?

The 2004 Chronicle study found levels of the carcinogens benzene and 1,3-butadiene high enough to pose a threat to public health. Consider this excerpt from the report:

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All renderings and sections by Erling Cruz.

A Proposal for Birdwatch Towers along Galveston Bay

For more on the environment, get a hold of Cite 93 and see OffCite’s previous coverage.

When 170,000 gallons of heavy crude oil spilled into Galveston Bay on March 22, naturalists noted that the timing was potentially catastrophic. In Spring, Galveston Bay is a rest stop on a superhighway of bird migration. According to a recent report in the Houston Chronicle, as of April 4, 39 dolphins, 17 turtles, and 331 birds had died in and around Galveston and Matagorda Island since the spill. Apparently, wind blew much of the oil into the Gulf. Damage to the bay could have been far worse.

Still, the best hope for our region is to see our defenses against storm surges, our industrial base, and our natural habitats as coexisting in a single system rather than locked in conflict, according to proposals backed by John Nau and James Baker, as well as academic experts associated with the SSPEED Center. OffCite covered the proposed basic idea. Lisa Gray wrote about University of Houston architecture professor Thomas Colbert’s concept for linking tourist infrastructure and a storm barrier with bird habitats.

But what would Galveston Bay look like as a tourist destination?

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Residents of Northwood Manor protest Whispering Pines landfill in 1979. Courtesy: Robert Bullard.

Can Houston Be Green Without Brown and Black?

This post is excerpted from “The Mountains of Houston: Environmental Justice and the Politics of Garbage,” published in Cite 93.

In 1990, environmental justice leaders sent a letter to the “Big Ten” environmental and conservation groups (Sierra Club, Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund [now Earthjustice], National Audubon Society, National Wildlife Federation, Environmental Defense Fund, Environmental Policy Institute/Friends of the Earth, Izaak Walton League, The Wilderness Society, National Parks and Conservation Association, and Natural Resources Defense Council), charging them with elitism, classism, and paternalism. The letter also called their attention to their lack of diversity in terms of staff, board members, and program. A March 2013 Washington Post article headlined “Within mainstream environmentalist groups, diversity is lacking,” hit on this same theme more than two decades later.

Progress in Houston has been slow and uneven. Although Houston is a city with people of color in the majority, for some reason it has not developed a strong network of environmental justice organizations to address issues facing its people of color population such as those in New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago. Although the city has several well-known environmental justice groups run by people of color (Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services among them), much of the heavy environmental lifting in Houston is still left to the White environmental groups. One need only examine the member groups of the Houston-Galveston Citizens’ Environmental Coalition (CEC) to see that Houston’s environmental community has a serious diversity problem. Of the 102 CEC member groups, only two are organized by people of color (Great Plains Restoration Council and Pleasantville Environmental Coalition).

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Photographs by Tom Colbert and Raj Mankad. Illustration by Sarah Welch.

The Alps of Pasadena

In the process of developing Cite (93), a special issue on the environment, guest editor Tom Colbert and I drove all around the Houston region, from the bay to the piney woods, photographing landfills. We were inspired by Dr. Robert Bullard, a contributor to the issue. His 1979 study of solid-waste disposal in Houston revealed that five out of five city-owned landfills and six of the eight city-owned incinerators were sited in Black neighborhoods. That research helped spark an international environmental justice movement. In his article for Cite, Bullard describes the low-tech methodology behind the 1979 study: “If we noticed a hill in the usually flat landscape, we investigated it because a change in topography often indicated a dump.”

With that history in mind, Colbert and I wanted to create a comprehensive photographic guide to Houston’s “mountains,” but our region, it turns out, has far more manmade changes in topography than a team of two can document over a couple of weekends. In this post, I share a series of photos that show one of the most mind-boggling sites in the Houston area, the Alps of Pasadena.

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Photos courtesy Actar.

The Petropolis of Tomorrow

Before I had children, Houston was to me a city of writers, artists, and activists. The oil and gas industry was an abstraction. Once I started attending parent meetings and playdates, however, I came to know families with a father spending weeks away from home on a regular basis. They flew to some deep-sea platform or a rig in the middle of North Dakota. Given this local familiarity with the human struggle behind every gallon of gas, it is appropriate that the proposals in a new book called The Petropolis of Tomorrow (Actar Publishers 2014), co-edited by Neeraj Bhatia and Mary Casper, were partly developed here in Houston and that the book will be launched on March 17 at the Rice School of Architecture.

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Sunday Streets HTX, 2014 Spring. Map by Asakura Robinson.

Mayor Parker Announces Sunday Streets

Yesterday, Mayor Annise Parker announced that on the first Sundays of April, May, and June a street will be closed to motorized vehicles from 11 am – 3 pm and opened to pedestrians and bicyclists. A petition I launched — inspired by an article on this very blog — created much of the momentum for this effort, which is documented here.

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Houston Ship Channel. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

Growing Risks: Balancing Houston’s Prosperity and Air Quality, Part 2

The post below is the second in a two-part series on the complexities of air pollution in Houston. Click here to read Part 1. Each post excerpts “Growing Risks” by Larry Soward, a former Commissioner at the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. The full article is available in the print issue of Cite 93.


So, given all this growth and economic development that is happening or about to happen in the Houston region, what are the costs in terms of risks to our environment, our health, and our quality of life? The most significant costs stemming from all this growth are the impacts on public health. Out of a total population of almost 4.2 million in Harris County, over 93,000 suffer from pediatric asthma; almost 223,000 suffer from adult asthma; 156,000 live with COPD; almost 1 million have cardiovascular disease; 300,000 have diabetes. At particular risk are the almost 1.2 million residents who are children under age 18; more than 350,000 individuals who are 65 and over; and the more than 800,000 people who live in poverty. Most of the expected major industrial growth will be in communities along the Ship Channel which are already inundated with petrochemical plants and refineries and overburdened with pollution and health risks. Already experiencing higher levels of air pollution, increased incidents of cardiac and respiratory illnesses and increased risks of air toxics-related illnesses, these communities will very likely have their health problems made even worse.

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Animation of Air Quality Index (AQI), a combination of ozone and particulate matter, over 24-hour period. Source:

Growing Risks: Balancing Houston's Prosperity and Air Quality, Part 1

The map of cancer risk associated with exposure to air toxins shown on the cover of Cite 93 and further discussed on this blog has been picked up by Swamplot, Houston Chronicle, KHOU, and CW39 NewsFix. The brief television reports focused on the east side of town, whereas our coverage stressed that health problems associated with air pollution affects affluent areas to the west as well. The post below is the first in a two-part series on the complexities of air pollution in Houston. Each post excerpts “Growing Risks” by Larry Soward, a former Commissioner at the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. The full article is available in the print issue of Cite 93.

Population and economic growth in the Houston region create a virtuous cycle of business development, cultural vibrancy, and improved quality of life. There are also some significant costs and risks associated with that growth when it comes to our environment and our health. Let’s look at four growth areas that could significantly inhibit that virtuous cycle by compromising our air quality. The challenges are complex and require the region as a whole to face up to the hard choices ahead.

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Houston total cancer risk per million by census tract as determined by the 2005 National-Scale Air Toxics Assessment (NATA). Source:

What's your cancer risk in Houston? (Bigger than in Dallas)

The above map shows cancer risk by census tract in the Houston region using data from the Environmental Protection Agency. We used the same data to emboss the cover of Cite 93. As in other cities, the areas closer to the center of Houston have a higher risk for cancer. However, one needs only to compare screenshots from the mapping tool to see that Houston is exceptional. Let’s look at Dallas-Fort Worth versus Houston.

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Environmentalist and "philosopher housewife" Terry Hershey. Photo: Center for Public History at the University of Houston.

Holding Ground: A Look at University of Houston’s “Environmental Past” Exhibit

“It is hard to be a female figurehead at 8:30 in the morning.”

These were among Terry Hershey’s opening words at a 1970 meeting of the Soil Conservation Society of America (now the Soil and Water Conservation Society) in Waco, Texas. A year prior, she had earned a permanent place in Houston history. At the invitation of newly elected congressperson George H.W. Bush, Hershey successfully petitioned Congress to prevent the Army Corps of Engineers from transforming the meandering, Cottonwood- and Black Willow-lined banks of Buffalo Bayou west of Shepherd Drive into a concrete drainage ditch. That win, following an almost 20-year fight, is arguably the defining moment for Houston’s environmental movement.

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