Houston Ship Channel. Photo: Geneva Vest

Tour the Houston Ship Channel and Behold Its Awesome Power

This article by Geneva Vest is part of a special series called #H2Ouston.

If you’re looking for a day trip to kick off this spring weather, look no further than the Sam Houston Boat Tour. The Houston Port Authority offers a free 90-minute tour of the Houston Ship Channel for the aquatically curious. When I went, I was joined by a boatload of Yes Prep environmental science students, retirees, and Chinese tourists. The trip, though, is relevant to all Houstonians. Our city formed around the original port at Allen’s Landing. Over one million jobs are related to the Houston Ship Channel.

The Sam Houston Boat Tour is surprisingly accessible. Not only is it free, it departs regularly Wednesday through Sunday at 10 AM and 2:30 PM from the Sam Houston Pavilion in the Greater East End. The point of departure is only a 20-minute drive (or a two-hour bike ride via Brays Bayou) from Rice University, meaning that the above-ground storage tanks containing undisclosed chemicals and streets built for 18-wheelers are within the Loop 610.

A medium-sized, surprisingly immaculate vessel welcomes you to the waters of Buffalo Bayou between 610 and Beltway 8. The captain chimes in with the names of passing objects but really all you can hear is a roaring wind and gurgling motor. Much of the scenery, then, is left up to the passenger’s interpretation.

Observations from the tour can be broken down into two categories: settings with nightclub potential and settings with horror movie potential. The Derichebourg scrap metal recycling plant, for instance, has great nightclub potential. There, a Caterpillar material handler moves a small pile of rusting refuse from a much larger pile (tons and tons of metal, give or take a ton), leaving a whimsical flurry of scrapped speckles shimmering in the air and water like the finale of a pop show. If that’s not your style, there is also the decrepit warehouse typology. With just a few repairs—replacing broken windows, checking for any superfund sites and perhaps some reroofing—this strip could be renovated into a Berlin-esque discotheque.

Recycling center. Photo: Geneva Vest

Mostly the ship channel is lined with spooky factories. Enormous steel complexes with air vents instead of windows and conveyor belt armatures jutting out of their bodies. Some sites are less nefarious than they appear. United States Gypsum, which specializes in sustainably manufactured building supplies, occupies a prominently decorated shed along the ship channel. Sinister-looking oil and gas refineries dominate the landscape, their silos and smoke stacks scraping the sky. All the while, the Houston skyline peeks between these spires.

United States Gypsum. Photo: Geneva Vest

Armatures. Photo: Geneva Vest

You don’t see or hear anything about the communities around the Houston Ship Channel—the cities of Baytown, Channelview, Galena Park, Magnolia Park, Manchester, and Pasadena—during the tour. I learned from a close friend who is writing her senior thesis on Channelview, the smallest of these towns, a few disturbing details the boat tour omits.

Channelview, home to some 40,000 residents as well as the 3,900-acre campus of the chemical manufacturer LyondellBasell, is in the 95 to 100 percentiles for USA cancer risk and 80 to 90 percentiles for USA respiratory hazard index. Channelview is also in the top 90 percentiles of proximity to superfund sites, risk management plan facilities, hazardous waste sites, and water discharge. You can find these environmental health statistics for Channelview and all other American municipalities at https://www.epa.gov/ejscreen. At the same time, LyondellBasell prides itself in community involvement and sponsors many churches, community centers, parks, and public schools in Channelview, all the while paying a hefty tax for operating in the city limits.

Elected official representing areas along the Ship Channel have often backed industry or studiously avoided picking battles. TEJAS (Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services) has organized local communities around environmental justice issues. The People’s Climate March, organized by Public Citizen, will take place at the Hartman Park in the Manchester Neighborhood on April 29, from 10 AM to 1 PM.

Unlike those in Channelview and the like, most Houstonians can go through their days without sensing that they live in a port city. As noted in a special issue of Cite on the port, the bigger the port becomes the more it disappears, moving farther and farther from Allen’s Landing and Downtown. In that same edition of Cite, Monica Savino identifies historic buildings that could bring Houstonians back in touch with the port (“Ruin or Resource: Reconnecting the City to the Ship Channel“). She writes that these connections could “continue the conversation about Houston’s industries and technologies and about the city’s wealth and workers, while viewing the aquatic route as a timeless symbol of opportunity.” One would also hope that we would pay more attention to our neighbors who live along industrial fencelines.

The tour is free and open to the public. You can reserve a spot on the ship channel tour at this link: Sam Houston Boat Tour.

River Terrace Park. Photo: Geneva Vest

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