Hurricane Harvey: Zip Code & Race Determine Who Will Bear Burden Of Climate Change
DR. ROBERT BULLARD: Well, the best predictor of health and well-being in our society, and including Houston, is ZIP Code. You tell me your ZIP Code, I can tell you how healthy you are. And one of the best predictors of environmental vulnerability is ZIP Code and race. And all communities are not created equal. Houston’s people of color communities historically have borne the burden for environmental pollution, and also the impact of flooding and other kinds of natural and man-made disasters.
When we talk about the impact of sea level rise and we talk about the impacts of climate change, you’re talking about a disproportionate impact on communities of color, on poor people, on people who don’t have health insurance, communities that don’t have access to food and grocery stores. So you talk about mapping vulnerability and mapping this disaster and the impact, not just the loss of housing and loss of jobs, but also the impact of having pollution and these spills, and the oil and chemicals going into the water, and who is living closest to these hazards?
Historically, even before Harvey, before this storm, before this flood, people of color in Houston bore a disproportionate burden of having to live next to, surrounded by, these very dangerous chemicals. And so you talk about these chemical hotspots, these sacrifice zones. Those are the communities that are people of color.
Houston is the fourth-largest city, but it’s the only city that does not have zoning. And what it has is—communities of color and poor communities have been unofficially zoned as compatible with pollution. And we say that is—we have a name for it. We call that environmental injustice and environmental racism. It is that plain and it’s just that simple.
And so this flood in Houston is exacerbating existing disparities, so that is why I say we have to talk about—when we talk about moving past the flooding part, and moving to cleanup and recovery and rebuilding, we have to build in environmental and economic justice into that formula. Otherwise, we will be rebuilding on inequity. We say that’s unacceptable.
‘Your eyes start itching’: pollution soars in Houston after chemical industry leaks
On Friday, ozone levels in south-west Houston were nearly three times higher than the national standard, triggering one of Texas’s worst recent smogs. Scientists warned that people outside cleaning up in the aftermath of Harvey were vulnerable to the poor air, particularly the elderly, children and those with asthma.
According to an analysis by the Center for Biological Diversity, a cocktail of nearly 1m pounds of particularly harmful substances such as benzene, hexane, sulfur dioxide, butadiene and xylene have been emitted by more than 60 petroleum industry plants operated by ExxonMobil, Shell, Chevron and other businesses since the hurricane.
Houston has not met national air quality standards since the introduction of the Clean Air Act in 1970 and the sudden surge in pollution has caused deep concern among public health advocates….
AP EXCLUSIVE: Toxic waste sites flooded in Houston area
The Associated Press surveyed seven Superfund sites in and around Houston during the flooding. All had been inundated with water, in some cases many feet deep.
On Saturday, hours after the AP published its first report, the EPA said it had reviewed aerial imagery confirming that 13 of the 41 Superfund sites in Texas were flooded by Harvey and were “experiencing possible damage” due to the storm….
The statement confirmed the AP’s reporting that the EPA had not yet been able to physically visit the Houston-area sites, saying the sites had “not been accessible by response personnel.” EPA staff had checked on two Superfund sites in Corpus Christi on Thursday and found no significant damage….
Under the Obama administration, the EPA conducted a nationwide assessment of the increased threat to Superfund sites posed by climate change, including rising sea levels and stronger hurricanes. Of the more than 1,600 sites reviewed as part of the 2012 study, 521 were determined to be in 1-in-100 year and 1-in-500 year flood zones. Nearly 50 sites in coastal areas could also be vulnerable to rising sea levels.
The threats to human health and wildlife from rising waters that inundate Superfund sites vary widely depending on the specific contaminants and the concentrations involved. The EPA report specifically noted the risk that floodwaters might carry away and spread toxic materials over a wider area.
The report listed two dozen Superfund sites determined to be especially vulnerable to flooding and sea-level rise. The only one in Texas, the Bailey Waste Disposal site south of Beaumont, is on a marshy island along the Neches River. The National Weather Service said the Neches was expected to crest on Saturday at more than 21 feet above flood stage — 8 feet higher than the prior record.