Houstonians sound off on environmental racism at hearing


“Environmental racism,” Niermann was saying, as he responded to Miles. “I’m not sure what to do with that term.”

Activists in the overflow room react to TCEQ Chair Jon Niermann comments during the Sunset Advisory commission meeting at the Texas State Capitol on Tuesday, June 21, 2022 in Austin.

Elizabeth Conley, Houston Chronicle / Staff photographer

‘DESPERATE FOR RELIEF’: EPA promises help with contaminated Fifth Ward rail yard, targeting ‘unjust conditions’

“Get him, Senator,” said someone in the room, among the many waiting for two minutes allotted to speak to the commission.

Those seated in the overflow room knew the importance of that phrase: They live with environmental racism. And they care enough about the injustice in their daily existence that they rose at 4 am — or stayed up all night — to board buses in Houston to be here. They planned to tell the mostly white officials on the dais about the disproportionate burden of hazards their predominantly Black and Latino communities face.

“We’re long overdue for change,” said Camil Boyd, who works in Fifth Ward, as she waited her turn, hoping to see the officials take a stand.

Niermann’s seemingly tin-eared comments made it clear they had work to do.

State environmental regulators are up for Sunset review — an evaluation that typically comes up every 12 years, looking at whether the agency should be abolished or improved in concrete ways. The Texas Sunset Advisory Commission, made up of 10 legislators and two appointed members of the public, were slated to discuss and hear feedback about improvements needed at the agency on Wednesday.

CHECK OUR MAPS: Houston’s dangerous concrete plants are mostly in communities of color. Residents are fighting back.

All morning, Sunset commission members interrogated the Sunset staff and Niermann about the proposed changes, which include holding a second public hearing on contentious permits and making changes to how it regulates industry. The recommendations went way too far in the eyes of state Sen. Charles Perry, a Republican from Lubbock, who chastised staff members for going beyond their roles. Niermann also challenged them.

“My own view of these recommendations is (that) the benefit (of them) is not quite clear to me,” Niermann said to the commission members, who will decide whether to keep the recommendations, modify or toss them. “The costs are a little bit more clear.”

Environmental advocates felt the recommendations didn’t go far enough.

For example, Miles outlined for the group the impact of facilities that combine the ingredients for concrete in poor, minority neighborhoods. He shared about residents living near the Union Pacific rail yard that is contaminated with toxic creosote, and the people getting cancer all around it. Many people were in the overflow rooms waiting to tell the officials about their experiences, he said.

Attendees listen to the Sunset Advisory staff's recommendations for the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality at the Texas State Capitol on Tuesday, June 21, 2022 in Austin.  The Sunset Advisory commission reviews state agencies every 12 years - and state environmental regulators are currently up for review.

Attendees listen to the Sunset Advisory staff’s recommendations for the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality at the Texas State Capitol on Tuesday, June 21, 2022 in Austin. The Sunset Advisory commission reviews state agencies every 12 years – and state environmental regulators are currently up for review.

Elizabeth Conley, Houston Chronicle / Staff photographer

“We are here because we want and cannot allow TCEQ to continue to selectively interpret the statute, Senator Perry, and ignore Texans for the sake of industry,” Miles said, continuing. “Economic development should never be put before the protection of our state’s public health.”

A woman in the audience leaned forward and nodded: “Tell it like it is,” she said.

This story will be updated. The meeting is ongoing.

emily.foxhall@chron.com

Featured Environment Stories


Read more related stories here


Leave a Comment