“Cancer Alley”: Texas Environmental Challenge

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“Cancer Alley,” simultaneously one of the most swept under, yet widespread persistent environmental issues in the United States, is a highly polluted industrialized region with a documented history of environmental contamination historically spreading from Baton Rouge to New Orleans, Louisiana. Today, however, this expanding region now also often refers to Texas City and surrounding industrial areas. Texas City, founded in the late 1800s, is the site of large-scale environmental incidents, including the 1947 ship explosions that killed over 580 people (ABC13 Houston 2017) and the 2005 refinery explosion that killed 15 workers and injured over 180 people (CSB 2007). It is now home to the second-largest refinery in the US and various other petro-chemical facilities. A port city along the Houston Ship Channel and less than 20 miles from the affluent suburbs of Houston, Texas City is characterized as an “agglomeration of industries,” “situated in proximity to shipping routes for ease of transporting crude oil throughout the global oil economy,” and “prone to exposure from toxic pollutants” (Williams, Marilyn Marie, 2008). The history of Texas City combined with the on-going industrial growth create lower adjacent housing prices than the surrounding Houston suburbs. As such, people of color are disproportionately living in these areas and, as a result, are exposed to higher levels of pollutants creating an issue of environmental justice. Dr. Robert Bullard, known as ‘the father of environmental justice,’ notes “It’s an economic issue but there are also racial dynamics playing out, and race is still the most powerful predictor of where these facilities are located” (Lee, Trymain, 2015).

In July 2017, Texas Environmental groups filed a law suit against the EPA, “alleging the federal agency isn't properly policing Texas air pollution permits” (Kiah, Collier 2017). They claim that Texas mega-plants not only set their level of emissions too high, but that the state of Texas “issues unenforceable permits with illegal loopholes that render useless some of the most basic pollution control requirements of federal and state law” (Kiah Collier, 2017). This arguably allows these industries to release toxic contaminants beyond regulatory standards potentially impacting the health and safety of the surrounding communities. Williams notes that “…three out of eight counties [in the Houston area] (Harris, Brazoria and Galveston; all of which surrounding the Baytown refinery complex] were ranked in the top five of counties in Texas with the greatest reported releases of recognized carcinogens to air, with Harris County being number one” (Williams, Marilyn Marie, 2008). Despite the growing population around these refineries, due to demand for homes that are less expensive than the more affluent suburban areas like Pearland or Friendswood, these health risks have still been largely ignored.

In the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey in August 2017, this industrialized area and its surrounding predominantly African American and Hispanic neighborhoods experienced extreme flooding. However, it was the oil refineries that received immediate funding for repairs while the surrounding communities continued to live in wreckage awaiting insurance payments, in any, and FEMA support. Natural disasters like Hurricane Harvey and Hurricane Ike in 2008 have highlighted the persistent environmental justice concerns in Texas City. The adjacent City of Houston has become one of the fastest growing cities in the nation as well as one of the most diverse in its population “… with the white population comprising less than 50 percent of the total population” (Williams, Marilyn Marie 2008). In the American concept of justice, many of the most common disputes regard race. Cities have commonly become divided into factions and sections based on different cultures and race; Chicago being the most infamous for it and Houston being no different. According to Goodmann and Bullard, “Houston is [also] very segregated along racial and economic lines. And [Hurricane Harvey] has really shown that. If you look at ZIP codes … You can … map how resources have been allocated and distributed over the last 50 years” (Goodmann, Amy, and Robert Bullard, 2017).

Given the history of Texas City and the on-going inequitable exposure of surrounding neighborhoods to pollutants, it can be argued that U.S. and State of Texas environmental policies and regulations have not adequately addressed the perceived environmental justice issues surrounding Texas City. Interestingly, when viewed from an international policy perspective, documents like the Paris Agreement aim towards a more communal, global approach in defining every human’s basic right to clean resources, acting as an idealistic approach to environmental justice issues on a global scale. However, while these documents do in fact raise awareness, their basic format and loose outline of an objective often cause countries to fall through the gaps on the road to obtaining the goal, and it’s the minorities, or developing countries on a global level, who then suffer the consequences. The United Nation’s (UN) Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (CESCR) promote natural resources, like clean water and clean air, as “indispensable for leading a life in human dignity.” (CESCR, 2003). CESCR state that “(water) is a prerequisite for the realization of other human rights' and that everyone has a right to not just water but “sufficient, safe, acceptable and physically accessible...(and) affordable (water) for personal and domestic uses” (CESCR, 2003).

While it has been documented that Texas City environmental contaminants have consistently exceeded US and State of Texas air quality standards, US and State environmental agencies unfortunately do not also regulate in terms of “human dignity” as advocated by the UN – a common theme in environmental justice issues. In Houston and Texas City, several national environmental databases suggest that these areas are among the most polluted in the US with a disproportionate number of minorities and people of color living in the most contaminated areas – issues that impact human dignity. The US has signed a global treaty about protecting natural resources and ensuring human dignity; however, there remain unaddressed inequities and environmental justice issues in our own country and state. While hurricane events and industrial accidents periodically highlight and enhance this persistent issue of disproportionate contamination and exposure, it appears that few substantive improvements have been made over the years. As such, these relatively highly contaminated regions, such as Texas City, in the absence of more holistic environmental policies that incorporate economic considerations, social justice and human dignity considerations, among other factors, may continue to expand “Cancer Alley” from an industrial area along the Mississippi to Texas and, today, even to the panhandle of Florida.

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"Cancer Alley": Texas Environmental Challenge. (2021, Oct 12). Retrieved June 20, 2024 , from

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