#AceNewsDesk – Aug.17: Juan Parras gives one hell of a tour of Houston’s east side. He’s charming and funny. Wearing a beret, he strikes an old-world look, like he might lead you to a cafe on a plaza. He doesn’t charge a fee for his services. After all, you’re on a “toxic tour,” and Parras is on a mission Grist reports
Part of a series on communities overcoming obstacles to become cleaner and greener.
Parras grew up in 1950s West Texas. He remembers segregated schools, the restaurants that wouldn’t serve him, the unpaved roads, and the people who lived closest to the local refinery. Those experiences led him to a career as a social justice advocate. The resident of Houston’s heavily industrial east side has worked in a city housing department, for a union, for a law clinic, and on a campaign that stopped a PVC factory from being built in Louisiana’s “Cancer Alley.”
For the last decade, he has served as executive director of Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services (better known as t.e.j.a.s.). Part of his work is leading tours past the heaping piles of scrap metal along Houston’s Buffalo Bayou and by Cesar Chavez High School, which opened in 2000 within a quarter-mile of three large petrochemical plants.
Juan Parras has led Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services for the past decade. t.e.j.a.s.
Parras can go all day, up and down the Houston Ship Channel to Denver Harbor and neighborhoods like Galena Park, Baytown, and Pasadena. Surely you’ve read about the Keystone XL pipeline and other controversial proposed projects that would carry oil from the Canadian tar sands to Gulf Coast refineries? Parras can show you where many of them would end.
The toxic tour sometimes concludes in the neighborhood of Manchester, a six-square-mile grid of streets where the petrochemical industry towers directly over small homes. Where, according to EPA databases, Valero Refining can produce up to 160,000 barrels a day of gasoline and other fuels. Where the Ship Channel Bridge, one of the busiest stretches of Interstate 610, carries tens of thousands of vehicles per day (along with their emissions) directly over homes. And where about 4,000 people live — more than 95 percent of whom are people of color, and 90 percent low income.
The cancer risk for residents of Manchester and the neighboring community of Harrisburg is 22 percent higher than for the overall Houston urban area, according to a recent report from the Union of Concerned Scientists and t.e.j.a.s. While the city works to overcome its image as a dirty oil town, these neighborhoods remain solidly dominated by the petrochemical industry. And despite the work of Parras and his team, the environmental and health issues that Manchester’s residents face are not gaining enough political traction to garner real change.
“Environmental justice issues become all too easy to grasp when you take people into neighborhoods,” Parras said when the Sierra Club awarded him its 2015 Robert Bullard Environmental Justice Award. So Parras gives the toxic tour over and over again, hoping that, eventually, people will listen.