Latinx community defies oil and gas refinery hazards
During a recent “cafecito,” a short and casual conversation, Erandi Treviño sat down with a community member who told her the air he breathes feels heavy.
It’s a feeling she’s all too familiar with after spending most of her life in southeast Houston, home to the largest concentration of oil refineries and petrochemical plants in the United States.
Treviño spends a lot of time holding chats like these over coffee with people in the neighborhood. She wants to address some of the anxiety they’re feeling about poor air quality and provide insight about how those conditions affect their health. Treviño is a community organizer and environmental advocate for EcoMadres, a national community of parents and caregivers working to protect Latino families from air pollution and climate change, and Public Citizen, where she leads the Healthy Port Communities Coalition, fighting for clean air and climate justice in Houston. The work is sorely needed.
Latinx people are 165 percent more likely than non-Latino whites to live where there are unhealthy levels of particulate matter pollution, according to a recent report from the League of United Latin American Citizens.
“There are two different types of Houston: the seen and unseen. In the same city where you have one of the most highly revered cancer centers, you also have areas where people are so sick to the point where they get cancer,” Treviño said. “So many people live in unlivable conditions in a city with such a capacity to make it not so.”
Living—and fighting back—where “industry is put ahead of people”
After emigrating from Monterrey, Mexico, when she was young, Treviño’s family finally landed in Houston. Unfortunately, their new neighbor was the oil and gas industry. Since she was 7 years old, she’s been breathing in toxic fumes that rise in dark, oppressive plumes over the refineries surrounding her neighborhood.
After oil and gas is extracted, often on public lands, it is transported to refineries, where it is converted to petroleum products like gasoline, kerosene or jet fuel. This process leaks benzene, a byproduct that can cause short-term and chronic health issues, like drowsiness, dizziness and even blood disorders. A recent Environmental Integrity Project analysis, using data from the EPA, found that five Texas refineries leaked more benzene than the federal pollution limits in 2021. Sure enough, growing up near refineries has caused several gradual and chronic health problems for Treviño and her predominantly Latino community.
Communities already subjected to poor air quality are also often on the front lines of climate change extremes. Houston, for example, is experiencing longer and hotter heat waves, which poses a significant risk to those already living with chronic health conditions.
“We always say here that industry is put ahead of people and communities. That's the Texas way,” Treviño said.
Treviño refuses to accept that. She is already seeing her community joining together to fight for the right to clean air and a chance to protect and defend themselves from industry interests.
But in southeast Houston, where quality education and healthcare are either too expensive or limited, it often feels like people are fighting with “one hand tied behind their back,” she said. “It’s like taking a plant that’s riddled with pests and not adding anything it needs to even defend itself.”
That’s why Treviño thinks about her environmental justice work as a garden: Maintaining healthy soil and healthy ecosystem means making sure all the right ingredients are in place for life to thrive, like healthy food and clean water. Addressing some of these ground-level problems people are facing will help accelerate that fight.
“We can’t ensure a perfect life for anybody, or even a great one for everybody, but we can ensure that they have the same opportunities,” concluded Treviño. “We can do our best. That's what I'm fighting for — a fighting chance.”
Erandi Treviño's story is part of a collection in “5 Stories: Resistance in the era of fossil fuels and climate change” where we talk to community members organizing, rallying and fighting back against the various stages of the fossil fuel lifecycle, from the point of oil and gas extraction to the climate extremes it creates.