In Harris County, hazardous waste is a way of life. [Editorial]

In Harris County, hazardous waste is a way of life. [Editorial]
In Harris County, hazardous waste is a way of life. [Editorial]

And at least as far back as that, the region made an agreement that continues to define the area: We will welcome industry and its jobs and its economic benefits in exchange for its pollution and environmental risks.

That agreement is constantly renegotiated and changed, often without the knowledge or input of the wider community.

When County Judge Lina Hidalgo raised concerns last month about the firefighting wastewater coming from the train derailment site in East Palestine, Ohio, she gave necessary attention to the dynamics of this deal.

Last year, the state accepted more than 105,000 tons of toxic waste from around the country, disposed of in permitted facilities like the one in Deer Park that received some of its wastewater from Ohio.

Everyone could see the damage done in Ohio earlier: huge clouds of black smoke billowed over the skyline. It was decidedly less obvious when the waste created by the cleanup efforts there made its way into Harris County where it would be injected deep into the ground into storage wells by a private company, Texas Molecular.

Local leaders first raised concerns, prompting federal regulators to pause the shipments, before eventually assuring residents that the process was safe and that Harris County was the right place for it given our expertise in waste management.

“We are sometimes challenged by having industry here in Harris County, but in this case we are fortunate because we have the most experienced people to handle these situations,” Harris County Commissioner Adrian Garcia told Houston Public Media.

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“We produce a lot of stuff that needs to be treated, and we’ve developed industries to do that,” explained Janet Kohlhase, an economics professor at the University of Houston who studies Superfund sites.

In fact, there are only a handful of facilities nationwide that offer this particular type of waste management, said George Guillen, executive director of the Environmental Institute of Houston and professor of environmental science at the University of Houston-Clear Lake. Here in Texas we have several.

“We have a lot of them because we have a lot of industry,” he said.

For some, it is reassuring. These are permitted facilities that require special training.

But for others, it only emphasizes the uneven geography of hazardous waste disposal – and of the risk of hazardous waste gone wrong – in places such as Houston, where the burden is inevitably borne disproportionately by community of color.

In environmental law circles, these congested areas are called “victim zones” or sometimes “waste havens”. Fenceline communities living next to industry, including along the Houston Ship Channel, live these experiences every day.

“Nobody cares about what’s happening in our neighborhood unless it affects more affluent communities,” Sema Hernandez, a Pasadena mother and environmental organizer told Inside Climate News about the waste that was making its way next to her.

Some have questioned whether Hidalgo overreacted. It’s just some wastewater with some vinyl chloride, a fairly common chemical. And the disposal technology seems safe enough. Like Garcia, our reporting convinced us that the material would be handled responsibly here. But we are not convinced that if if something goes wrong, the most vulnerable communities will be adequately protected or taken care of.

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If you don’t share our skepticism, just consider how long Fifth Ward and Kashmere Gardens residents have had to fight for real progress in a potential cleanup at the Union Pacific rail yard contaminated with toxic creosote before the Environmental Protection Agency stepped in this week : the wood processing plant stopped using creosote there in 1984. Residents are still fighting for a cleanup.

As for her initial reaction, Hidalgo was a little sheepish in a recent interview, saying she didn’t expect to be notified of every shipment of hazardous materials headed to Harris County but that high-profile matters should come to her attention. She raised a valid concern about only learning of the wastewater through the media and the county notifying federal agencies of what happened here. That lack of transparency is not acceptable.

Here in Harris County, we know all too well that things can go wrong, very wrong. And when they do, we don’t want our leaders to be in the dark—or our communities.

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