Troubled Waters: Discussion with Bryan Parras on Fenceline Communities on the Gulf Coast

Bryan Parras recently traveled to London to tell BP's board and shareholders that their oil disaster continues on the Gulf Coast.  He works with Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services (t.e.j.a.s) in Houston, and is an advisor to the Gulf Coast Fund for Community Renewal and Ecological Health. Parras spoke with Bridge The Gulf and the Institute for Southern Studies for the report Troubled Waters: Two Years After the BP Oil Disaster, a Struggling Gulf Coast Calls for National Leadership for Recovery.  He discussed working in communities that neighbor the Gulf Coast's many petrochemical facilities, and what it was like to grow up in one of those communities, Houston's East End, himself.


Bridge The Gulf / Institute For Southern Studies: Please introduce yourself.

Bryan Parras: My name is Bryan Parras. I live Houston’s East End. It’s right along the Houston Ship Channel. It’s about 15 miles of petrochemical plants and it’s one of the largest areas of concentrated plants and chemical plants and facilities. I consider this area to be a sacrifice zone for the west side.

I work with a couple of groups, one called the Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services (t.e.j.a.s) that focuses on environmental justice in the Houston area. We have been working and organizing those communities along that channel and also working with folks in different parts of Texas that are also fenceline communities.

BTG / ISS:  What are fenceline communities?

Parras: “Fenceline communities” is a way of describing communities that live adjacent to any sort of source of pollutant.  It could be a coal fire power plant, could be a refining industrial plant, a chemical facility, a superfund site that is next to your home or neighborhood. They are right on the fence of your neighborhood or home.

BTG / ISS: Tell me about what the impacts are for fenceline communities on the Gulf Coast?

Parras: So it is different in many different communities. In Port Arthur it is very blatant, the racism and the inequities, because you have a housing project surrounded by really big plants — Motiva and Valero — these huge facilities that have made all sorts of toxins, like benzene and Styrene, and you have the trucks going through them.

These are very poor folks with very little access to health care and there you see the whole neighborhood is blighted with very little commercial properties as well. A number of the folks are on breathing apparatus, have respiratory problems, skin conditions, cancers, and so those communities suffer from a large number of inequities.

And then you have communities, like Houston, where you have this amazing city of resources and it’s so big, it’s hard to see the disparities.  But if you go to the East side of Houston and go to the West side of Houston you do notice big differences. The East side is where all of the petrochemical plants are.  It’s where you have the highest number of rails, 18-wheeler traffic, and all of these other sort of facilities that help keep the port and ship channel running, which is largely dependent upon this oil and gas industry.

Hundreds of thousands of people live near these facilities and are at risk and are having to deal with the cumulative impact from different sources.

BTG / ISS:  What was it like growing up there?

Parras: There is something that kills the spirit when you live next to a refinery. You know deep down, in your self, that that means something like, “Wow, I am poor,” and you know, we have to live here.  And I have headaches, and it makes you angry as a kid because no one believes you, and you know, all these sort of thing spiral and cycle into this whole psyche of being of victim.

When I was in my twenties it hit.  I would see little kids playing and I would feel empathy with them because that sort of community space just like beats you down. It kills your creativity, and it kills your dreams, and it kills your spirit, and you just have no capacity to think that there is anything better.

When I give toxic tours to people, I think that they are hit by the full impact of the visual, of seeing communities right next to refineries.  But they don’t understand all of the psychological and emotional things that happen to the kids that grow up there, and to the parents whose kids get sick, how that makes them feel. They feel like they have not succeeded as parents because they didn’t get their child out of there. I have met people like that that tell me those things. And what can you do?  I am sure they worked as hard as they could and they did the best they could, but they just didn’t have the support and resources to get then out at that time

And that is a big motivator to get out. When I got back to these communities now, and see them, it’s hard ‘cause it is such a huge investment to save one person.  To capture their heart and their mind, and let them know that there is something better.

BTG / ISS:  What are the solutions you and TEJAS are working on?

Parras:  I think one of the strongest things we have been able to do is build networks of people working on similar issues and building a national base of people to provide support for these communities in Texas and throughout the Gulf Coast.

There is an effort at the national level to connect all these port communities to address the issues that are similar.  Right now we are working with some folks in LA who have done some really amazing things with the ports in Long Beach, LA and San Diego. We have the expansion of the Panama Canal happening, so we’re gonna have larger ships coming into the Gulf, which means further development of the communities where ports are already located. We’re are gonna see huge expansion projects, more 18-wheeler traffic, more rail. With that comes more pollution and problems to these low-income communities that are already suffering and dealing with these issues.

And so, with other organizations in Texas we are trying to build on this network to implement tools that were used in LA to reduce the emissions. Like legislation requiring the big boats to switch over to electric energy once they come into the port, having measures that will capture the diesel particulate from the trucks and the trains.  

BTG / ISS: What do you see missing from the national conversation right now?

Parras:  When I watch the news and read the paper I don’t get a whole lot of information that feels like it is portraying a good picture of what is happening in the Gulf Coast. So let’s look at the Keystone XL pipeline. We heard a lot about the tar sands oil and we’ve heard a lot about the pipeline route going through the Ogallala Aquifer, and taking away land from these ranchers.  But what we haven’t heard about is where that oil is gonna end up, and be refined, which will be Houston and Port Arthur. That troubles me because it effects the entire Gulf Coast. It means more longevity for the entire infrastructure in Louisiana, in MS and AL you know.

If you look at the Gulf Coast, what you see is another sacrifice zone for the entire country because we have a concentration of the oil production and exploration happening there and the rest of the country, you know, benefits from the output and energy production.

For the entire country to only hear the narrative of where the pipeline is gonna go through but not where it ends up does not tell the complete picture. What’s gonna happen when it refined in those communities in Texas?

BTG / ISS:  What could the President do for the Gulf Coast?

Parras:  What the President can do is at least begin a conversation. I am not crazy, I don’t think he can change anything in a 24-hour period or even a 4-year period. But to begin a narrative that we need to get off of fossil fuels is very important. To allow something like the pipeline that locks us in place on fossil fuels for another 20-30 years, is not doing that.  So that is one thing he can definitely do: stop this pipeline and the further development of the tar sands.

iss report coverInterview conducted by Ada McMahon.  The transcript has been edited for clarity and length.

Download the Troubled Waters report from Institute for Southern Studies.

Read and watch more interviews with Gulf Coast community leaders.

This content was produced by Bridge the Gulf Project and the Gulf Coast Fund for Community Renewal and Ecological Health, in collaboration with the Institute for Southern Studies.