Environmental Protection and Community Health: Only for the White and Wealthy?
Sixty percent of the residents of Porter Ranch in Southern California are white and just over 26 percent are Asian. The average household income in the community is more than $121,000 – high even for the Los Angeles area. Galena Park, Texas, by contrast, has a predominantly Latino population. The median household income in this small city outside of Houston is $33,250 – less than 65 percent of the U.S. median household income.
Both cities are in America. It stands to reason then that if either were endangered as a result of toxic chemicals leaking into the air, residents would be evacuated, compensated and medically monitored. In truth, the way government responded to a gas leak in Porter Ranch stands in stark contrast to decades of government neglect of unhealthy air in Galena Park, and more recently, to a startling finding that there is far more of the deadly chemical benzene in the air than previously thought. While residents in both cities sought help, only those in the wealthier, whiter city got it.
In mid-October of 2015, natural gas began leaking from an underground well in the mountains above Porter Ranch. A few weeks later, residents began complaining of headaches, dizziness, vomiting and sick pets. By November, Los Angeles County ordered Southern Gas Company to relocate residents from the area until the leak was plugged and the air was deemed safe and to pick up the tab for relocation and temporary housing for all Porter Ranch residents.
The fallout continues. The gas company paid area residents millions to settle criminal charges, but civil cases remain outstanding. No one is sure of the long-term health effects of the exposure to the chemicals in the air. Southern California Gas will cover part of the cost of studying the long-term health effects of the leak.
By June 2016 the President had signed into law new rules designed to prevent gas leaks like the one they suffered.
Some 1,500 miles away, in Galena Park Texas, things are playing out very differently. Galena Park, like other areas in and around Houston, has been contending with benzene emissions from nearby oil refineries and other industrial complexes for decades. A byproduct of petroleum refining, benzene has been definitively linked to leukemia and other cancers and birth defects including spina bifida. Even brief exposure at unsafe levels can interrupt the way the body produces cells and lead to severe anemia.
Texas officials have always known the air in Galena Park contains higher levels of toxic chemicals such as benzene than are typical for most localities. But they have routinely maintained that the levels of benzene are safe for human health. The truth is, they have never really known. Neither business nor the government agencies are required to use advanced technology to accurately measure the prevalence of benzene and other toxins. Then, in 2015 when scientists at the Houston Advanced Research Center finally managed to measure how much benzene was really in the air. They found intense concentrations of the dangerous chemical leaking out of underground pipelines throughout the city. It hadn’t been detected by existing pollution monitors because the benzene emerged in major belches rather than seeping out steadily, and it traveled in clouds that monitors were unlikely to pick up.
While disturbing, the community did not really find the news surprising, according to local organizer Yudith Nieto. “Did we really need another study to tell us what we already know? It hasn’t changed anything,” Nieto told the Houston Press, which covered the story extensively. “When research actually does something to push out new policies and regulations that will finally protect these communities, then we’ll be able to say something has really been done. Right now it’s still business as usual around here.”
Actually, it is not quite business as usual. It is worse. The toxic levels of benzene leaking from pipelines were reported in May. Residents were not relocated, reimbursed or monitored for effects of benzene on their health. No laws were passed in Texas, let alone Congress.
Instead, in November, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality announced that Galena Park would no longer be monitored for benzene at all, supposedly because the problem no longer existed. According to the state agency, which is using the same monitoring methods that failed in the past, there is longer enough benzene in Galena Park to worry about.
So while residents of Porter Ranch will continue to have their health monitored and most likely, much of the care paid for, those in Galena Park will continue to get sick, maybe even to get cancer, as a result of a problem the government is handling by pretending it isn’t there.