Bryan Parras, far left, with his father, second from right, at the Healthy Manchester Festival on July 19, 2013. (Courtesy of Flickr.)
In the current issue of The Nation, I profile two climate activists who engaged in a high-stakes direct action back in May, anchoring a lobster boat in the path of a coal freighter at the Brayton Point power plant in Somerset, Massachusetts, blocking the delivery of 40,000 tons of coal for a day. The piece, you could say, is about the challenge of coming to terms with the sort of truly stark choices humanity faces if we take the urgency and scale of the climate crisis—and the idea of climate justice—at all seriously. Choices like shutting down coal plants.
But last week, while on a reporting trip to Houston and East Texas for the magazine, I had a chance to sit down with Houston native and environmental-justice advocate Bryan Parras, co-founder (with his father, Juan Parras) of Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services, or TEJAS, and he offered a crucial counterpoint to my piece in the current issue. Not that the stark choices I wrote about there can simply be wished away. They can’t. It’s just that they look a bit different, and even more complicated, depending on where you stand and where you’re coming from—something climate activists, all of us, would do well to acknowledge.
One of the communities where Parras engages as an organizer is Houston’s Manchester neighborhood. Located just east of the 610 Loop along the Houston Shipping Channel, it’s literally hemmed in by oil refineries owned by Valero, Texas PetroChemical and LyondellBassel, as well as other heavily polluting industrial facilities including a chemical plant, a tire plant, a car-crushing facility, a train yard and a sewage treatment plant, not to mention two major highways. The residents of Manchester, poor and working-class and overwhelmingly Latino, already breathe some of the country’s most toxic air, including a number of known human carcinogens, as an eye-opening 2005 investigation by the Houston Chronicle revealed. And they have the health statistics to show for it. Not only rates of asthma and other respiratory problems, but as Kristin Moe noted in a strong article for Yes! magazine last April, a recent investigation by researchers at the University of Texas School of Public Health found that “for children living within two miles of the Houston Ship Channel, chances of contracting acute lymphocytic leukemia are 56 percent higher than for children only ten miles away.”