Manchester, Houston. Photo: Juan Parras

Manchester, Houston. Photo: Juan Parras

Over September and October, three Platform staff traveled across North America to promote The Oil Road as well as learn from colleagues and friends there. This is the most recent blog by James Marriott from that trip, but you can also read how James travelled across the ocean by container ship and studied the history of mining and struggle in Virginia; how Anna was inspired by the stories of Richmond, California standing up to Chevron’s power; both of them appeared on Democracy Now! to talk pipelines, money and democracy.

Manchester, Houston, Texas

What a vision. The highway rising before us, grey concrete heading into the night, a continuous band of colour running out before us and stopping abruptly in space. On it cars, like our own, rushing skywards. A constant stream of red tail lights like a swarm of fire flies, roaring towards the crest of the Sidney Sherman Bridge as it crosses the Houston Ship Channel. To our right, spreading out as far as I can see, a galaxy of industrial lights – the brightest pin-points of white, sweep of sodium yellow and blur of deep orange. Towers of lights in all directions like a city of skyscrapers. Above the bedazzling array billow plumes of steam in the sky, blown on the strong south westerly. Like the words of the Futurist Manifesto: ‘Factories hung on clouds by the crooked lines of their smoke.’

At the apex of the bridge, a hundred feet above the Channel, I can see to the east Valero’s refinery at Manchester, LyondellBassell Polymers Plant at Pasadena, Shell’s refinery at Deer Park, and far off the flares of ExxonMobil’s Baytown Refinery. On and on it rolls, this city of burning. We are driving at speed, Bryan Parras at the wheel, the sound system blaring out the voice of Beth Gibbons. The exquisite industrial melancholy of the music of ‘Portishead’ and the lyrics; “Why should I forgive you after all that I’ve seen?”

Earlier in the day Bryan had taken me on one of his ‘toxic tours’ of the Eastside of Houston. We’d driven down the Pasadena Freeway past all these plants and so many more, like the Rhodia Fertilizer and the Goodyear Tire & Rubber, midst the car crushing facilities and sewage treatment plants. This sacrificial zone is16 miles long and 5 miles wide, stretching out from both banks of the Ship Channel. Even traveling at speed the area is so vast that my mind drifts off at times, and then I’m pulled up short with the recognition that we are still driving through it … that the flare stacks still line the highway. Bryan explains that the Ship Channel was built out of, and around, Buffalo Bayou a river that wind its way through the city of Houston and out into Galveston Bay. It began to be settled by Europeans in 1820’s and now is industrialised for almost its entire length. At one point we pull over and take a walk around Brady Island, here the Ship Channel takes a sharp bend before passing under the Sherman Bridge, its banks are a cacophony of wharfs, mounds of scrap metal, cargo ships and train yards. What must have once been a thicket of Cyprus and Hickory, alive with snapping turtles and red-bellied woodpeckers, is now imprisoned in crumbling concrete and rusting steel, the soil and water drenched in petrochemicals. It reminds me of parts of the tidal Thames.

The ship channel Photo: Juan Parras

The ship channel Photo: Juan Parras

We turn into the neighbourhood of Manchester, and drive slowly along Beker Street and East Avenue Q. Here the rows of two-storey houses are built right along the edge of the perimeter fence of Valero’s refinery. Bryan explains that the air pollution is so bad that the children in this community are regularly advised not to play outside, asthma and other respiratory diseases are rife, many suffer from chronic skin problems, and there’s an abnormally high cancer rate in the population. The toxins that fill the air from the plant enter the lungs of the citizens and drench their bodies in industrial waste. What happens in Manchester also takes place in Passadena, Deer Park, Baytown and the other communities around the Ship Channel. Baytown Refinery was opened in 1919, so this torrent of petroleum effluent has poured into the soil, water, air and bodies (human and other species) for nearly a century. All these precious elements of the life of this place have been used as a free dump site by the companies, used as a tool to ensure these industrial concerns generate profit on capital.


Juan Parras speaking at the True Cost of Chevron Press Conference. Photo Credit: Jonathan McIntosh/ Rainforest Action Network

Juan Parras, born in Big Spring, Texas in the late 1940’s has been a Latino activist throughout his life – in a labor union and later with Greenpeace on their toxics campaign. Together with Bryan his son, they established a new group in 2006 – Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services or t.e.j.a.s. Taking its title in part from Tejas, from which the name Texas derives. Tejas was a word in the Native American Caddo language spoken by the Hasinai peoples in what is now the east of the state. The Hasinai, numbering 10,000 when first encountered by the Spanish and French in the 1680’s, lost 80% of their population in the following fifty years, most likely of disease and illness. Today it is estimated that only 25 people speak Caddo.

In the dying evening light, with the tropical heat kept at bay only by an incessant fan, I attend a weekly meeting of the t.e.j.a.s. team. It’s held in a small back office, the walls decked with posters celebrating the Zapatistas and a hessian sack that once contained coffee beans from the Chiapas. Around the long table are gathered Juan, Bryan and six other activists including Kim and Yudith, Patrick and Grace. The discussion centres round the Manchester Health Survey – a process of going from door to door in the neighbourhood and asking residents to answer a questionnaire. The task is to draw out their concerns over pollution, their knowledge of the eight cancer-causing chemicals that are regularly in the air, their experience of family members with leukemia and whether they’ve ever tried to communicate any of these issues to elected officials or the chemical plants themselves. It’s both humbling and inspiring to see an environmental organisation rooted in a poor largely Latino community having the courage to give voice to the concerns of that community. (I’ve never heard of a group such as this operating in the shadow of a similar refinery complex in England – say at Fawley in Hampshire or Shell Haven in Essex.)


The tar sands blockade tree-sit

Two of the questions on the survey ask residents if they know anything about the Keystone XL pipeline and the fact that it will import tar sands crude from Canada to be refined by Valero and thereby releasing its toxins into the neighbourhoods of the Ship Channel. For TransCanada and the other corporations constructing the project, the plan is to dig a trench 1,700 miles from Hardisty in Alberta to Port Arthur and Manchester in Texas, and in it lay a pipe through which will be pumped the hot, heavy crude. Just as with the Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline, and Line 9 near Toronto, Keystone XL is facing an intense campaign of opposition. The challenge in Nebraska is more widely know that that in Texas, but the latter is no less determined. At the East Side Social Centre I had the honour of presenting The Oil Road to a number of activists from the Tar Sands Blockade. Their stories of relentless creative struggle over the past two years were inspiring: of the ‘Tree Sit’ in Wood County blocking the route of the construction gangs through three months of winter (the company eventually rerouted the pipeline); of three activists who stopped work on the site in Smith County by barricading themselves inside a mile-long length of pipe; and the invasion of TransCanada’s offices in Houston. The response from the company security guards and the Texas Department of Public Safety has been extremely harsh, yet the resistance continues.

I had previously not understood how these two struggles – one against the construction of an international pipeline, and the other to combat the poisoning of a community living on the fenceline of a refinery – were so closely intertwined. Experiencing their confluence was electric. Here is a combination that feels new and powerful.

Bryan kindly offers to drive me along the coast route from Houston to New Orleans. We head south from Manchester, past BP’s massive Texas City plant – the site of an infamous explosion in 2005 in which 15 people were killed and perhaps 500 injured. We reach the Gulf of Mexico at Galveston, the wide sea dotted with tankers and container ships bound to and from the mouth of Galveston Bay. It is into this bay that the Buffalo Bayou flows, so the bay itself is effectively part of the Houston Ship Channel. We take the ferry between Galveston Island and Bolivar Peninsular. The day is clear and bright, Laughing Gulls and a Mockingbird quarter the car deck looking for scraps. Out beyond the prow wave of the ferry, in the midst of the Ship Channel, there are bottlenose dolphins gracefully undulating through the waves. The bodies of such dolphins, studied after death, have recently been found to carry in their flesh persistent organic pollutants including ‘legacy toxins’ such as PCBs, chlordanes, mirex, DDTs, HCB, and dieldrin, as well as polybrominated diphenyl ether.

It seems to me that every jot of this pollution is the result of an act by some person or persons in one of these industrial plants – either an act that failed to be taken, or an act that was consciously taken. These moments in the past poison the present and the future. “Why should I forgive you after all that I’ve seen?”