Downwind: Living in the Shadows of Houston’s Refineries

This article is brought to you by the International League of Conservation Photographers (iLCP). Read our other articles on the National Geographic News Watch blog featuring the work of our iLCP Fellow Photographers all around the world.

Text and Photos by iLCP Senior Fellow Karen Kasmauski.

Esperanza Cantera whose daughter Rosa and whose great granddaughter, Ciera Rose Chravistor, 4, died of cancer. She watches Sierra’s sister, Rosalina, 2 years old. Esperanza holds a photo of Rosalina on the rght and Ciera Rose on the left.

When a balloon floats towards the sky, two-year old Rosalina Chronister tells her great-grandmother Esperanza that the balloon is visiting her sister, Ciera Rose, in heaven.

Ciera Rose was four when she died of cancer. Recently, her family and their friends came together to remember this energetic child. They released balloons to mark her passing.

Esperanza has a room/shrine that is dedicated to Rosa ad Ciera Rose. It contains photos, gifts, personal items, clothing, it’s not used. She holds a photo of her daughter, Rosa.

During the day, Rosalina is cared for by Esperanza and great-aunt Nancy. They live in Manchester on Houston’s southeast side, nearly spitting distance to Houston’s infamous Ship Channel, a long thin body of water connecting the numerous refineries and chemical plants to the south and east of Houston with the Gulf of Mexico. The channel is wide and deep enough for massive tankers that carry oil and other products produced by a continual grid of industrial complexes. As evening falls, the area takes on the magical air of a dystopian Christmas forest with safety lights outlining the hundreds and hundreds of refinery towers.

Standing in front of the ball park in Hartman Park, next to the Valero refinery, Natalie Contreras, Ciera Rose’s mom, holds a photo of her daughter. Beside her is her common law husband, Michael Chrovister, holding their other daughter, Rosalina, 2.

Manchester, a predominately Hispanic community, has the highest levels of 1,3 Butadiene than any other area in Texas. Butadiene is a known carcinogen and this area of Houston has one of the highest rates of cancer in the State of Texas. No one wants to declare the connection between chemical and disease as definitive. Cancers tend to occur in clusters within families, but the causes, whether genetic or environmental, are hard to prove.

Natalie Contreras holds Rosalina close.

A fellow photographer and I representing the International League of Conservation Photographers joined forces with the Environmental Integrity Project to gather first-hand information on health effects, gathering stories of families living along “the fence line” with the surrounding refineries.

Manchester community, Sandra Martinez with her 6 children, plus cousins. Her home is the last house right up next to the Valero refinery. They are standing on the sidewalk on the edge of their yard.

Hartman Park is the heart of Manchester. Its soul is the community center, where generations of children have played basketball, made crafts and eagerly munched on after school snacks. The grounds are crowded with children playing, laughing, and teasing each other. Families picnic there on weekends. The Valero refinery borders the east end of the Park. Refinery towers have been the backdrop so long that a group playing baseball barely looked up when a dark and odorous cloud rose above the area one Tuesday evening, irritating the throats and eyes of visitors. A fire had broken out at the Lyondell Basell chemical refinery just behind the Valero refinery. There had been several fires there over the past few years. In the distance, a siren went off, but no one came to the park or knocked on doors to warn families of a potential air quality issue.

Living in the shadow of the Valero Energy Corporation Refinery, people were playing ball when there was a “release” at the plant. It turned out be a fire at the the LyndellBassel plant.

Ciera Rose’s family lives on the south side of Hartman Park. Her mother, Natalie was raised there. She played in the park and went to the community center after school. Ciera Rose was not the first—and perhaps not the last—of her family to die from cancer. Is the illness tied to the air pollution and toxins found around the Valero Refinery? No one will say with certainty. However, researchers from the University of Texas School of Public Health, found children living along the ship channel have “a 56 percent greater chance of getting leukemia than children living elsewhere.”

Clouds billow over the Hartman Park baseball field with little warning and no alerts for the residents of Manchester after the fire in the refinery.

IIn 2015, the Houston Chronicle reported on an air pollution study in neighborhoods close to the Valero refinery. The Environmental Protection Agency, or EPA was considering new regulations for the first time in 20 years to reduce air pollution at the nation’s numerous refineries. Manchester was chosen for the study because it was verifiably one of the worst places in Texas for benzene emissions. But only two years later, with a new administration in the White House, environmental protections like the Clean Power Plan are about to be rescinded.

The Valero Energy Corporation Refinery looms over the homes of Mancheser.

During our brief visit, the number of families we met who had members affected by cancer was numbing. Everyone seem to be related to or knew someone with the cancer. Unfortunately, cancer isn’t the only serious health issue with suspected connection to the chemicals released by the refineries. In addition, nearly every family has had children or close relatives with asthma. In some cases, toddlers afflicted with asthma had visited the emergency room more times than their parents could remember. Ask how many times has a child been to the emergency room and the response is often a baffled stare and a guess–20. Maybe more.

Children play outside their home with the everyday backdrop of the Valero refinery.

The east side of Houston, where Manchester is located, has one of the highest rates of asthma hospitalization in the western United States, according to a 2011 Houston Chronicle article. Dr. Harold Faber, a professor and pediatrician at Texas Children’s Hospital stated, “I know some pediatricians have said when the wind from the refineries is blowing in our direction, you get more kids coming into the office with asthma.” The article followed a Texas state study conducted in 2000, which confirmed that Manchester has the highest annual averages of 1,3 Butadiene of any area in Texas.

Roxana has a 3 year old child, Elias Pacheco with serious asthma. They in the Manchester area of Houston which has one of the highest rates of asthma in Texas. She has had to rush in to the hospital many times.

Roxana who lives about a half mile from the Valero refinery showed us cell phone videos she took of her three-year old son, Elias when he has attacks. She didn’t want to be photographed, fearing complications for friends and relatives working at the refinery. But she wants us to tell the story of her son’s serious condition. When he has these attacks, she treats him with a nebulizer and rushes him to the hospital. Since his attacks often subside by the time a doctor sees her, she takes videos with her phone to show their severity.

It’s not unusual to see babies just two months old being treated with inhalers and steroids. What is unknown is the long-term effects of these lifesaving treatments on young growing bodies.

Catherine is giving Naleen, 7 months, a treatment for asthma. in her home is Pasadena, Texas.

Julian Nieto and his twin sister Yudith both suffered from asthma growing up in Manchester. Yudith is one of the organizers for Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services, or TEJAS. The organization’s mission is to help the local people “create environmentally healthy communities.” Yudith advocates for the people with whom she was raised.

Julian married and moved to nearby Pasadena, seeking a healthier environment to raise his children. Both his son, Nathan, 5, and his daughter, Naleen, 7 months, developed asthma. Fortunately Nathan’s symptoms diminished with time. Julian and his wife Catherine hope Naleen will also age out of her asthma. Both children use a small pink plastic bear compressor for the nebulizer to treat their asthmatic episodes. The disease is so common with children that compressors are offered in the shape of cartoon animals to reduce anxiety.

By the refinery, Hartman Park in Houston, Texas, is often filled with community people, children using the playground equipment or playing baseball. Even as the sun sets people still use the park until after dark.

Communities are divided. Some want the refineries to shut down for the health of the community. Others support the refineries and would work there if offered a chance. Refinery jobs pay well and not everyone connects their pollution with cancer and asthma. Some resent those fighting to make the refineries accountable for the air pollution that blankets the community. The relationship is so complicated that the Manchester Civic League gave the Valero Refinery community representative a goodbye party when he retired. Others took that opportunity to challenge him on Valero’s air quality record.

The environmental concerns don’t stop with the air. Manchester is bordered on one side by the Ship Channel, south of the Brays Bayou and Buffalo Bayou junction. Large signs in English and Spanish illustrate which fish are unsafe to eat because of pollution. The list includes almost every edible species found in the Channel. Yet people fish right under the signs.

Houston area people fishing where Brays Bayou and Buffalo Bayou intersect in the Harrisburg/Manchester area. Fishing is technically not allowed here and the fish are not safe to eat.

Local advocate organizations understand it’s impossible to shut down the refineries. Officials in the area use words like ‘think” or “most likely” or “contribute” when describing refinery connections to air pollution and community health. Few official organizations or government health groups are willing to suggest a direct connection. Houston and University of Texas receive significant funding from the oil and gas industry. In 2015, Bloomberg News reported “the University of Texas endowment reached $25 billion thanks to royalty revenue gains from oil and gas.”

What they can do is help empower people to speak up when they see violations, fight to enforce existing regulations, show up at demonstrations, and sign petitions. Yet it’s hard to keep the enthusiasm going. Manchester has witnessed nonprofits, government agencies and well-meaning do-gooders come and go. Still, the refinery keeps billowing out toxins. The region has hundreds of similar plants.

Esperanz Cantera looks out the front door, on the wall are photos of Rosa.

Meanwhile, little Rosalina plays daily in Hartman’s Park with her great aunt and great grandmother. Her mother, Natalie Contrera, 21 years old, works multiple shifts as a waitress, trying to make sense out of her life. Michael Chronister, 24, Rosalina’s father, still wears the wooden cross—a memento from Ciera Rose’s funeral. Her name is engraved on the back. He holds the cross over his heavily tattooed hand. These young parents are struggling to deal with their new sad reality, and clinging to the hope that their child will not be forgotten.

Rosa’s father, Michhael Chrovister, found this cross from Ciera’s funeral and he wears it daily to remind him of his daughter.

Changing Planet

The mission of the International League of Conservation Photographers (iLCP) is to further environmental and cultural conservation through photography. iLCP is a Fellowship of more than 100 photographers from all around the globe. As a project based organization, iLCP coordinates Conservation Photography Expeditions to get world-renowned photographers in the field teamed with scientists, writers, videographers and conservation groups to gather visual assets that are used to create conservation communications campaigns to foment conservation successes. iLCP is a 501 (c) (3) organization. Support our work at this link.