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Journalist helps expose the city’s long-running battles with pollution issues

This was originally featured in the Houston Chronicle’s HouWeAre newsletter on race, culture and identity. You can register here.

Houston has seen its fair share of backlash over industrial pollution and contamination — battles that span decades and plague neighborhoods like Manchester, Fifth Ward, Deer Park and Kashmere Gardens.

Neighborhoods where, under the haze of smoke plumes from refineries or in the contaminated soil that lines backyards, generations of mostly Hispanic and black families live, work and play,

Chronicle Environment reporter Emily Foxhall – who contributed to the paper’s award-winning work on Hurricane Harvey and the Santa Fe high school shooting – has found herself on the front lines of these communities’ fight for environmental justice . Communities that have long been ignored or neglected by cities, states and businesses, but will not go quietly until their right to breathe clean air and drink clean water is respected.

Today, Foxhall shares insight into those struggles.

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Sandra Edwards knows what it means to fight for her neighborhood. At the end of his street in Fifth Ward, a railroad yard is contaminated with creosote, the sticky substance used to treat telephone poles and railroad ties in order to preserve them. Creosote is a probable carcinogen. It has been in soil and water for decades.

Union Pacific is still working with state environmental regulators on how to clean it up.

Reporting on Edwards’ efforts, and others like his, is an essential part of what I do as an environmental reporter for the Houston Chronicle. Although I grew up in Houston, it wasn’t until I returned to my job as a journalist here that I began to grasp the potential harms we live in and some communities endure more than others.

Edwards and his neighbors explained to me that if they lived in a whiter, more affluent neighborhood, the contamination problem would have been solved long ago. It’s a classic example of the struggle for environmental justice, a term that refers to the push by people of color and low-income communities to have the same access to clean air and clean water that is their right.

Soon I heard of experts like Bob Bullard, a professor at Texas Southern University, who helped start the environmental justice movement. He graciously summarized his work for me over the phone when I started on the beat, in the midst of a pandemic. The inequity that Bullard has long documented is finally getting attention.

President Joe Biden has made environmental justice part of his agenda. Its appointed administrator at the Environmental Protection Agency, Michael Regan, came to Houston specifically to bring attention to the problem. I sat in the grass and watched as he spoke with Edwards outside his house. I later listened as Latino advocates show him the pollution spewing near a Baytown park.

People like Edwards work hard and persistently for what some here take for granted. I know the stark issues they face wouldn’t be allowed in the affluent neighborhood I grew up in, and that’s inherently wrong. My job is to tell stories of people who fight wrongdoing, which also means unraveling the complicated politics that enable it.

As long as Edwards and his neighbors call for change, I’ll be here to try to understand and tell you about it.

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