Energy & Environment

Houston Ship Channel deemed ‘sacrifice zone’ in new pollution report by Amnesty International

The international human rights organization found that people in communities near the ship channel, which are predominantly low-income communities of color, have life expectancies up to 20 years shorter than largely white and affluent areas about 15 miles away. Amnesty International pinned the problem on the petrochemical industry as well as state and federal environmental regulators.

ITF Fire Drone
Lucio Vasquez / Houston Public Media
A petrochemical fire at the Intercontinental Terminals Company’s Deer Park facility burned for three days in March 2019.

Amnesty International calls the Houston Ship Channel a "sacrifice zone" in a new report detailing the impacts of decades of pollution caused by petrochemical facilities as well as a lack of oversight by state and federal environmental regulators.

The report, released Thursday and titled "The Cost of Doing Business? The Petrochemical Industry's Toxic Pollution in the USA," found that people who live near the 600-plus facilities that operate along the 52-mile ship channel – which are predominantly low-income communities with Black and Latino residents – are frequently exposed to known carcinogens and can have life expectancies up to 20 years shorter than those who live in predominantly white and affluent areas about 15 miles to the west.

Amnesty International, a human rights organization that operates across the globe, pinned the blame both on large oil, gas and chemical producers such as ExxonMobil, LyondellBasell and Shell and also on the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ). Those governmental agencies have inadequate regulations and lax enforcement of their existing rules, according to Marta Schaaf, who oversaw the study as the director of Amnesty International's Program on Climate, Economic and Social Justice and Corporate Accountability.

Sacrifice zones are defined by the United Nations as places "where residents suffer devastating physical and mental health consequences and human rights violations as a result of living in pollution hotspots and heavily contaminated areas."

"Talking to my colleagues in the business and human rights teams at Amnesty who are not from the United States, they are shocked," Schaaf said of the report's findings. "People think of the U.S. as a high-income country with a competent and well-trained civil service that's here to ensure that our rights are protected and carry out federal and state laws. And when you find that enforcement is poor or that laws themselves reflect misinformation or priorities pushed by the fossil fuel industry, it's extremely disappointing.

"That should not be the situation in the United States of America," she added. "We have every resource available to us to make sure folks can go to school, go to work, have a picnic outside and go to church in safety."

Amnesty International said its 131-page report was compiled during the course of 2023 and based on corporate disclosures, case law, government enforcement and compliance data, multiple visits to the ship channel area southeast of Houston and interviews with subject matter experts and stakeholders, including 29 people who have lived, worked or attended school within a 3-mile radius of the ship channel. Those community members reported being regularly exposed to foul odors, which in some cases caused headaches, along with having multiple instances of cancer in their families, according to the report.

Juan Flores, the manager of the community air monitoring program at the nonprofit Air Alliance Houston, said he’s experienced petrochemical pollution firsthand as a near lifelong resident of Galena Park.

“We’ve always known it smells, always known there’s chemicals, always known everything’s there,” he said. “But when the scientific data comes out and shows you what you’ve always experienced, yeah, it validates what I've always thought. But at the same time, it shows how bad everything is. It's an eye-opening, very scary thing to look at.”

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There were at least seven petrochemical disasters along the ship channel last year, including six fires, according to the report, which cited four facilities as case studies – the ExxonMobil Baytown Complex, the LyondellBasell Channelview Complex, Shell Chemicals Deer Park and the Intercontinental Terminals Company Deer Park storage facility.

More than 103,000 people live within 3 miles of those facilities, which were found to have violated air pollution regulations a total of 2,315 times during the last 20 years and 167 times since 2020, the report states.

"We disagree with the conclusions of this report," ExxonMobil said in a statement to Houston Public Media. "Our commitment to respecting human rights is embedded throughout our corporate policies, practices and expectations."

LyondellBasell and Shell also commented on the Amnesty International report, with both saying they have company goals of operating with no harm to employees, nearby communities and the environment.

The fire at Shell's Deer Park Chemicals facility took place shortly before 3 p.m. in the 5900 block of State Highway 225 in Deer Park. Taken May 5, 2023.
Lucio Vasquez / Houston Public Media
The fire at Shell's Deer Park Chemicals facility took place shortly before 3 p.m. in the 5900 block of State Highway 225 in Deer Park. Taken May 5, 2023.

"We are committed to being a responsible, good neighbor and respecting human rights in the communities where we operate, including at our Channelview Complex," LyondellBasell said in a statement. "We comply with all relevant local, regional, and national environmental regulations and are dedicated to conducting our business in a manner that protects the environment and provides for the safety and health of our employees, contractors, customers and the public."

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Said Shell: "We take seriously our responsibility to comply with all federal and state regulations, including reporting incidents and unexpected emissions. ... At Deer Park, our employees and contractors are empowered with the authority and responsibility to stop work if they feel conditions are unsafe."

Intercontinental Terminals Company, which operates the Deer Park storage facility that produced plumes of black smoke for multiple days because of a fire in 2019, did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Neither did the EPA.

The TCEQ, the environmental regulatory agency for the state of Texas, said it received the Amnesty International report Thursday and "has not had the opportunity to verify the quality of data used in drawing their conclusions."

Schaaf said a big part of the pollution problem near the Houston Ship Channel is that companies and their industrial facilities are not held to stringent enough standards for air and water pollution. She said they also are allowed to claim "affirmative defense," which means describing a pollution event that exceeds regulations as unplanned or unavoidable without having to face much in the way of consequences.

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"In that case, they may be left off the hook or may be levied a small fine, which they then take as the cost of doing business," Schaaf said. "... We found that existing regulations and laws are inadequate, both at the state and federal levels."

The report lays out a series of recommendations for the EPA, TCEQ, Texas lawmakers and the companies that operate along the Houston Ship Channel, both in the interest of reducing pollution and being more engaged with impacted community members. Among other things, Amnesty International calls for increased transparency and communication as well as enhanced emergency response protocols.

Ultimately, Schaaf said her organization wants the fossil fuel industry to be largely phased out, adding that it understands many impacted residents along the ship channel work at the petrochemical facilities and therefore depend on them.

"Amnesty is pushing for a fast, just phase-out of fossil fuels, and that includes most petrochemicals," Schaaf said. "There are important uses of plastics we're not going to get rid of, but we need to start thinking about alternatives and stop expanding their infrastructure."