New High School Under Fire For Environmental Concerns
By Lily Auliff

A new school named for the man who dedicated his life to protecting workers from toxic pesticides is under fire by Unidos Contra Environmental Racism (UCER) and local citizens for environmental health and safety concerns. On August 16, Houston Independent School District (HISD) opened Cesar E. Chavez High School at the intersection of Old Galveston Road and Howard Drive in Southeast Houston.

UCER, a group founded by Texas Southern University's Environmental Justice Clinic, charges that HISD knowingly built a school in an environmentally unsafe area, even though alternate locations were available. UCER and the citizens assert that HISD took advantage of the fact that the neighborhood where the school was built is primarily low-income and Hispanic, and lacked the resources to stop the project.

UCER claims that the school's location puts students' health and safety at risk. Environmental assessments provided by HISD indicate that the $50 million facility was built on a plot of land that, at one time or another, was the site of an auto repair facility, an auto salvage yard, a dry cleaners, a service station, and a chemical toilet company. Several underground pipelines still traverse the school property. Three industrial plants - Texas Petrochemical, Goodyear Tire and Rubber, and Exxon-Mobil Chemical - are situated within a quarter mile of the school; Lyondell-Citgo Refining Company is approximately 1.2 miles away. The Sims Bayou South Waste Water Treatment Plant is also close. Pollution from all these sources, says Juan Parras of UCER, add up to a potential toxic load too high for school children to bear. The risk of an industrial accident, he adds, is also great.

Now UCER has successfully petitioned the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Office of Environmental Justice to step in.

In light of UCER's concerns, the EPA Region 6 Office of Environmental Justice has agreed to develop a "conceptual model" for the Cesar Chavez High School area.

"The process consists of bringing together participants with knowledge of the area to include possible sources of risk," explains Gerald Carney, toxicologist for the EPA.

"The participants will identify the risk sources, the chemical or physical stressors of concern, the possible pathways to exposure, the receptors of the identified stressors, and the human health and ecological endpoints - to include disease, noise, odor, quality of life issues, accidents, and aesthetics," he adds. "The end product is an accounting of the cumulative risk for an area." The EPA hopes to complete the assessment within the next four months.

Carney says the results of the conceptual model could have a variety of positive effects, from helping the disputing parties better communicate to increased monitoring of local industry and changes in existing regulations.

Parras hopes the results will encourage HISD and surrounding industry to take community concerns seriously. Although it may be impossible to relocate the students or the school, he still would like to see tightened emissions controls for nearby industrial facilities and improved safety standards.

Environmental Testing
HISD purchased the 54-acre plot of land in 1992 for $4 million. In April and May of that year, they conducted several environmental analyses on both air and soil quality. Reports from all studies indicate that air pollution and soil contamination levels fall below the state and federal standards. 

The independent contractors who completed the air quality studies for HISD followed standard procedures and the results are valid, explains Dr. Michael Sommer, Principle Scientist for Amtek Marine and Science and owner of Geodynamics, an environmental testing laboratory. However, he questions the standards used for determining “safe” levels of pollutants.

First, Sommer argues, the standards that these tests passed were not created with children and their developing bodies in mind. They were established for adults in the workplace, and he says they are not satisfactory for that either. “The standards bear no relationship to health effects,” he claims. “Studies have rarely been made concerning the long-term, low-level exposure to these chemicals.”

Even low levels of some of the chemicals found in the air near the school site can be extremely dangerous, Sommer explains. “I would be personally very concerned to have my kids sitting in an exposure area where they are in contact with such materials as methylene chloride, chloroform, tetrachloroethane, styrene – these are all known carcinogens. And these particular compounds are really hot button ones. Weíre not talking about things that may or may not have some toxicity. Weíre talking about materials which are extremely dangerous.”

Dr. Joseph Goldman of the International Center for the Solution of Environmental Problems also questions why the air samples were taken in April and May. In the spring, the air is experiencing its greatest conductive instability. This mixing causes toxins to dissipate, resulting in lower readings. Although the results from the studies performed by HISD are probably valid for April and May, he says, they do not reflect the air's composition at other times of the year. 

UCER is concerned about industrial accidents near Chavez as well. When an explosion occurred at Phillips Petroleum nearby, students were sheltered in place at Milby High School. But, explains Parras, if a serious accident were to happen within a quarter mile of Chavez, safety might not be so simple.

With the amount of industry in Southeast Houston, HISD would find it difficult to locate schools far from factories, explains Terry Abbott, press secretary for HISD. “We can’t not build schools simply because there is a factory somewhere nearby that might have a problem.”

Why There?
Why did HISD locate Chavez High School on that particular property? “That school is a neighborhood school. It’s built where those people live,” says Abbott.

Parras claims that there was an alternative, which protesters pointed out to HISD before construction on the school began. HISD already owns the area surrounding Barnett Stadium, which is currently used for bus parking. This option would have kept the high school in the neighborhood but farther away from industry.

There was no reason for HISD to consider building at Barnett Stadium, says Abbott. “Since we owned the property [where Chavez was constructed], and did the soil sample and air quality sample, there would be no reason to build it any other place except where we had selected for it.”

Abbott also claims that he only heard complaints about the location of the school recently, after construction began, and that only a “handful” of people spoke out. When asked what HISD had done to respond to the concerns, Abbott said, “We have the soil sample studies from 1992 and also the air quality studies from 1992, both of which prove there is not anything wrong with that property.”

“I think the fact that we now have well over 1,000 students at that school, and the fact that the community has embraced it the way it has, shows that these very few people who are complaining are indeed the fringe,” he adds.

“We have a lot of community support,” counters Parras. In fact, the recent petition sent to the EPA listed 650 signatures, with about half from the neighborhood, which is a few more than a handful, he points out. But numbers shouldn’t matter, says Parras. Even one citizen speaking out on behalf of 2,500 children should be taken seriously.

Parras claims that protests began in 1996, soon after HISD announced construction of the school at its present location. That year, funding for the school failed in a bond issue. After failing the vote, the community thought it was a dead issue and complaints simmered, according to Parras. Protests surfaced again when HISD acquired alternative funding and began construction in 1998. 

Environmental Justice
Parras argues that the location of Chavez High School is more than an environmental health issue; it is an environmental justice issue. The U.S. EPA defines environmental justice as “fair treatment for people of all races, cultures, and incomes, regarding the development of environmental laws, regulations, and policies.” Chavez High School is in a primarily Hispanic neighborhood. Data are not available on the demographics of the students enrolled at the new school, but nearby Milby High School enrolls approximately 86 percent Hispanic students.

“We are a predominantly Hispanic community - a low-income neighborhood. Weíre talking about ordinary citizens who are living 8 to 5, surviving from one paycheck to the next. When it comes to environmental issues, they know they have a problem. But the question is, who do they call? And when they call, will anyone respond?” explains Parras. He is convinced that if something like this had been planned in an upper-class neighborhood, community outrage would have stopped the project. "We don’t have the political clout - we don’t have the financial resources or the technical expertise - to deal with these issues,” he claims.

When asked about Chavez High School as an environmental justice issue, Abbott responded unsympathetically. “Every segment of the Houston community has gotten extremely sophisticated at political action, and making their positions known,” he said. “The old song that a certain group of people are somehow victims, there’s just no truth to it.”