Amnesty International report: Pollution has made Houston Ship Channel communities a ‘sacrifice zone’

The average life expectancy in predominantly nonwhite communities along the Houston Ship Channel, the site of largely unregulated petrochemical production, is up to 20 years less than nearby predominantly white communities, according to a report released Thursday by Amnesty International.

The 52-mile channel is lined by more than 600 petrochemical plants that operate 24 hours per day, disproportionately affecting areas whose residents are largely low-income, Black and Latino and of limited English proficiency, according to the report. The channel experienced at least seven petrochemical disasters last year, six of which were fires.

The report also alleges the state environmental regulatory body, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ), regularly approves new permits for companies that have repeatedly been involved in such disasters. In the report, the nongovernmental organization identifies the channel as a “sacrifice zone,” a community permanently damaged by environmental degradation.

Under current regulations, “companies are able to claim a high-polluting event was unavoidable and thus not be held accountable,” said Marta Schaaf, director of Amnesty International’s Program on Climate, Economic and Social Justice, and Corporate Accountability, who supervises the authors of the report but was not herself involved in the writing. “Paying whatever fines are levied has just become the cost of doing business.”

Moreover, she said, lack of data transparency from state regulators “undermines enforcement and undermines the community’s ability to hold government accountable.”

“There are opportunities to change the way things function that [state and federal regulators] haven’t taken,” she added.

The report comes the same week as a ruling by a Louisiana federal judge barring the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) from enforcing Title VI of the Civil Rights Act against state agencies. An 85-mile stretch of parishes along the Mississippi River is colloquially known as “Cancer Alley” due to its disproportionate cancer rates and the number of petrochemical facilities.

This ruling, Schaaf said, “doesn’t bode well” for addressing the kind of environmental harms described in the report, describing it as part of broader efforts to “undermine the power of federal regulatory authority across the United States, particularly when it comes to issues relating to racial injustice.”

A spokesperson for TCEQ said it has received the report but “has not had the opportunity to verify the quality of data used in drawing their conclusions.”

The Hill has reached out to the EPA for comment.

Updated at 4:58 pm.

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