Environmental Issues Affect More Than Just Climate Change


Jai-Mai Marks, Reporter

Sometimes environmental issues, both natural and human-caused, invoke a battle between social classes and the injustice they encounter.

During a 2019 Mayborn Literary Nonfiction Conference session, “The Hate You Breathe, Smell and Drink,” panelists discussed that the impact that environmental changes have on different classes of communities is not equal. If a family does not have access to clean water, and unpolluted air to breathe, citizens are not able to function properly. They also suffer more because they live in low-cost homes which are often placed in higher-risk environmental areas.

During the conference,  Naveena Sadisivam, an environment, energy and climate change writer for Grist, spoke about an incident between a Corpus Christi gas station owner and refineries owned by Citgo. The gas station was flooded and was eventually fined, not because of environmental contamination they caused over several years, but because the station was not keeping proper track of the amount of product they sold and bought, Sadisivam said.

“Look down the street and you see Citgo has two refineries, … between 2012 and 2017 they have violated their permits over 60 times,” Sadisivam said.

She said Citgo ended up getting fined $40,000 for only four of the 60+ violations.

Many multi-million dollar companies get away from paying environmental-related fines, while citizens of the cities pay the cost in their health. Corpus Christi is just one of many cities suffering from pollution due to big name companies.

Brantley Hargrove, author of “The Man Who Caught the Storm: The Life of Legendary Tornado Chaser Tim Samaras,” said in the panel discussion that a group of moms rallied against fracking in their Texas town.

“[They rallied] against the allowing of fracking in the city of Southlake, because they were worried about their kids … having this industrial fracking process within 100 yards, 1,000 yards within the air their children breathe,” Hargrove said.

This group of moms assisted in the removal of this fracking company which they believed was destroying their children’s health. Hargrove said he spoke to one of the ladies and she said, “We’re richer. We have more resources. We can keep this out of our communities.”

Hargrove said this is not the case for all communities.

“Poor communities may not have the resources to keep something like that from their communities,” Hargrove said.

Lower income communities are the main area where citizens see the refineries and the drilling come up, Hargrove said. Minorities, who mostly make up these areas, are forced to pay for what they can’t control. Sadisivam said minorities often live in lower-cost areas due to their incomes, which means their communities could sit right next to a refinery that has higher rates of air pollution which leads to higher rates of health issues. Sadisivam said these low-income citizens are the first to be affected by these multi-million dollar companies.

“The units of climate change are going to be felt more by poor minority communities,” said Sadisivam. “Whether that’s recovery after a hurricane, [or] a wildfire, it’s going to affect the most vulnerable amongst us, and that is the minority communities.”

Phyllis Glazer, an audience member at the panel, told an anecdote where she lived in a town that had the second largest commercial hazardous waste injection facility in the country, and it broke many laws.

“[The city] was known as the worst polluter in Texas,” she said.

Glazer said children from her town came home from school smelling of chemicals, cancer was rampant, people had respiratory problems and some would black out.

Randy Loftis, a Mayborn School of Journalism lecturer who moderated the panel, said these types of stories emphasize the inequality between communities when it comes to environmental issues. He said, “You can’t thrive if you’re sick.” Justice is not just a matter of courts and the legal system, it’s also a matter of public health.

“If the air in your community makes you sick, if the water is not safe to drink, if there is some toxic waste dumped in your neighborhood…,” Loftis said. “Those are not opportunities for health, those are opportunities for justice.”