Gibbs

Local environmental concerns typically center on the San Jacinto River waste pits and fallout from a refinery fire. 

At Sterling Municipal Library Saturday morning, the Center for Health, Environment & Justice put a spotlight on the dangers of air pollution. The center is conducting meetings across the nation in an effort to form a proposal for regulatory policies in sacrifice zones. As defined in the proposal, a sacrifice zone is within a four-mile radius of an industry. 

“This is a journey,” Lois Gibbs, founder of the Center for Health, Environment & Justice, said.  “This is not a policy. This is an experience we are talking about and we want some honest feedback.”

Gibbs is nationally knows environmentalist. She led a local fight in the late 1970s made Love Canal a nationwide symbol for the dangers of toxic industrial waste. 

In the spring of 1978, a 27-year-old Gibbs discovered that her child was attending an elementary school built next to a 20,000 ton, toxic dump in Niagara Falls, New York. 

Once she found out about the toxic dumpsite, she rallied her neighbors and created the Love Canal Homeowners Association to oppose local, state and federal government officials, who said that the leaking toxic chemicals were not the cause of the health problems. 

After two years of organized opposition to the claims of the government, President Jimmy Carter issued an Emergency Declaration, which moved 833 families from the area in October 1980. 

Back in Baytown, Gibbs explained her current mission is an effort to find out what should be in a policy at the local level rather than a policy dictated by a think tank.

“If you have enough people on the ground, you can move anything,” she said. 

Baytown served as the first site for the meetings based on its proximity to refineries. The Center’s scientist, Stephen Lester, said the proposal is an effort to take rules and regulations and build on them. 

Using the Environmental Justice Screening, which is a computer program the Environmental Protection Agency uses, the four-mile radius, a sacrifice zone, would be a starting point. Lester said the proposal focuses on both air toxics cancer risk value and respiratory hazard index value. 

The overarching goal is to reduce or eliminate health risks from toxic air pollution. 

“The proposal provides parameters,” he said. “If the risk exceeds 70 percentile in a sacrifice zone, you limit releases.”

A percentile is a relative measure that allows you to see how you rank in comparison to everyone in the state. Being in the 70th percentile means the combination in the area is equal or greater than 70 percent of all other areas in the state. 

The center has run tests at Marathon in Detroit, which tested in the 90’s. It also ran a test at ExxonMobil in Baytown. The plant was running high on the risk area that particular day.

“The risk tested at 96 percent for respiratory and 97 percent for cancer,” Elizabeth Goodiel, CHEJ research assistant, said. 

In addition to helping develop policy, the meetings in Baytown and other locales are also helping educate local communities to issues with air pollution they may not be aware of. 

“Part of the reason is they grow up in an area when you smell the chemicals you smell a good economy,” she said. “You can have a good economy without poisoning people.”

Gibbs recalled her first husband, an employee with Goodyear Chemical being able to list of three things that could reduce air pollution. 

“There are ways to do it,” she said. 

Lester said some of the proposals within the policy include neighborhood advisory groups and a medical van to for diagnostic tests when air quality tests high for respiratory concerns. 

“The more support we get the better we are able to develop the proposal,” he said. 

The timetable to develop the proposal is sometime this fall. Gibbs said the focus once the proposal is fully developed is to see if a champion can be found in Congress or the Senate to push it forward into legislation starting in 2021. Encouragement has been found in the run-up to the 2020 elections. 

“People are talking about climate change and environmental justice,” she said. 

Gibbs also highlighted the power of people joining together in discussing Texas Health and Environment Alliance’s work on the waste pits. Superfund sites are an area of concern for CHEJ.

“We are trying to move the dial on that to all communities,” she said. “The only reason they are getting any action here is this organization (THEA). 

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