Oil refineries, chemical plants, and other industrial facilities within a 50-mile span between East Houston, Texas and the Gulf of Mexico make that region one of the most toxic in the country. Manchester is a low-income neighborhood in east Houston that is essentially surrounded by industry: a busy highway, tire factory and several major oil companies. A 2005 study by the Houston Chronicle found toxic levels of benzene, a known carcinogenic. In the same study, one scientist compared the air quality in Manchester to sitting in traffic 24-7.
Residents of Manchester, many of whom are undocumented immigrants, have experienced higher than average health-related issues, including chronic nosebleeds, headaches, asthma, and leukemia. According to a study by the City of Houston, children living within the area are 56 percent more likely to develop acute lymphocytic leukemia.
In addition to the existing risks, TransCanada Corporation is planning to build a 1,700-mile oil pipeline, known as the Keystone XL, through Manchester and north to Canada. According to YesMagazine, if approved, the development will worsen environmental conditions in surrounding towns, including Manchester. Refineries in east Houston would process tar sands crude, oil which causes more environmental damage than other sources of crude. According a report by The Environmental Integrity Project, processing tar sands produces 11 times more sulfur and nickel, six times more nitrogen, and five times more lead than processing regular crude. These pollutants can lead to asthma, emphysema, and pre-natal brain damage.
President Obama rejected the proposal in 2012 and asked the State Department to assess the environmental impact of the pipeline. In March 2013, the State Department released a Draft Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement and provided opportunity for public comment. A final statement was released in January 2014, which found that the project is safe and will have little environmental impact. In the next three months, federal agencies will have the opportunity to comment, according to CNBC. The project is currently on hold, but TransCanada has already moved forward. The company has bought land along the pipeline route.
But a national grassroots movement is building against the project. Many landowners in Nebraska have refused to sell or lease their land to TransCanada. Landowners in Texas staged a tree sit-in to prevent TransCanada from clearing the land to prepare for construction of the pipeline.
Residents and environmental justice activists in Manchester have joined the grassroots movement to protest both the region’s existing polluters and the proposed pipeline. They formed the Tar Sands Blockade, an “all-volunteer, horizontal, consensus-based organizing collective,” to stop the construction of the pipeline. In November 2012, Tar Sands Blockade members and longtime environmental activists locked themselves to tanker trucks owned by Valero, which stands to profit from the pipeline. Activists have also organized a hunger strike and educational efforts, including “toxic tours” of east Houston for youth. Grassroots activists explain both the social and health risks caused by polluting industries and the need for community resistance.
The movement in Manchester is part of a growing environmental justice movement against the Keystone XL Pipeline. Grassroots activists across the country have been outspoken about their criticisms of the pipeline through petitions and rallies. 2014 is a critical year for the movement. Many political analysts predict that President Obama will make a decision about the pipeline before the midterm congressional elections in November. Building a successful grassroots movement takes passion, leadership, education, and resources to achieve social and policy change. And activists will continue to build a movement to protect themselves, their families and their community.