Transcript: Podship Earth Episode 62: 

JARED BLUMENFELD: Welcome to Podship Earth. This is your host, Jared Blumenfeld. 

 

NEWS: This is an ABC News special report. Hurricane Harvey, State of Emergency. You're looking at some of the first images to come out of Rockport, Texas, which was hit by the eye of Hurricane Harvey overnight at around 10:30pm local time.

JARED BLUMENFELD: In August 2017, Hurricane Harvey hit landfall in Houston, Texas. And within just four days, it had rained more than 40 inches, leading to unprecedented flooding. By the time Harvey was finished, more than 30,000 people had been displaced, and 107 people had lost their lives. Harvey inflicted more than $125 billion in damage.  In fact, this hurricane was so bad, the weather service retired the name all together. 

 

NEWS: And tonight, greater Houston remains paralyzed. A region of 6.8 million people sheltering in place as the flooding disaster unfolds. And just behind me, you can see downtown Houston, this is the Buffalo Bayou, but you can't tell where the Bayou ends and the downtown starts. “It's raining so much and it's still continuing to rain.” “I have never experienced anything like this. I didn't even imagine that it was going to be this catastrophic like this.”
On Saturday, the EPA confirmed 13 Texas superfund sites are flooded or potentially damaged. Superfund sites are known as being the most contaminated places in the country. During Harvey, the refineries admitted to discharging millions more pounds of toxic gases into the air as they shut down and burnt off their excess chemicals. 

JARED BLUMENFELD: It turns out that in the aftermath of Harvey, Environmental Justice communities started to notice that instead of just rebuilding, many chemical companies were using the disaster to expand into a new area. Plastics. I sit down with Yvette Arellano who's with the Houston Bays Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services (t.e.j.a.s.), which is dedicated to providing community members with the tools necessary to create sustainable environmentally healthy communities. Yvette graduated from the University of Houston and as a first-generation college graduate with a degree in political science and a graduate degree from the University of Houston's pre-law program. I start by asking Yvette to describe her community's experience in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey. 

YVETTE ARELLANO: The experience was that we had two separate floods. We had a flood of water devastate communities and destroy homes and people's lives, and also a second flooding that involved toxics. For six months post Hurricane Harvey, we had plants having fugitive emissions with no monitoring, no enforcement. Neither EPA nor the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality were stepping in to do any enforcement actions. It was disaster capitalism at its best. Just what the industries were willing to take advantage of in this small window when the permitting processes were down. They were expedited, right? There was a lack of enforcement, so no monitoring for up to six months under natural disaster proclamations by Governor Greg Abbott, and so they were running rampant and wild and what better opportunity to seize than after a natural disaster. So, we saw these expansions happen here and then not just throughout Houston, but all the way down to Corpus Christi. So, everyone, you're talking about first responders, cities, local officials, counties were trying to generate as much revenue without losing as much during this period of reconstruction. The more egregious part of that was the fact that here you had frontline communities devastated by toxic impacts because you have facilities that were also flooded and waters, and those waters were shared with the communities they sat next to. And yet when we reached out to EPA to try and get answers on whether or not there were toxic exposures or industrial chemicals that leeched out into neighborhoods, we were consistently told no. We knew that wasn't true. Three days after the heaviest rains, we took a helicopter flight with Greenpeace and saw the containment dykes. The containment dykes are supposed to keep any leached chemicals inside of barriers so that they're not shared with the general public right or local environment. They were breached. I mean, they fell. We saw it happen again with the intercontinental terminals fire that happened in Houston, which is one of the largest chemical disasters in our history. And it involved above ground storage tanks with more feedstocks that go into plastics production. But we weren't hearing the plastics angle. We weren't hearing what these chemicals are going to go and make. We were hearing how benzene is cancer causing. We were hearing how toluene and some of the other chemicals smell like nail polish, but not exactly like what are they going to go and make. Right? And folks weren't necessarily concerned with it either because you have children who are like four, five, like small children who are having nosebleeds in communities and trying to understand that, you know, and trying to seek help from that angle. So, this, this expansion, either post Hurricane Harvey and that continues to sort of attack the Gulf coast and Gulf coast communities like Houston, like Corpus, like those in St. James Parish in Louisiana, they're going after the most vulnerable populations, poorest communities, the most disenfranchised folks whose local representatives don't do a good job of even protecting their own interests. Why? Because there's big money involved. There's petrochemical interest and oil interests backing them up. We had benzene spills in communities like Manchester, large above ground storage tank facilities basically move or shift off of their platforms or the floating tanks sort of fall into chemical substances and just unleash an ungodly amount of toxins on frontline communities, and that's our focus. Our communities are the communities that live next to refineries because in Houston there's no zoning. So, there's no law that says it's illegal to build a plant next to a hospital, an elementary school, a daycare or a community. So, we were having to deal with the fugitive emissions going on in the east end. 


JARED BLUMENFELD: So, what is a fugitive emission?

 

YVETTE ARELLANO: A fugitive emission is an unplanned emission from chemical or oil refinery, and the images you see with fugitive emissions are large plumes of black smoke versus a consistent flare with no smoke. 

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: So, like a leak. 

 

YVETTE ARELLANO: Just like a leak, except every single facility along the Houston Ship Channel, which is about a 52 mile stretch that makes up the largest petrochemical complex in the nation, the second largest in the world, was flaring and having fugitive emissions consistently. So, one after another. It was almost like an endless cycle of this happening. So, even after the waters sort of flushed back into our Gulf waters, communities were still experiencing this lack of enforcement and then in the process trying to recoup their lives, either rebuilding homes, trying to get back on track with replacing things that they had lost and not being able to replace things like memories, trying to get their families back together and just new lives back to normal. But in that process, oil and gas refineries and extractive industries along the stretch, we're also filling out the same similar types of paperwork to recoup any lost profit. So, to give you an example, if the Houston Ship Channel closes for one single day, it loses $1 million in profit. So, recoup funds also had to go to the fact that these industries were affected by flood waters. Mind you folks are still trying to recover any lost funds, they still had to pay out of pocket while oil and gas industries and petrochemical plants were able to get their money fast. I mean, you know, it's the backbone of Texas. and Houston is the energy capital of the nation. And so, we started seeing these massive expansion projects and we didn't understand it at the beginning. You know, you look out into the stretch you're used to seeing and you see cranes, right? And you're assuming they're there to pick rubble and debris. We were trying to get the EPA to respond to the fact that community members were saying that their skins were irritated and burning skins, burning throats, eyes. And we found out that it was a benzene spill, right? We were getting calls from community members over residue that was landing on their homes or ash. So, all these things from different plants.  I mean, we have about five refineries and over a hundred different chemical subsidiaries throughout that entire stretch. So, there were a couple of articles that started coming out and revealing that the petrochemical industry was growing and expanding post Hurricane Harvey where we thought they were simply just modifying and making sure things didn't happen again. And it all started tying back into Houston and the petrochemical complex is investing in plastic. So, those were sort of the first steps, and we didn't fully grasp onto what was going on because our concern and our focus had been for so long toxic exposure. So, the irritation of your skin, right? Reproductive issues, developmental issues in children and how to uplift this narrative that was lost and forgotten of communities that live in the shadows or our communities that live in the shadows of industry. And we weren’t so much concerned about where those chemicals were going or what they were going to end up as, whether it was olefins or plastic pellets or anything like that. So, when we were approached, we were still in the process of recovery. I mean our organization was putting together re-entry packs because we were dealing with mold in homes that were devastated by floodwater or that wasn't present in the beginning, still reconstruction. And so, when we were told these are the chemical feedstocks, or actually when we were first brought to the plastics conversation, we let folks know we don't work on recycling. That's not something we do, not as a toxic exposure sort of angle or public health angle. It's not part of our realities, you know? 

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: So, when did that change for you? 

 

YVETTE ARELLANO: So, I was stopped and sort of told that this wasn't a recycling pitch and that this had to do with the chemicals that go into manufacturing plastics. For a snapshot, I mean, I didn't even realize, right? That these things that we were surrounded by every day, like a bottle of water would have come from chemicals. I mean, of course, right? It's absurd not to think that, but that's not what my work revolves around. So, I gave it a listen and I read some of the materials and I realized that the list that we'd been collecting on the expansion projects since those first articles came out revealing the expansion projects had to do with this growth of ethane and ethylene crackers.

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: What is an ethylene cracker? 

 

YVETTE ARELLANO: It's a type of chemical and manufacturing that produces chemical feedstocks that are the building blocks of plastic. And so, we started seeing these units inside of these petrochemical plants. 

JARED BLUMENFELD: I've never seen an ethylene cracker. Like if you just describe kind of how big it is, what it looks like, kind of what it's doing and what gets spit out the other end. 

YVETTE ARELLANO: An ethylene cracker looks like this massive towering structure that is well over 10 stories tall. If it's in regular condition, it's not fuming or gassing off. It has no smoke behind it. But there's this ever-present hum in communities and it's almost like a “ffffffff” every single moment of just you being and living next to it. So, it's present and you can never forget it's there until you know, you start becoming numb to the process. It smells like any other piece of petrochemical unit, right? Especially if it's having issues or malfunctions. It is usually attached to a larger structure because the actual a unit is simply a processing unit that's attached to these massive above ground storage tanks that will hold any sort of like chemicals produced that then are attached to a flare. And a flare is almost equally as tall, if not taller than the ethylene cracker. And the flare, especially for new units, is a persistent flame that is present in your neighborhood if you live right next to one. And the flame can get larger at night where you're seeing, you know, people talk about light pollution, right? But who is going outside at 1:00 AM and sees, not a purple sky, but an orange sky because you have so many flares back to back to back. You don't ever have complete darkness. And then those are the flares that for the last week in Houston, we've been seeing billow up with large plumes of black smoke. And you just never know when that's going to happen. You never know when a large plume is going to happen or how long it's going to last, if you should leave or not, if you should shelter in place and that would be like turning off your conditioning, closing your windows and doors, covering your windows and doors and plastics, that's between like four to six millimeters thick, right? You're covering your home and plastic and you're trying to get away from it in temperatures that right now sit in the high nineties to early hundreds, right? And you have to do this until that entire sort of event is over. You never know when that's going to happen, how often it's going to happen. If you're outside for some reason, playing with your kids, then you have your kids who are exposed and what are you going to do? You know? It's like, come on, let's go inside because of that thing that happens every so often. You wake up at around, you know, three or four in the morning because your chest is heavy with any sort of like symptoms that the chemicals are actually flaring off. 

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: Even though you've now got a focus on plastic factories, there's a lot of pollution in your community that comes from other sources. 

YVETTE ARELLANO:  There's cumulative impacts coming from the entire sort of extractive infrastructure around that's multiple facilities and multiple refineries sitting on top of each other. So, waking up, not being able to breathe or not being able to take a walk around in the afternoon because everybody's told to get an hour of exercise and you can't do that in your local park. You don't want to let your kids outside because it smells, and you know that the smell probably carries some sort of toxics. You don't know exactly what. Being afraid to garden or pick tomatoes. It infringes on your entire life, and it is present throughout. That's the hardest part. It takes away, it takes away your right to live a regular life. I'll give you an example. Houston's Lyondell Bassell facility was on the brink of bankruptcy because they had suffered so many public embarrassments that were even featured in Bloomberg News, spotlighting the fact that here's a facility that's over a hundred years old that can't keep up with modern times. And so, it was about to fold because like I said, in Houston, we have this issue where you have a petrochemical plant and it's not sitting there alone. It's sitting surrounded by other petrochemical plants, which makes it difficult to point at which one is killing your neighborhood. So, they were unsuccessful and instead they invested over $2 million in an ethane cracker and boom, they were back in business. And that was going on with a series of plants that were either facing high times or they had this reconstruction money they had to play with too. 

JARED BLUMENFELD: How much additional plastic production was being created?

YVETTE ARELLANO:  Just from individual plant projects, we saw, like I said, over 2 million over at Lyondell Bassell. We also went to the Exxon Mobil stakeholders meeting that they had around the same year and learned that the Exxon Mobil loan was going to be flushing the Gulf coast with over $20 billion worth of infrastructure in the Gulf Coast over projects related to plastics.

JARED BLUMENFELD: And so, you obviously didn't come into this with a plastics perspective. You came in from a community health and environmental justice. So, tell us about what you've learned as you've learned more about plastics and what this change means. 

YVETTE ARELLANO: I've learned that communities like ours and organizations like ours are still in this learning process and learning curve of taking a moment to acknowledge that the toxic exposure is going on. But that plastic is one of the largest reasons why the petrochemical industry is growing exponentially. And also, the types of chemicals that for so long we've been fighting. I've learned the relationship between the exposure, the chemical names and the side effects that they're bringing to our communities. That's a relationship I didn't see before, right? So, I would hear about styrene and toluene, 1,3-Butadiene, and we at this point, we knew that they cause everything from developmental issues, slower speech development, sterility in neighborhoods, a slew of different cancers, asthma, memory loss, a lack of balance, nerve system damage, right? So, we knew the side effects. And bringing that to the plastics fight was sort of our largest contribution, and also learning about how these same chemicals are also present during not only the production of chemical feedstocks, but the production of the products themselves, the extraction from the wellhead, and also present through incineration in communities who struggle with that. 

JARED BLUMENFELD: So, as a result of learning all this, becoming a world expert, you're probably like, ‘oh my God, who knew that I'd become a world expert in plastics and ethylene crackers?’ How do you view your role in the debate about plastics? 

YVETTE ARELLANO: Yeah, I would say that has been my largest goal and the goal of so many frontline folks who are advocating and now joining the plastics conversation. It is just like any other movement. Whether it was “keep it in the ground” movement or stopping pipelines. We talk about the impacts on the earth, which are so crucial to our own existence. We talk about the impacts to vulnerable animal life, right? Which is again, crucial to our existence too. But there's a fear of talking about hurting people, killing people, people dying because of the destruction that these chemicals that affected earth, our water systems, our animal life. There is a reluctance to accept that people are being hurt in this process and that there's no way that we can continue talking about the issues of plastics if we don't see the entire ecosystem as a whole and how it's completely interwoven. And also acknowledge the fact that it's vulnerable communities that lack the resources, that suffer from an intersection of issues, whether it's food security, a lack of health care, all these different issues. We need to acknowledge that we're killing our communities that are the most vulnerable, both rural and urban, poor white and poor people of color. 

JARED BLUMENFELD: So, Yvette, given that, how are the communities that you represent, how are they viewing plastics now differently in their lives? And how are you kind of trained to communicate these huge problems associated with plastics to a broader audience? 

YVETTE ARELLANO:  When I've gone to talk to communities and other advocates, I relate it back to the work that we're all doing because that's the most important and pivotal part about the frontline struggle. We're the  experts of what's going on. We understand how we're being physically affected, how our communities are being killed, the toxic symptoms, we understand all of that. It's just bringing that in with this is what happens to those chemicals after they've left, sort of those storage tanks and those facilities. Because they never leave, right? They're perpetually being made nonstop. It's just this is their next leg and bringing forth the entire life cycle of plastics from fracking to transport to production to consumption and then waste oceans and then back to extraction through offshore oil extraction. So, bringing that entire lifecycle to light, that's something that BreakFree has done for us so elegantly and eloquently. It has been crucial to that and missing puzzle piece of the work we're doing. 

JARED BLUMENFELD: So, in terms of the world's largest plastic production, like most people, I think if they read the newspaper or care about plastic, they would think that plastic productions on the downturn. And yet from everything you're saying, it sounds like people investing more and more to get more and more plastic. Just in terms of your understanding of the industry, like why are they shifting from other uses to now creating more plastic? 


YVETTE ARELLANO:  Oil and gas has traditionally been seen as something to fuel our cars and other conventional uses. And I feel that as we keep going towards renewables and adjust transition away from fossil fuels, that just like any other entity that it has a limitless stream of resources, you're going to find ingenious ways to plug the chemicals that you've been making and become an expert in making for decades into the everyday lives of people who are listening to your show. And there's no real recognition of how exactly they're doing it. Whether it's conversations over it's not just single use plastics or plastic bottles, it's also synthetic fibers, right? It's a technology becoming obsolescent at a faster pace. So, I think that oil and gas and petrochemicals are going to grasp at every single straw that's left until we bring to light how toxic it's been, how unapologetic it has been at killing everything and destroying our resources. So, they're fighting. They're seeing a dialogue and a narrative being written that's honest and truthful and something that everyone can understand, even folks who haven't spent an entire lifetime working specifically on plastics like myself. So, that's what I see is going on. 
 

JARED BLUMENFELD: So, how are you fighting these new facilities, especially the ones that were built up over the time when Hurricane Harvey, you thought they were just cleaning up their act? Are you initiating lawsuits or how are you and your community approaching stopping some of these developments? 

YVETTE ARELLANO:  So, it's not just me and my community, but there are so many advocates across the nation that are grassroots led from environmental justice organizations and others that are flooding lawsuits. Again, the work is being done to end the extraction of fossil fuels. It's just where does that tie in with plastics? So, folks who have been working on stopping pipelines, being constructed new ones, finding permit challenges on expanding facilities, speaking to students, community members, advocates in the research field so that they can help us answer certain questions about plastics or help bring technical expertise to some of the projects happening. That's what we're doing and it's a little bit from every bucket, but we know that grassroots organizations don't just stick to one script. We go wherever we're needed and any questions that our community members have, those are the problems that we're going to tackle. It's beautiful to see grassroots involved now because we come from so many different angles of this same issue that is plastics and have a wider range and more capacity. Mind you, we're still very small organizations. We do it because we have to because that's our survival. 

JARED BLUMENFELD: And how has that affected you personally? Like how do you view plastic now differently than four years ago? 

YVETTE ARELLANO:  After starting the plastics work, I see it as a fossil fuel fight. It's a fight against big oil and it's affected me because I'm able to one, bring the same passion and fight to plastics that I have been for years on oil and gas. It's exhausting because of how quickly these petrochemical plants are able to grow and the new projects that we have to pull up every day. So, it makes it hard because the target is moving and it's moving quicker than what we have capacity for. And my hope is that new advocates are brought into the plastic circle and that the message is elevated to a point where we have people even non-affected areas joining in and talking about plastics in a way that's not only plastics and recycling, but plastics is oil, plastics is fossil fuels, plastics is killing us and it's a disease that we need to act on now.

JARED BLUMENFELD: At the beginning, you were talking about the only thing that people can do is cover their windows in plastic sheeting. And it just kind of made me think about all of our lives and how plastic is absolutely everywhere. We're not going to have a plastic free life tomorrow. So how do you cope? 

YVETTE ARELLANO:  It's the fact that we're not doing this for our existence, so we're not taking on oil and gas or extractive industries or plastics for that matter, thinking that we're going to solve it within our lifetime, my lifetime. This is work that's setting the foundation for the next generations to come. It's for survival that we have to be realistic in a way and think about taking on the advocacy with hundred-year plans that I will start off or the person before me has started off. Set a foundation that I took on and that that work will go so far with me and then pass that on. That's the importance of bringing youth’s voices into this struggle now or this challenge now so that we can start feeding all of the information, all of the challenges, the technicalities, the geopolitics of the space into their knowledge so that they can take it on within their generation. Incorporating youth voices consistently and continuously because we need to reenergize the movement with new blood, right? Consistently. It's a flow. Just like these crackers and these plants never stop producing new. We can't stop producing new advocates and new people to take on our challenges. So, this is everybody's struggle, and everyone needs to get involved no matter what age. Because at some point you're going to be standing at the forefront and making sure that you know, in the process you don't leave somebody behind because you don't want that struggle to stop. We can't. There's no option. 

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: Where do you live relative to these facilities? 

 

YVETTE ARELLANO:  So, I live in the east end, so down the way from Valero refining in the beginning of that petrochemical stretch. And when we were just talking about how none of us in the movement, especially in the environmental justice movement, sort of come on because we're recruited or anything, it's because we're personally suffering with things. Either we lost someone along the way and that's pushed us in our work, or our own health is affected. And then, whatever we do on the ground canvassing to make sure that people come out to public hearings, one of the things that we share is skin issues. So, I'll forever have, you know, chemical sensitivities and skin issues. And whenever I come and knock on somebody's door, that's the first thing they see. And I used to be really ashamed about it, but I realized that it's something that also gives me “skin in the game” and allows me that to sort of talk to folks who are struggling with the same thing about how we're managing it and gives us a start to the conversation. Like, why do we have this? This isn't the same story that everyone's painted for us, that it's hereditary or that it's a diet based. You know, these are trespasses on our body because of the exposures at the fence line. 

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: So, what would you want people to do? 

 

YVETTE ARELLANO:  I want them to look at their own backyard. I want them to look at the environmental justice community or the effected community in their cities because there's an affected community in every city. Whether you're talking about incinerators and the communities that live next to those petrochemicals and the communities that live there, because these are all people that live in the shadow who nobody recognizes their existence. And that's important. That's an important piece. We can't just look at documentaries that spotlight the suffering in other places, but we have to realize that we live in a first world nation that has egregious violations of human rights in our own backyard. So, I want them to discover what that community is and also carry an understanding that plastics is more than just a straw ban or bag ban. It is part of our fight for survival. 

JARED BLUMENFELD: Thank you so much to that Yvette Arellano for talking with us today. Yvette’s discovery that the post Harvey rebuilding efforts were used to mask the expansion of plastics manufacturing is truly disturbing. This is a global industry that already generates more than 300 million tons of plastic a year. Do we really need more plastics?  I'd always seen this as an issue in the context of marine pollution or how much we were recycling. And I want to thank Yvette for opening my eyes to the health, equity, and justice consequences of frontline communities that live next to ethylene crackers. This human dimension to plastics can no longer be overlooked. In the next episode of Podship Earth, we talk with Beth Gardner about air pollution, which globally kills 7 million people every year, and the innovative solutions to turning this problem around. Thank you so much for being part of the Podship Earth journey. From the entire Podship Earth crew, sound engineer Rob Speight, executive producer David Kahn, and from me, Jared Blumenfeld, let's hope that when the next disaster strikes, we rebuild for the future rather than replicating the worst of the past.