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Cost of Doing Business? Amnesty Int’l Documents Health, Environmental Impact of Fossil Fuels in Texas

StoryJanuary 30, 2024
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A new Amnesty International report titled “The Cost of Doing Business? The Petrochemical Industry’s Toxic Pollution in the USA” documents the health and environmental impact of fossil fuel and petrochemical plants run by corporations like ExxonMobil and Shell along the Houston Ship Channel in Texas, identifying it as a “sacrifice zone” where the harms are disproportionately borne by marginalized communities. “Our findings are exemplary of broader challenges and issues in terms of poor regulations and inadequate laws at the state and federal level,” says author Marta Schaaf, who calls for a moratorium on new projects while pursuing the long-term phase-out of fossil fuels.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

“The Cost of Doing Business? The Petrochemical Industry’s Toxic Pollution in the USA.” That is the name of a new Amnesty International report which finds the left expectancy in predominantly Black communities along the Houston Ship Channel in Texas is up to 20 years less than in nearby white communities. The Houston Ship Channel is lined by over 600 petrochemical plants that operate 24 hours a day, disproportionately polluting low-income, largely Black and Latinx communities. In a moment we’ll talk about the report with one of its authors, but first to the new video produced by Amnesty.

NARRATOR: A new Amnesty International report reveals human rights are being sacrificed along the Houston Ship Channel in Texas by devastating pollution from over 600 petrochemical plants in the area. These plants process fossil fuels into chemicals to make things like plastics, fertilizers and pesticides for use in the U.S.A. and around the world, including Europe. Fenceline communities are regularly exposed to toxic substances linked to a wide range of illnesses such as cancers and respiratory diseases.

ARTHUR WILLIAMS: People that work at the plant told us, “Oh, that is benzene. Oh, that’s sulfur.” They burned all of this off.

NARRATOR: These communities are marginalized and, in turn, often lack access to the healthcare they need, let alone the resources to fight this injustice and environmental racism.

JUAN FLORES: And minority communities tend to be the ones that are having to deal with the brunt of the issues. And it’s something we’ll continue to battle and educate people what’s going on.

NARRATOR: Despite regulations, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality rarely imposes penalties, allowing companies to evade fines by claiming air pollution is unplanned or unavoidable.

PATRICIA GONZALEZ: They get slapped on the wrist with these little fines. They pay the fines, but they’re still polluting. They’re still making people sick.

NARRATOR: In the past decade, there have been widely reported fires and unexpected toxic leaks in the area, resulting in evacuations, injuries and even death. Despite the danger to local communities, the environment and climate, the petrochemical industry continues to expand as oil and gas companies look to offset anticipated falls in the demand for fossil fuels. We can all play a part in protecting fenceline communities from the toxic petrochemical industry. Demand accountability and remedy for fenceline communities.

AMY GOODMAN: A new video report by Amnesty International.

We’re joined now by Marta Schaaf, director of the program on climate, economic and social justice and corporate accountability at Amnesty International, which just released their new report, “The Cost of Doing Business? The Petrochemical Industry’s Toxic Pollution in the USA.”

Marta, thanks so much for being with us. You are naming names, from ExxonMobil to Shell. Talk about the significance of the Houston channel and what the cost of doing business is.

MARTA SCHAAF: Sure. Thanks, Amy.

So, we are naming names. We looked at — we did case studies of four specific petrochemical facilities. Three of them produced petrochemicals, which are derived from fossil fuels and used in everyday products, such as fertilizers and, importantly, single-use plastics, which are — the production of single-use plastics is projected to double in the U.S. by 2040. And the U.S. is, in fact, the number two producer, after China, of petrochemical companies. And we looked at one facility that’s a storage facility for these petrochemicals. Often petrochemicals are stored until there’s a more favorable price, and then shipped out, so exposing communities to further harm. So we are naming names, but at the same time, as the segment — as you noted, there are over 600 facilities along the Houston Ship Channel, which is the waterway that runs from the city of Houston to the Gulf of Mexico. So, our findings are exemplary of broader challenges and issues in terms of poor regulation and inadequate laws at the state and federal level.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Marta, I’m wondering — again, years ago, when I was looking into some of these issues of pollution in the petrochemical industry, the big problem was that government regulators only came during working hours, and these companies were very good at being able to emit their worst pollution at night and on weekends, so that the regulators weren’t even around. I’m wondering what you’re able to find these days what’s happening.

MARTA SCHAAF: Well, what we found is that many of the air quality monitors, for example, they’re sparsely located and not necessarily in the communities at issue, and that when residents report problems, such as vibrations, chemical odors, smoke, other things that would cause them to believe that there’s been some sort of exceedance or pollution event, they’re not always responded to in a timely fashion. And, in fact, Texas has a law, SB 471, stating that if a community has made multiple complaints, that the regulators are not required to respond to their complaint. And this really flies in the face of logic, because we know that several communities are exposed disproportionately to these challenges, to these exceedances, so it stands to reason that they would make multiple reports, of course. So, this law just came into effect in August of 2023 and is expected to even further undermine residents’ capacity to report smoke and other odors and events that cause them to think that there’s been some sort of pollution event.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Could you talk also about —

MARTA SCHAAF: When we conducted the interviews —

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: I just wanted to ask you —

MARTA SCHAAF: Sure. When we — 

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: You mentioned something called, in your report, the affirmative defense that companies use —

MARTA SCHAAF: Sure.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: — for unpermitted pollution. Could you talk about that, as well?

MARTA SCHAAF: Yeah. So, the affirmative defense, it’s basically a loophole in state law that allows companies to say a particular emissions event was, quote, “unplanned and unavoidable.” So, they use — they make this claim with great frequency, and they are granted the defense with great frequency by the TCEQ, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. So, it basically provides them an out. They may or may not be levied with a small fine, but these fines are so small that it is more beneficial to the company to continue to operate cheaply and to live with these exceedances as the cost of doing business — the title of the report. And it’s the sacrifice zones, the communities living on the fenceline of these facilities, that pay the price for that, for that high cost of doing business, in fact.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, Amnesty International’s recommendations, Marta Schaaf?

MARTA SCHAAF: So, we recommend both — we look at local, state and federal law and find that there are gaps in all of these. And on top of the fact that the laws themselves are inadequate, they’re poorly implemented. So we call for much stronger implementation of existing law as regards to responding to complaints, to permitting as a — permitting renewal as a key opportunity to ask companies to look at their compliance, to look at the number of times they’ve been in noncompliance, and to make real demands or to not renew their permits, to insist on changes or to close the facilities. Similarly, the EPA should look at the states, the extent to which they have implemented federal law in the state, and make demands on what’s required to ensure that these companies are allowed to continue to operate.

Like Human Rights Watch, we also recognize that the petrochemicals industry should not be growing, that fossil fuel-derived products should be on a — should be phased out over time. And so, we call — also call for a moratorium on expansion and suggest several avenues that the state can use to transition folks to good jobs in the renewable energy industry and in remediation in the petrochemicals industry in Texas.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, we want to thank you so much for being with us, Marta Schaaf, director of Amnesty International’s program on climate, economic and social justice and corporate accountability. We’ll link to Amnesty’s new report, “The Cost of Doing Business? The Petrochemical Industry’s Toxic Pollution in the USA.” Amnesty has noted that the production of plastics by petrochemical plants is set to double by 2040, despite the fact that it poses environmental pollutant and health hazards, to say the least, particularly in communities of color.

That does it for our show. Democracy Now! is currently accepting applications for a major gifts officer. Check it out at democracynow.org. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

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