It might feel as though the community of Deer Park, Texas is a world away from the discussion table in Paris where international delegates are meeting this week to negotiate a Global Plastics Treaty. But for residents in this largely Latino and Hispanic community, any decisions coming out of those talks are certain to have direct repercussions on them and their home.
Yvette Arellano, Founder and Director of the Houston-based Fenceline Watch pointed to a giant blaze which broke out at Shell’s Deer Park Chemicals Facility back on May 5th. The Shell plant produces petrochemicals - the base ingredients of plastic. Arellano said that not only were surrounding communities endangered by toxic fumes in the air from the fire, contaminated water created huge hazards as well.
Arellano pointed out that the flame retardant used to extinguish the billowing blaze, resulted in waste water which then leached into the local waterways.
“Days after, the city of Houston began having rain events where [those] toxins continued to spread oily slicks throughout our waterways,” they explained.
“As the Gulf Coast, we have a rich culture of fishing. We eat crawfish and shrimp and catfish. This ultimately harms the kind of cultures that have been here even before the oil and gas industry,” Arellano explained.
Arellano went on to say there was a chaotic scene days after the fire when first responders and local officials were both at a complete loss as to what potential health impacts the disaster might have on local residents.
“The kinds of chemicals that entered our communities included carcinogens like Benzene, chemicals that cause multigenerational impacts.”
“A total of 19 people were injured throughout the whole process, and Shell Chemical only recognized its official workers, stating that there were additional contractors who were also injured,” Arellano pointed out and said the real human cost isn’t being fully tallied.
Not only that, Arellano said residents already shaken by the fire were startled again days later.
“On day two, community members heard booming sounds from the facility at three and four in the morning.”
Arellano said they are shocked by what they say is Shell’s complete disregard for the health and safety of area residents. Arellano said a number of communities like theirs (known commonly as “fenceline communities”) are in the heart of one of the largest petrochemical hubs in the world.
Arellano’s organization Fenceline Watch states on its website that those fenceline communities in Texas, lead the nation in terms of uninsured residents and are ranked last for prenatal and maternal care. Fenceline Watch states residents living in this zone are always experiencing catastrophes.
“Our human rights are just as important and just as valuable as those of folks who don't live along the fence line and front lines of petrochemical facilities.”
Check out our past coverage on petrochemicals with Yvette Arellano on the podcast episode "Still in My Backyard" which also features Filipino activist Von Hernandez, and Indonesian lawyer Tiza Mafira. You can also hear more from Frankie Orona in the episode, “Reprogramming the Root.”
This story is part of a People over Plastic investigative series that examines key environmental justice issues in America’s Gulf South. The series will feature stories about BIPOC and low-income communities living in the shadow of petrochemical production. Follow us on Instagram, TikTok, LinkedIn and Twitter. You can subscribe to our monthly newsletter here.