For residents living in the suburb of Deer Park, Texas, the chemical fire which broke out at the Shell Chemical Plant on May 5th was far from an isolated incident.
The community, located just over 20 miles from Houston, is made up of mostly single-family homes lined with gardens and prides itself on being a safe and peaceful place to live. Yet that sense of safety and peace has been routinely shattered over the years each time a disaster breaks out at a nearby petrochemical plant.
These petrochemicals plants (which produce the key ingredients used in plastic) involve the use of a whole range of toxic chemicals including phenol, acetone, ethylene, propylene, and butylenes.
Yvette Arellano, an area resident and founder of the Houston-based environmental justice organization Fenceline Watch, said these chemicals are known to have disastrous and long-term health effects. These effects, and their impact on the local community, is something Fenceline Watch has been tracking closely over the years.
“Plastic production produces toxins that harm communities that not only live near. But around these facilities,” Arellano said.
It’s no surprise then, Arellano explained, that each time a disaster breaks out at these nearby chemical plants, the impact is immediately felt by residents.
“[The Deer Park fire] comes only about a month after another chemical explosion at INEOS in March 2023 this year,” Arellano pointed out, adding that the massive explosion lasted 8 hours.
“A couple of years ago, we had a chemical tank explosion. Six chemical tanks caught fire creating one of the largest chemical disasters along the Houston Ship Channel history. Millions of pounds of carcinogens and toxins entered our communities in a chemical peel that spread longer than 47 miles and 16 miles wide.”
Arellano added, “Shelters in place and evacuation orders don't protect us from the immediate harm, and not especially when it comes to the long-term harm of us living within our communities for an entire lifetime.”
That long term harm, as Arellano described it, includes multigenerational impacts with community members suffering from a number of health and life altering conditions including damage to their neurological and reproductive systems.
No longer going to pay with their lives
As Arellano sees it, participating in the Global Plastics Treaty negotiations in Paris is a chance for communities living along the Houston Ship Channel to share with the world what they continue to endure.
“I believe this will be the first step in making sure that our communities are safe and reducing sacrifice zones and not expanding current fossil fuel infrastructure that would be locked in for the next 60 to 100 years.”
“This treaty would be the first of its kind to not only provide us with protections here in our own backyards, but to pressure our own governments to take action in order to create more protective regulations, policies, incentives, but also enforcement measures against polluters that have a history of violations and continue to have a social license to operate.”
It’s a sentiment shared by Frankie Orona of the Society of Native Nations. Like Arellano, Orona said Indigenous and frontline communities not only deserve to have a seat at the table when drafting the blueprint for a Global Plastics Treaty, their calls for a complete phase-out of plastic production must be heard.
Groups from around the world were preparing to share this exact call to action at the Paris talks when news emerged that the United Nations Environmental Programme, or UNEP, was limiting the number of community and advocacy groups that could attend the treaty talks. It was news that Orona said was both frustrating and dismaying.
“It's our communities, our Indigenous and people of color communities that take on adverse effects from the negative impacts of this industry,” he said adding, “Who better to know what the solutions are than the people that are affected the most by it?”
Orona pointed to his own communities of the Borrado, Chumash, and Tongva people and the ways they are vulnerable to the harmful effects of plastic production at every step of the process.
“Most people don't understand or know that 99% of plastics are made of fossil fuels,” he explained. That process, beginning with extraction, through to production, transportation and finally the incineration of plastic waste can have a drastic and compounding effect on a community already facing inequities.
“You know, we’re already struggling with taking a bus to work or to the grocery store or having two or three jobs, trying to pay rent, and food and bills.”
“And then [having to] take a child or a relative to the hospital for their chemotherapy or radiation therapy or, look for the asthma medication and the tools necessary to just breathe."
Despite the recently announced restrictions that will cap the number of non-governmental organizations that can attend the talks, both Orona and Arellano say they feel optimistic about the meetings and will do their best to represent their communities and share their experiences.
“It's kind of funny when you hear about a plastics treaty. Especially for Indigenous people,” Orona reflected.
“We hear the word treaty, we're like, wait a minute, the U.S. is not honoring the treaties in the first place! You know, those that were signed for our sovereignty here within the States in itself.”
“But in today's time, if we want to ensure a sustainable future for our next generation and make sure that it continues to exist in that kind of way, then we need to use every tool necessary.”
And for Orona and Arellano, one of those tools is the Global Plastics Treaty itself, which they both agree can make a life-changing difference for communities if designed with their interests in mind.
“What I want people to understand is that we are not safe,” said Arellano.
“There are no laws, there are no agencies that can adequately protect us at the time. We have little to no recourse within our own homes to make sure that we have the levers available to us in order to assure the safety for us and our families.
“Plastics is simply another lifeline for the fossil fuel industry to continue to operate business as usual. A home, a school and daycare can all be sited next to these facilities and are for over 52 miles of the stretch that we call the Houston Petrochemical Complex.”
“We are the sacrifice zones that carry the burden and the health cost of cheap plastics. It is time that we take action as a collective society to say enough is enough..”
“Regardless of the outcomes of this treaty, grassroots efforts and organized community groups throughout our country are going to continue to fight over the issues that affect us closest and most,” Arellano explained.
“This is only one step and we have a long way to go.”
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.