TCEQ and the Status Quo

Recently I was enjoying an all beef hot dog at local establishment Happy Fats when a copy of Houston Press caught my eye. There in the contents list was an article on Dupont. If I were not the educational programs director for Air Alliance Houston, the article might not have caught my eye. But I am, and so it did. “Tragedy at Dupont Or, how seven enforcement actions, $270,000 in fines and 51 violations in five years earn you a “satisfactory” record with TCEQ.”

I moved to Houston six years ago and have been teaching Ozone Theater at Air Alliance Houston for five years now. Frequently I am caught griping about the lack of enforcement in our “fair” city and the regulators who seem to be more in the pocket of the oil & gas industry instead of the community pocket they are here to serve. As an educator I work hard to temper this gut feeling of mine and try to remain objective, allowing the kids to connect the dots.

I’m sure by now we all have heard of the tragedy at Dupont a few months ago. This article, however, shows the facts behind my gut feelings in black and white. Not halfway through the article Michael Barajas lists out DuPont’s major violations from 2009 until recently. 2009 is the year I moved here, started learning these anachronisms, and breathing the same air that y’all do. (That’s also when I started using the word y’all.)There’s more to the article and I encourage you to read it. You might even check out this link that describes the choice made by two brothers, native east side Houstonians, who rushed in to help their coworkers. In this article the father of the men, Gilbert Tisnado, himself a chemical plant worker states “This is a risk we all take. If you go work at a plant, you never know if you are going to come back home.”

I suppose some may call me overly sensitive, but if you’ll allow me, it seems we live in a city where the threat of not returning from “the plant” is an accepted risk; where officials slide on inspections and regulations that may or may not have contributed to the deaths of these workers. It seems our city does not blink an eye when oversights cause death. It seems that the divide grows wider every day, and one of the ways I see it most clearly is in our Houston classrooms. Students on the east side already are aware of the “risk” associated with the “factories.” Schools on the east side are more likely to practice “shelter-in-place” drills while students on the west side of town have never even heard the terminology. Students on the east side know where their fathers work. Flares are “normal” to them and asthma absenteeism doesn’t surprise them.

I administer an entirely free educational lesson plan that some people just don’t want to hear. I get it. The oil and gas industry is Houston’s largest job provider. Many teachers have spouses in the industry. But what if we stopped looking the other way? What if we expected the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality to actually use the power they have been given and hold all companies accountable for violations? What if all the chemical plants that we are surrounded by were forced to comply and updated their equipment to ensure community safety? The industry itself is not our problem. What might just be our problem is our apathetic attitude to safety violations, stronger regulations, and our acceptance that “this is how it’s been, so that’s how it will continue to be.” How long will we as a city continue to accept the status quo instead of demanding that our regulators enforce rules that would move us toward a safer, more livable city for all?