Houstonians sound off on environmental racism at hearing

Nirman was saying “environmental racism,” while he was responding to Miles. “I’m not sure what to do with that term.”

Activists in the Surplus Room respond to comments from Texas Commission on Environmental Quality Chairman John Nirman during a sunset advisory committee meeting at the Texas State Capitol on Tuesday, June 21, 2022 in Austin.

Activists in the Surplus Room respond to comments from Texas Commission on Environmental Quality Chairman John Nirman during a sunset advisory committee meeting at the Texas State Capitol on Tuesday, June 21, 2022 in Austin.

Elizabeth Conley, Houston Chronicle photographer/staff

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“Get it, Senator,” said one in the room, among the many waiting the two minutes allotted to speak to the committee.

Those sitting in the surplus room know the significance of this phrase: They live with environmental racism. And they care enough about the injustices in their daily lives that they get up at 4 a.m. — or stay up all night — to catch buses in Houston to be here. They planned to tell the mostly white officials on the podium about the disproportionate burden of dangers their predominantly black and Latino communities faced.

“We’re long overdue in the change,” said Camille Boyd, who works in Fifth Ward, as she waited her turn, hoping to see officials take a stand.

And Nirman’s comments, which seemed to be muted, made it clear that they had work to do.

The state’s environmental regulators are up for a Sunset review — an assessment typically conducted every 12 years, to consider whether the agency should be abolished or improved in concrete ways. The Sunset Texas Advisory Committee, made up of 10 lawmakers and two designated members of the public, is scheduled to discuss and hear comments about needed improvements at the agency on Wednesday.

Check out our maps: Hazardous concrete plants in Houston are mostly located in communities of color. The population is resisting.

Throughout the morning, Sunset committee members questioned Sunset and Niermann’s crew about the proposed changes, which include holding a second public hearing on the controversial permits and making changes to how they regulate the industry. The recommendations went too far in the eyes of state Senator Charles Perry, a Republican from Lubbock, who reprimanded the staff for stepping over their roles. Nirman also challenged them.

“My own view of these recommendations is (that) the benefit (of them) is not entirely clear to me,” Nirman told the committee members who would decide whether to keep, modify or reject the recommendations. “The costs are a bit more obvious.”

Environmental advocates felt the recommendations were not enough.

For example, Miles identified for the group the impact of facilities that combine components of concrete in slums and minorities. Talk about the residents who live near the Union Pacific Railroad yard that is polluted by toxic creosote, and the people around it who develop cancer. He said several people were in overflow rooms waiting to be told about their experiences by officials.

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