GALENA PARK, Texas – Juan Flores grew up playing in open fields of mud, grass, and overgrown brush not far from his house in this small city along the Houston Ship Channel, home to one of the world’s most highly concentrated clusters of refineries and petrochemical plants.
The fields where Flores and his friends played are massive swaths of open space bounded by grass-lined embankments around 20 feet tall. Behind these embankments, over the years, the Port of Houston and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had dumped millions of tons of contaminated sediment dredged from the bottom of the ship channel.
As a child, Flores, whose father worked in a nearby Chevron plant, rode his bike all over the sediment dump sites. He and his friends played “quicksand” in the muck, sinking halfway before pulling each other out. He remembers the "rainbow-colored water” – oily residue left behind in the puddles where they would splash around.
“Yeah, we didn’t know anything,” said Flores, a lifelong resident of the Galena Park community east of Houston who is now 45 and managing an air monitoring program for Air Alliance Houston. “Now that I’m older, I realize that was very stupid of me, but I didn’t know.”
Another million cubic yards of dredge materials – enough to fill one and a half football stadiums – will be headed for these dredge material disposal sites because of the Port of Houston’s latest expansion project – Project 11. It’s a deepening and widening of the Houston Ship Channel over 39 miles of the channel’s 52-mile course from Galveston Island into inner-city Houston. The dredging will make more room for larger cargo ships, including tankers filling up oil and chemicals produced during a recent boom in U.S. oil and gas production.
Most of the neighborhoods near the Houston Ship Channel sediment dump sites are majority Latino and Black and include higher poverty rates than areas of Houston with less pollution risk. The industry’s presence means these communities, including Pleasantville, Clinton Park, and Galena Park, already have some of the highest cancer risks due to air pollution in the U.S., according to the EPA.
In an environmental impact statement issued December 2019, the Army Corps acknowledged that the neighborhoods near the placement areas do have “minority-dominated populations.” However, Corps officials said the depositing of dredged material wouldn’t have environmental justice implications in part because some of the placement areas are already in use.
“The impacts from their use for new work would be temporary, experienced over three months of site preparation at a given site, followed by three months of placement,” the Corp’s review states. “The placement of material would not produce significantly adverse long-term exposures from air, noise, water or other media impacts.”
But residents and environmental groups are concerned that the dredge spoils expose residents to toxic dust when blown from the sites onto surrounding homes. People also walk, bike, and drive vehicles onto the sites, which have signs warning against trespassing but often have no fences. Bike paths run alongside two of the disposal areas, and the Galena Park Little League fields are crammed between enormous embankments surrounding the dump sites.
Advocates are urging the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, in charge of permitting the dredging project and disposal of sediment in the area, to place the dredge materials in locations farther from people.
That’s because the sediment dredged from the channel is loaded with contaminants, according to a June 2019 sampling report. Levels of sediment sampled from an inner-city reach of the Houston Ship Channel three different polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons – or PAHs– at concentrations ranging from 109 to more than 1,110 times the cancer risk threshold. The class of chemicals has been linked to many different types of cancers, including skin, lung, bladder, liver, and stomach.
Other contaminants found in the sediment in levels that exceeded federal screening benchmarks include pesticides such as DDT, carcinogenic PCBs, and heavy metals such as zinc, cadmium, copper, lead, mercury, and nickel.
Bridgette Murray, a retired nurse and founder of a Pleasantville-based nonprofit called Achieving Community Tasks Successfully, serves on the Port of Houston’s Community Advisory Council. In an interview last month, Murray said the Port has committed to using dredging equipment with fewer emissions and disposing of its sediment in areas out of harm’s way.
But so far, they’ve gotten no such response from the Corps, Murray said, raising concerns that sediment dumping in these neighborhoods will go on indefinitely. Even without Project 11, the Corps’ plans call for continuing to dump materials from routine maintenance dredging in four existing disposal sites in the area – Rosa Allen, the House Tract, and East and West Clinton. This amount would add up to 32 million cubic yards of sludge over the next 50 years.
“What about the community?” Murray asked. “Some of these sites are just a few feet from peoples’ homes.”
To make enough space for dredge materials from Project 11, the Corps’ plans call for reopening two long-inactive sediment disposal sites – Filter Bed and Glendale – located in the Pleasantville area. It would also allow a new disposal site to be built next to the existing Clinton disposal sites in Galena Park.
The Glendale containment area has breached multiple times during its history, spilling contaminated sludge into neighborhoods built after World War II as one of Houston’s first middle-class developments open to Black homeowners. In 1957, the containment area breached while storing sediment from a dredge project, releasing a flow of sludge so deep that some residents had to climb onto their rooftops and wait to be rescued, according to a history published by the Houston Flood Museum.
“You looked out the car and all you see is sludge, and dirt, water and you didn’t know what else was in it,” resident Cleophus Sharp, who was 4 or 5 at the time, said during a video interview for the history project. “It was brown, it was a dark brown, and I had never seen anything like it before–it came up to the car door.”
Water from the containment area again poured into the neighborhood in 2017, after record rainfall from Hurricane Harvey that caused severe flooding in much of Houston. Residents say the floodwater escaped the containment area after an old, metal drainage pipe on the property failed in the wake of the storm.
Despite the concerns about sediment disposal, many residents see the plan to deepen and widen the channel as inevitable. Dredging to keep the port open for business has already pulled millions of tons of muck from the bottom of the channel, much of it contaminated by a century of heavy industry and urban runoff.
The $1 billion endeavor is the eleventh major public works project on the Houston Ship Channel since the 1840s. At that time, Houston’s population numbered only a few thousand. The oil industry wouldn’t come to Texas for another 60 years, and the land that would become the Houston Ship Channel was a tangle of bayous and swamps near where three rivers – the Trinity, the San Jacinto, and Buffalo Bayou – prepare to meet the Gulf of Mexico.
That changed after 1900, when a major hurricane devastated Galveston, then the largest city in Texas. The coastal population began shifting inland, leading to a growing number of settlements along the Buffalo Bayou. In 1901, oil shot into the heavens from the famous gusher well in Spindletop only 70 miles to the east, signaling the beginning of the oil industry in Texas.
Creating a ship channel wide and deep enough to handle commercial traffic has been a local priority since the earliest days. In 1909, Harris County residents formed a navigation district that issued bonds to fund half the cost of dredging the channel, with the other half provided by the federal government. The ship channel officially opened in 1914.
Fast-forward 120 years later, and the Port of Houston is among the world’s busiest ports – first in the U.S. and tenth globally when it comes to volume of tonnage. The port handles more than 9,000 deep-water vessels and 200,000 barge trips per year. As the late Houston oil industry lawyer and port commissioner Fentress Bracewell has said, “Houston is truly the town that built a port that built a city.
Port officials say Project 11 is necessary to alleviate congestion in the ship channel, especially from the largest sizes of oil tankers and container ships. According to permit documents, large vessels must lighten their loads to traverse the channel, and the channel doesn’t contain enough space for many ships to pass each other traveling in opposite directions.
A webpage for the project states that “more than $50 billion has been invested by the employers and manufacturers at the Port of Houston to handle increasing exports and imports.”
“Much is at stake – it is critical that the necessary infrastructure be in place to accommodate future economic opportunities,” the Port’s page states.
But a bigger ship channel inevitably means more oil and chemical tankers and more air pollution from the plants that supply them. For Flores, who was recently diagnosed with a precursor of a blood cancer called multiple myeloma, exposure to airborne chemicals like benzene is another serious concern.
All Flores’s siblings have moved away from Galena Park. After his diagnosis, he feels he might also need to leave, though he doesn’t want to. “We’re a small town here; a lot of people know each other,” Flores said. “It’s not as simple as, ‘Let me pack up my stuff and go,’ which, you know, I have the means to if I want. But other people don’t.”