Fenceline communities left behind by data gaps: A dispatch from SEJ in Houston

This week, I’m sharing a short dispatch from the Society of Environmental Journalists (SEJ) conference in Houston, Texas. Unlike other journalism conferences I’ve attended, SEJ meetings don’t just sequester you in your hotel all day: the organizers plan field trips that are designed to give reporters on-the-ground information about environmental issues at the place they’re visiting.

I went on one of these trips, to the Houston Ship Channel and surrounding communities impacted by industrial pollution. For me, this experience was a lesson in the cascading health issues caused by environmental racism—including, of course, COVID-19—as well as the ways that data gaps can make it harder for hard-hit communities to get needed public health assistance.

The Houston Ship Channel, I learned this week, is a passage for ships going between Houston’s port and the Gulf of Mexico. According to the Port Houston website, it’s the largest container port in the Gulf Coast, handling about two-thirds of all shipping containers that travel through the region. (Shipping containers include all the consumer products that we order online.)

It is also the single largest U.S. port for petroleum exports. Every month, thousands of tons of oil and plastics (which are made from oil) pass through the Houston Ship Channel; much of this cargo is processed right on the banks of the channel, in massive refineries that define the landscape around Houston.

With SEJ, I went on a boat tour through the Houston Ship Channel. We passed refineries and industrial plants from Valero, Chevron, Exxon-Mobil, and other major companies, getting a close look at just how much space these facilities take up and how they decimate the surrounding land.

After the boat, my group went to Manchester, a neighborhood close to the channel in southeast Houston. Community activists from the local environmental advocacy group TEJAS explained that this neighborhood’s population is overwhelmingly Latino; many residents are low-income workers with no college degrees who speak Spanish as their first language.

Manchester residents have faced intense pollution from industrial plants that border their homes, schools, and community spaces. We walked through a park that is surrounded on multiple sides by these plants; we could see smoke from chemicals burning, and smell the results of that burning in the air. Valero, which owns one of the nearby plants, had recently sponsored a playground in this park as a small gesture, barely acknowledging the harm it’s caused to this neighborhood.

Of course, my immediate question was: what are the COVID-19 statistics for this neighborhood? To me, it seemed obvious that Manchester residents living with this intense pollution would face higher rates of respiratory conditions, cancers, and other diseases that would make them more vulnerable to severe COVID-19 symptoms. (Poor quality air has been linked with more severe COVID-19 outcomes since the early days of the pandemic.)

Here’s the problem: nobody could actually answer my question. I spoke to Leticia Ablaza, government relations director at Air Alliance Houston and another speaker on the tour, who explained that the link between pollution and COVID-19 in Manchester and other similar Houston neighborhoods has yet to be studied. Anecdotally, she said, she knows community members with respiratory conditions who have faced heightened vulnerability to COVID-19. But there’s no formal data.

The reason for this lack of formal studies became clear to me later, when I attended a conference session on the links between COVID-19 and environmental health. Annie Xu, a Rice University student who has studied health disparities in Texas, said at this session that the state of Texas does not publish any COVID-19 data below the county level.

Xu’s research group did identify links between Texas counties’ racial demographics and their COVID-19 burden, published in Nature Scientific Reports in January. But when the group looked for links between air pollution and COVID-19, the analysis didn’t lead to significant results.

This finding is likely because pollution can vary widely within Texas counties, Xu said. For example, there’s a huge gap between air quality in Manchester and on Rice’s campus, both of which are included in Harris County. To truly find a connection between pollution and COVID-19, a research group like hers would require more granular data, such as at the ZIP code or census tract level.

But the Texas public health department only publishes COVID-19 data at the county level—with the exception of vaccinations, one metric that is available by ZIP code. The federal government doesn’t report COVID-19 data below the county level either.

Without this granular information, it’s difficult to demonstrate the impacts of petrochemical pollution on COVID-19 in neighborhoods like Manchester. The community isn’t able to get priority status for public health interventions like vaccines or testing—meaning that its vulnerabilities are unlikely to change.

As longtime readers know, I have spent a lot of time grappling with COVID-19’s demographic disparities. I was a leading volunteer for the COVID Tracking Project’s COVID Racial Data Tracker, and have sought to call attention to the terrible state of this type of COVID-19 data in the U.S. whenever I can. Still, it was a new experience to actually see a community left behind by the data gaps that I cover.

What kind of investment would be required to truly study how COVID-19 has impacted a place like Manchester, in Houston? And what other environment-related health conditions do we need to be investigating in these areas? I hope that future stories will enable me to answer these questions.

For now, if you have any questions, comments, or data source recommendations in this area, please reach out!

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