By Javier Sierra
Rosario Marquina feels like a dove in the hands of a giant, just waiting for the day his squeeze crushes her.
Rosario lives in Manchester, the most polluted neighborhood in Houston, the most polluted city in the United States. Not a day goes by when she doesn't pray that she'll never see or smell the source of her grief again —the five petrochemical plants that surround her home and her children's school.
Her six-year-old daughter, Mónica, goes to JR Harris Elementary School. Her seven-year-old son, Valentín, stopped attending after he was diagnosed with leukemia.
"When I take Mónica to school, I feel a deep emptiness," says Rosario. "I am very afraid that she will get sick, too. I don't know whether I am giving her an education or a death sentence."
Rosario's fears are shared by the thousands of residents of this overwhelmingly Latino Houston barrio, where 10 petrochemical plants spew 1.9 million pounds of air pollutants per year, the largest amount in America.
"Here there are tens of thousands of children going to schools located less than two miles from a chemical plant," says Juan Parras, leader of Unidos Contra Environmental Racism. "A good example is César Chávez High School, where more than a thousand students, almost all of them Latino, would take the brunt of a potential severe pollutant leak."
Manchester is perhaps the most emblematic example of an injustice that repeats itself throughout the country. The poorer and more ethnic a community is, the higher the likelihood that its schools are close to toxic sites.
César Chávez High School, built in 2000, is located close to four petrochemical plants- Exxon-Mobil, Texas Petrochemical, Lyondell-Citgo and Valero Houston Refinery. Moreover, the school was built on top of underground pipes conducting oil and gas to the factories.
Even though the companies claim they obey the law to the letter, a recent study completed by the Houston Chronicle seems to confirm Juan and Rosario's fears. According to the report, in Manchester, the levels of 1,3-butadin, benzene and chloroform —three known carcinogens— far surpassed federal limits.
A scientist told the Chronicle that Manchester's benzene levels are so high that living there is like being stuck in traffic 24-7. More than 80 samples taken by the newspaper would have provoked a full-blown federal investigation if the communities were toxic dumpsites instead. Another scientist said Manchester is unique in the United States because no matter where the wind blows from, pollutants get to the residents.
"It stinks here," says Ben Zamurio, a senior at César Chávez High School. "It smells like rotten eggs. Nobody likes living here. My dream is to leave."
School officials, however, reject the criticism, calling people like Rosario and Juan "the fringe," and alleging this $50-million school was built based on sound environmental studies completed in 1992, which "demonstrate that there is nothing wrong with the property."
"Many years have gone by since then," answers Juan. "Since 1998, we are the country's most polluted city. School officials must install monitors to gauge air toxins and stop keeping students' medical records secret. It's as if they're throwing us a bone, but that bone happens to be toxic."
Other factors contribute to this crisis. The less English we speak, the more vulnerable we become. The vast majority of Manchester residents are unaware of the dangers they are exposed to. The lack of political participation also plays a role.
"We must stop being passive," warns Juan. "We must educate our communities to fight against these environmental injustices and force our elected officials to help us in this fight."
And fighting back does work. Juan's group, along with 650 Manchester residents, has convinced the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to conduct an investigation into the barrio's environmental conditions.
But Rosario has gotten tired of being a dove.
"The authorities tell me to keep taking Mónica to school because children have already built up their defenses against these poisons," she says. "If that's true, what happened to Valentín? All I want is get my children out of Manchester as soon as possible."
Javier Sierra is a Sierra Club columnist. The Sierra Club is America's oldest, largest and most influential grassroots environmental organization.
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