November 30, 2013
LOS ANGELES – As President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden took turns visiting Houston and other major American ports recently to talk about the importance of exports, a group of Houston-area residents left on a differen tmission.
The timing was coincidental, but the contrast was sharp.
The Obama administration is trying to pry loose congressional funding for dredging and other infrastructure to make American fuels and products less expensive to export and thus more attractive to buyers around the world.
Trade through the Ship Channel is increasing, and the Port of Houston is expanding. Direct seaport jobs brought $2.9 billion dollars in income into the Houston area in 2011.
But some local residents want a reconsideration of who benefits from trade expansion and who pays the costs.
A contingent from communities near the Ship Channel traveled to Los Angeles to learn how groups in that region have managed to influence port expansions and channel millions of dollars of improvements into their sooty, park-poor, portside neighborhoods.
Ten people from Galena Park, Pasadena and the Houston neighborhoods of Manchester and the Fifth Ward visited the twin ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach. Despite their own proximity to the largest petrochemical complex in the U.S., the Houston-area delegates were taken aback as their Los Angeles bus rolled past miles of stacked shipping containers, cranes and one refinery after another.
“Oh my God, the size, the actual size, if that is what is going to happen to the Port of Houston, that is unbelievable, that is just unbelievable,” said the Rev. James Caldwell, a Fifth Ward pastor who works with the Coalition of Community Organizations. “It is going to create some huge problems. It looked enormous to me coming from Houston.”
Pollution increase
Two and a half times as many containers are expected to pass through the Port of Houston by 2030, according to port authority documents. Container boxes arrive on ships, then cranes lift them onto rail chassis or trucks. Increases in port traffic often mean more diesel pollution from ships, trains and trucks.
Research on health effects of breathing exhaust continues to grow, said Ed Avol, professor of clinical medicine at the Keck School of Medicine at the University of Southern California. “The message is, traffic exhaust is bad for you, and we are seeing that in every organ system we look at,” Avol said.
Must negotiate
Angelo Logan of Commerce, Calif., became a community organizer after he watched his town become the site of two major rail yards and thousands of daily truck trips as the Los Angeles ports expanded. Eating outside at restaurants in Commerce became impossible, he said, because diesel soot coated tables and chairs. Neighbors said engine noise became a constant. He encouraged the Houston-area residents to view transport expansion in their neighborhoods as a tax.
“Businesses should not be taxing the community,” he told the group, gathered in a borrowed church room. “They should be providing revenue to the communities they are in.”
Logan’s group became part of a coalition that eventually negotiated $6 million for indoor air filtering systems in approximately 50 schools and a new park. An agreement with the ports also created a Harbor Community Benefit Foundation that funds projects to ameliorate some transport-related problems. So far it has funded a new pulmonary care center in a port neighborhood and expanded asthma treatment at several clinics.
Kathleen Woodfield, a homeowner who has long struggled with the Los Angeles ports, counseled the visitors from Texas not to be deterred if changes take a long time. “I have been in your place. We were just community people who spoke in front of the harbor commission, and they would roll their eyes at us,” she said, giving the Texans her cellphone number.
Bel Vasquez-St. John, of Air Alliance Houston, said she’s encouraged by early efforts to improve conditions in Houston Ship Channel communities. When her group wanted to install air monitors in Galena Park, she got “a very good reception” from the City Council, police department and school district.
Port authority officials and community residents in Houston are just beginning their own dialogue. A Citizens Advisory Council recently held its first meeting. Ernesto Paredes, who attended, and who was also on the trip to Los Angeles, came away favorably impressed.
Some others on the trip seemed unfamiliar with efforts the Port of Houston Authority has made. The Houston port has a Clean Air Strategy Plan that covers those parts of the 52-mile long Ship Channel that fall under its control. Most of the economic engine that lines the channel is private capital.
Helping neighbors
The port has sped up the entry of heavy trucks at the Barbours Cut and Bayport terminals, said Charlie Jenkins, managing director of strategic planning. That’s good for business, but it also means trucks don’t line up waiting to get into the terminals with their diesel engines idling into the community. All the port’s wharf, or unloader cranes, are electric, so they generate no diesel emissions.
Jenkins said port officials know some neighbors feel they are not benefitting enough from increased trade activity. “We are aware of it, and we are thinking continually about how we can address the problem.”
Houston and Los Angeles-Long Beach are not the only places where this issue is coming under such scrutiny. Groups from Seattle and the New York-New Jersey area have joined them in forming an alliance called the Moving Forward Network. They plan to meet in Denver in mid-February.

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