Victoria County commissioners will hear a presentation on the new master plan for Victoria’s downtown and consider opening the hiring process for a new juvenile misdemeanor attorney at the District Attorney’s office at Monday’s meeting.
The downtown master plan, which was adopted by City Council last month, includes a wide array of potential improvements, from expanding De Leon Plaza and transforming a block of Forrest Street into a pedestrian area to pursuing grant funding for cultural activities and entertainment to improving lighting and sidewalks.
That plan also includes a proposal to create a Tax Increment Reinvestment Zone downtown, which would allocate a portion of taxes on downtown properties that become more valuable toward a special fund intended for downtown improvements.
The proposal would not involve levying any new taxes, city officials have said.
Commissioners will also hear a request from District Attorney Constance Filley Johnson to begin the hiring process for a new misdemeanor juvenile attorney position within her office.
“This additional position was created for the 2022 budget, but is needed sooner in order to train a new attorney to take on the task of clearing (the) juvenile case backlog,” according to a memo submitted by Johnson to the Commissioners Court.
If the request is approved, the District Attorney’s office would cover funding for the position through Dec. 18, at which point funding is allocated in the 2022 county budget, according to the memo.
During an August budget workshop, Johnson requested the county allow her office to hire an additional felony intake prosecutor as well as the misdemeanor juvenile attorney. At the time, Johnson said her office had been operating with seven full-time attorneys and one part-time attorney since she took office in January 2019, which was the lowest number in years.
The county has seen an uptick in juvenile crime, she added.
The proposed salaries were $85,000 for the felony intake prosecutor and $75,000 for the juvenile misdemeanor attorney.
“We want to keep those kids out of the adult system,” Johnson said at that hearing. “So they need a swift and very firm response from our office to prevent them hopefully from graduating from the juvenile system and into the adult criminal realm.”
PORT LAVACA — The Boujee on the Bay Farmer’s Market in Port Lavaca bustled with activity Sunday.
As the sun shone down on the market along Virginia Street, vendors set up stalls to hawk their wares. Customers filled their bags with locally made products. Tables were covered in colorful homemade crafts, fresh baked rosemary brioche bread and home-harvested honey and eggs.
Past a table covered with vibrant succulent plants was the entrance to Mad Batter Cheesecakes. Anyone who ventured through the door could treat themselves not only to delicious sweets, but also a special one-day-only brunch for the market consisting of fried green tomato poached eggs, smoked gouda scalloped sweet potatoes, candied jalapeño poppers and Nutella biscoff donuts.
The market, which began in July, is a way for local small businesses to get their start, organizer and owner of Mad Batter Cheesecakes Brittani Riccio said.
“I have always been super into supporting small businesses,” Riccio said.
The market is a growing monthly event that gives a home to local businesses looking to establish themselves.
Though Riccio’s now owns a brick-and-mortar business, she said she got her start operating as a vendor at markets much like Boujee on the Bay, which she runs in her parking lot.
“I’ve always done a lot of vendor events,” she said. “That’s how I did my marketing.”
Some of the vendors at the market are hoping to replicate Riccio’s achievements, like baker Jamie Hessel.
Hessel normally rents space in Mad Batter Cheesecakes to sell her baked goods and savory pies, but the market is a chance for her to place her Weed’s Sweet Shoppe products at the forefront, she said.
“I set up out here today to show off the breads,” Hessel said. “Eventually I’m hoping to relocate and move out.”
Coffee roaster Suezhanna Arredondo, of Goliad, sells home-roasted coffee under the Screaming Eagle Roasters brand at the market with her husband Bo Arredondo. Boujee on the Bay is the only market they sell from for now, but now that the couple has moved to Goliad they plan to sell their coffee at markets there as well as open a small shop.
Connection to local products and people is a major reason people shop at farmer’s markets.
“It’s more personable, the connection you have with everybody,” Riccio said.
Before she began roasting and selling her own coffee, Arredondo had quit drinking it entirely.
“I don’t like the flavor of store-bought coffee,” she said. “I quit drinking it.”
After roasting her own coffee beans, Arredondo fell back in love with the flavor of the drink. She first began selling her product at the market in July, and excitedly recalled asking her first-ever customer for a photo to remember the occasion by.
According to the Farmers Market Coalition, 85% of farmers travel less than 50 miles to sell at markets, and more than half travel less that 10 miles.
Though the market only opened in July, it is expanding.
Beginning early next year, Boujee on the Bay will partner and combine with Port Lavaca’s Depot Days, Riccio said. It will also move out of the Mad Batter Cheesecakes parking lot and to the old train depot at the corner of Virginia and Railroad streets.
The market schedule will also ramp up, Riccio said. Instead of just being held on the third Sunday of each month, it will take place every Sunday.
HOUSTON — When Brenda Compton, 73, was a child living in a tight-knit Black neighborhood of northeast Houston, the smell of chemicals was constant, she said. The soil was discolored. She remembers the rainbow sheen on the water running in the drainage ditches.
“We were used to it because it was our neighborhood,” said Compton, who grew up in Fifth Ward and still lives in the house her parents built more than 70 years ago. “It was our home.”
The chemical smell often wafted to their homes from the east, where a rail yard a few blocks away was treating railroad ties with hazardous chemicals in the late 1970s and early 1980s with little oversight from environmental regulators. Two Superfund sites also sit northwest of the neighborhood. Residents are continually fighting to keep new sources of pollution from moving in, from concrete batch plants to interstate expansions.
It’s the type of community — dominated by people of color and polluted for decades — that the nation’s new Environmental Protection Agency administrator, Michael Regan, has promised that President Joe Biden’s administration will prioritize for environmental cleanups, emissions enforcement and infrastructure investments.
Regan, who spoke with residents of Fifth Ward and other communities of color in the Houston region Friday as part of a tour of historically marginalized and polluted communities across the South, said the EPA will ensure that money from the recently passed Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act and the Build Back Better Act, which was passed by the House of Representatives Friday, will flow to communities that need it most.
“There are so many things we need to do to rebuild trust,” he added. “It’s not rocket science, we just have to get to work.”
The top EPA official also said his agency is “prepared to act” to prevent companies or Texas environmental regulators from stalling cleanup efforts in Houston and communities like it.
“I can assure you that if the state does not lean in as aggressively as we would like, EPA has the authority and ability to do what we need to do,” Regan said.
How, specifically, the federal government will address decades of lax environmental enforcement and policy loopholes that allowed a long legacy of pollution was a key question from residents to the EPA administrator on Friday. Much of the damage has already been done: Many of the residents of Fifth Ward and an adjacent neighborhood, Kashmere Gardens, already have cancer or have lost a loved one to the disease. Higher-than-expected rates of certain cancers among both adults and children were identified by state health officials in recent years.
Contamination is often technically difficult and expensive to remove decades after it was created. A high legal bar to prove that health problems were a result of pollution prevents most lawsuits from succeeding.
“It’s going to take years to clean it up, and people have already died from cancer,” Compton said. “The rail yard is still there. It’s been there for so long, and it’s part of our area. How do you clean up a whole area?”
Community advocates and environmental experts say the EPA needs to rethink its approach if the federal government is going to holistically address the problems in such neighborhoods.
“People have allowed so many different types of industries to move in and function right there in the community with residents,” said Denae King, a toxicologist and research program manager at Texas Southern University who has worked with the residents to find solutions for legacy contamination in the area. “Many of the people that were exposed over the years are now gone.”
Legacy of pollution in communities of color
Earlier this month, university scientists came to test the soil in Compton’s front yard for environmental contamination. She’s still waiting on the results.
“This is important, and this is scary,” said Compton, whose parents as well as two of her siblings battled cancer at some point. “It’s still scary.”
Her mom was diagnosed with thymus cancer and overcame it with treatment; she died in 2013 from complications from pneumonia. Her dad died with non-Hodgkin lymphoma in 1999. Her brother had colon cancer and beat it. Another brother died with multiple myeloma in 2019. She and a third brother are the only immediate family members still cancer-free.
Years of community activism followed the revelation that the groundwater beneath homes near the rail yard was contaminated with creosote — a mix of chemicals used to preserve railroad ties that the EPA calls a probable human carcinogen. That brought environmental testing, a city health survey, a state analysis of a cancer cluster in the area and now a visit from the EPA chief.
According to a 1993 environmental assessment of the rail yard that was recently made public, chemicals from the rail yard leaked into the surrounding soil, carried toxic waste off into the ditches and streets and discharged more pollution into the sewer system than it was supposed to.
In 1981, an explosion occurred at one of the chemical tanks that stored materials for the wood treatment operation. The extent of the contamination from that release is “unknown,” according to the assessment, which was conducted by PRC Environmental Management Inc., in Dallas to comply with the EPA’s hazardous waste requirements.
Lena West, 77, who grew up across the street from Compton, said her father, Herman Earl Hall, worked at the rail yard for 49 years. Every day, she said, he came home covered in what looked like tar and smelled like chemicals. Their mother boiled the clothes each night to get them clean enough for him to wear the next day. Of the 10 children in their family, five developed some type of cancer, she said.
“When the family is riddled with cancer, you are on high alert for everything,” West said. She and her siblings are screened for cancer frequently since several people in the family have contracted the disease — it’s a constant source of stress, she said.
“It would be hard to blame it on anything else [other than the pollution],” West said. “Our grandparents, our great aunties, they didn’t have this problem, and they didn’t live here.”
A spokesperson for Union Pacific said the company is pleased the EPA administrator visited Houston’s Fifth Ward to hear directly from the community about the railroad tie facility that the company acquired from Southern Pacific in 1997 after production ceased. The company has maintained that environmental testing has not identified any current human exposure to contamination.
“Union Pacific is in the process of renewing our permit to continue our ongoing, decades-long cleanup, testing, monitoring and remediation activities at the site,” Robynn Tysver, a spokesperson for Union Pacific, said in a statement. “We have an open, ongoing dialogue with the EPA, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, the City of Houston and Harris County.”
Though the Texas Department of State Health Services found elevated rates of cancer in residential areas surrounding the Houston rail yard, proving it came from a specific contaminant is extremely difficult and often fruitless in the current legal and regulatory system, environmental experts said.
In 2000, Houston rail yard workers and their families sued Union Pacific, alleging cancer and other ailments were caused by exposure to creosote and other chemicals — such as vinyl chloride monomer, a known human carcinogen — while at work. The case was dismissed on the grounds that the plaintiffs didn’t provide sufficient evidence to prove their illnesses came from a specific pollution source at the rail yard — even though toxicologists say it would be nearly impossible to do so.
“We’d like to be able to have clear direct causality,” said King, the toxicologist at TSU. “With cancer, it’s just not that simple. Oftentimes, cancers result from a long-term exposure to a contaminant, but that person could be exposed to other things during that long time period.”
Joe Gardella, a chemist in Buffalo, N.Y., who has researched the impact of industrial pollution on local communities and advised EPA cleanups for decades, said data for historic contamination is often sparse. The explosions that occured four decades ago at the rail yard are of particular concern, he said, since burning naphthalene or creosote creates air pollution that’s toxic to people breathing the fumes.
“It’s hard to reconstruct what the exposures were,” Gardella said. “A lot of times, the corporate world will say, ‘Well, we don’t have any data about the exposure, and there may be a cancer cluster there, but we have no way to prove that the cancer was the result of exposure.’”
James Dahlgren, a medical doctor and expert on environmental toxins who published an epidemiological study on the effects of creosote on the human body in 2003, was an expert source in the Houston rail yard workers case 20 years ago. Attorneys for Union Pacific labeled his analysis “junk science” in part because he didn’t link a specific chemical to the alleged health problems or quantify exactly how much exposure the workers had to creosote, naphthalene or other toxins while working at the rail yard.
He said that’s nearly impossible to do unless a community has millions of dollars to spend on a thorough epidemiological study.
Hundreds of Houston residents have joined lawsuits seeking damages from Union Pacific in recent years. It’s an uphill battle: The Texas Supreme Court in 2007 held that plaintiffs that sue for damages from toxic contamination must rule out other potential causes with “reasonable certainty” — a bar that’s nearly impossible to meet, environmental experts said.
Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner has floated the idea of buying out some residents so they can move to another area, according to the Houston Chronicle, but some like Compton don’t want to leave. Maybe she’s old-fashioned, she says, but she doesn’t want to be bought out — not by the rail yard nor by the speculative investors swarming into the neighborhood that lies just a few minutes from downtown. “There is nothing like Fifth Ward,” Compton said.
What will EPA do?
Some environmental lawyers and community activists say the EPA could make changes that would have big impacts on communities facing long-standing pollution, such as investigating more public complaints about pollution that cite the Civil Rights Act of 1964. That legislation prohibits intentional discrimination and discriminatory effects on the basis of race, color and national origin by recipients of federal financial assistance — which includes state environmental agencies that approve permits to operate polluting facilities.
“EPA could really move forward on [discrmination] claims, investigate the most pressing ones and put money and energy towards expanding their civil rights enforcement office,” said Scott Badenoch, an environmental law professor at the University of California Irvine School of Law. “That is a major avenue for communities to get redress.”
Advocates have also called on the agency to require environmental regulators to consider all the sources of contamination in a community before allowing more polluting businesses to move in, arguing that could help to avoid overburdening any one neighborhood with pollution.
During a conversation with faculty and students at TSU on Thursday night, Regan suggested the agency is considering action to address the cumulative impact of pollution but warned that it’s unclear whether the EPA has the authority to do that. He said he is discussing with members of Congress whether the EPA needs additional statutory authority.
“EPA is exploring ways that we can legally read the Clean Air Act in a way that allows us to take into consideration some of these external factors,” Regan said. “Do we believe that there’s some vulnerabilities there if people want to challenge us in court? Possibly. But the only way to find out is to test it.”
Still, residents who spoke with Regan on Friday said environmental regulation is only part of the problem. They said the people who have already gotten sick need proper health care, reliable transportation to their doctor’s appointments, compensation for their medical bills and cancer screenings — solutions that aren’t within the EPA’s traditional authority.
“We didn’t ask for cancer,” Sandra Edwards, a resident in the Fifth Ward and member of IMPACT, a community group advocating for solutions to the legacy of contamination from the rail yard, told Regan on Friday. “We shouldn’t have to go all the way to the medical center across town. We should bring a facility to this neighborhood for people.”