Confronting the Chemical Plant Fires and the Natural, Environmental and Social Disaster That’s Harvey

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This article by Travis Morales originally appeared on the site Buzzflash.

“We’re here to make sure people like you don’t get poisoned. But no, you can’t deliver your demands to Arkema’s management, and no, we won’t take them in for you.”

That’s what two FBI SWAT team members told me on September 4 at the gates of Arkema’s chemical plant in Crosby, Texas — the plant shown belching billows of dark black smoke for days on national TV.

Three of nine containers holding 500,000 pounds of highly flammable and toxic chemical caught fire when power was lost for their refrigeration, and two exploded. What was Arkema’s solution to this environmental and health disaster? A mandatory evacuation order for a 1.5-mile radius around the plant and igniting the six remaining containers!

The flames are out, Arkema’s CEO has “apologized” to the people of Crosby, and the company has listed some of the chemicals at its plant, but it is still refusing full disclosure — even as at least 18 people have been taken to the hospital complaining of problems caused by smoke from the burning chemicals.

On September 4, I came with other members of RefuseFascism.org to do what apparently hadn’t yet been done: directly confront Arkema’s management with three demands:

1) stop poisoning people;

2) reveal the name and amount of every chemical stored at their Crosby plant and their effects on people’s short and long-term health; and

3) provide full and free medical care for everyone exposed to these toxins. One area resident told the he’d wished we’d come sooner.

The FBI guards told us Arkema’s management was “too busy” to see us. Busy doing what? With the fires out for now, apparently attempting to clean up (and cover up?) the damage and restart their plant — capitalism’s insatiable quest for maximum returns at work. But how many people will die because of Arkema? Of cancer? Of leukemia? What about children born to women poisoned by the plant?

A Multi-Sided, Often Hidden Disaster, Evolving by the Day

I’ve been in Houston, a city I grew up and lived in for more than 50 years, and what’s happening at Arkema is happening in one form or another across the Gulf Coast, where millions of pounds of toxic and carcinogenic chemicals are produced and stored. Thirteen of Texas’ 41 superfund sites were flooded, and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) told The Associated Press it had not yet been able to inspect the Houston-area sites to see if any had leaked. Another report stated “more than two million pounds of hazardous chemicals have been released into the air” during the storm. And the worst may yet be in store.

This environmental nightmares is being made worse by the Trump/Pence regime, which is slashing EPA funding, eliminating safety regulations, deregulating the oil and gas industries, eliminating limits on greenhouse gas emissions, and more.

“People Are Experiencing Some of the Worst Times in Their Lives Right Now”

At least 63 are dead. Tens of thousands have lost their homes, and everything they owned. Yet talking to people across Houston, including those whose voices are not always heard — low-income residents, Black people, Latinos, immigrants, prisoners, and others — convinced me that much of the suffering has not yet come to light.

As Jenn, a Latina activist with the Brown Berets told me, “There were no poor people on some of those TV news channels. And so they’re only showing one side of the disaster and sympathy for the people who are better off.”

Why hadn’t people left sooner? “Houstonians are used to areas flooding and they were prepared for that,” Schezelle, a former Third Ward resident who’s been in close touch with friends and relatives, said. “But the authorities didn’t warn us this was going to be a Katrina.”

“As far as my community of Black and poor people, where are you going to go?” she continued. “If you have a car, great, you can evacuate — but where are you going to go? The surrounding counties around Houston are not very favorable to poor and Black people.”

“And people have their elderly relatives. Some are bed-ridden, some are disabled, some require constant medication, so what are people going to do, evacuate and leave their elderly disabled relatives at home? No!”

Esmeralda, also with the Brown Berets, described the agony of being prevented from helping trapped relatives: “In Port Arthur the other night, the water was rising into their homes. And they kept calling us. And the authorities said, ‘Well you are going to have to wait because we have a curfew at 12, from 12 to 5.’ That’s five hours. Five hours … How many children don’t know how to swim?! Why isn’t it just a human thing to want to go help somebody? And if they want to help, why would you stop them?”

“Speaking for another member that’s not here today, she got flooded out of her whole house,” Antonio, also a Brown Beret, told me. “And her grandmother — she looked like she is over 70 — she had to be taken out in a boat. And she’s in chest-high water. It sucked. You see the whole thing documented on her Snapchat. The water just kept rising. It was horrible. She smiled through the whole thing, so it’s the power of our people out here that keep us going.”

“School is supposed to start next week for Houston, and everybody was buying clothes and supplies and whatever to get back to school, right?” Schezelle summed up. “All that’s gone. Everything you prepared — your lunches, whatever, is gone. People are experiencing some of the worst times in their lives right now. They’ve lost their homes and everything.”

Immigrants, Dreamers and the Undocumented: Targeted by Trump/Pence, Now Hammered by Harvey

Some 600,000 undocumented immigrants and many of Texas’ 124,000 DACA recipients — “Dreamers” — live in the greater Houston area. They’ve been in the Trump/Pence crosshairs as the administration relentlessly takes one horrific step after another — now the outrageous rescinding of DACA — moving to consolidate a fascism with deep American roots.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has claimed they are not going to raid shelters and aid centers, but they have sent an additional 200 ICE agents to southeast Texas. While FEMA (the Federal Emergency Management Agency) has said that undocumented people can receive emergency shelter and food, they are not eligible for long-term aid such as money to rebuild their homes or replace destroyed belongings.

Many undocumented immigrants have purchased homes. Without FEMA assistance, they’ll be unable to rebuild damaged or destroyed homes and will lose everything. If they were renting and flooded out, they could still be ruined. Already in the barrios, signs have gone up that say, “We buy flooded homes.”

Prisoners in Beaumont: Locked Up as Flood Waters Rose

In Houston, thousands still remained in shelters — unsure of how long they’ll remain and where they’ll go when they need to leave. Many who were able to go back to their neighborhoods found their homes heavily damaged or totally devastated, their cars unusable, and without any insurance that might help cover losses.

Some places on the Texas Gulf Coast devastated by Hurricane Harvey have received at least some aid. But many others have received little help. Many in Beaumont couldn’t leave because the roads were cut off by floodwaters. Many lost their homes. The water system broke down, leaving people without clean, safe water, and as of Monday, September 4, had still not been fully restored.

The situation for the 1,800 incarcerated in Beaumont’s federal prison is even more desperate. They weren’t evacuated, even though the prison was inundated by flooding. Andrea, a Black woman whose husband was incarcerated there, said he’d emailed her that he’d been moved up to the very overcrowded second floor. They had very little food, no electricity and were given only two bottles of water a day.

What Will Happen Next? What Must Be Done

Harvey was a natural disaster. But the system we live in turned it into a human catastrophe of epic proportions: Capitalist-driven global warming that makes storms like Harvey much more devastating. This system’s total lack of adequate disaster planning, deep social and class divisions which made things even worse for those this society exploits and tramples on — all exacerbated by the Trump/Pence regime.

And the crisis is not over. What will happen to all those who lost everything? In Harris County alone, 136,000 structures were flooded. So far, 440,000 people in Texas have applied for federal assistance. Where will the workers needed to rebuild come from, given that 100,000 Latino workers were needed to rebuild the Gulf Coast after Katrina? What will the impact be of ending DACA and other attacks on immigrants? The chemical plants and oil refineries are far from being under control and stabilized. A major environmental emergency could develop. And what will be the response of those devastated by the flooding, targeted by Trump, and just sickened by it all?

We in Refuse Fascism are going to continue circulating our eight Demands far and wide (and I’ll be spreading Devastation in Texas: Nine Ways This Is a Crime of this System as well). These Demands include that resources be immediately allocated to meet people’s needs, that every effort continue to save lives, and that the disaster not be used to heighten repression by ICE or other law enforcement. They speak to people’s real needs in this unfolding nightmare. We’re rallying people to fight for these demands, and doing so as part of building toward November 4, when thousands across the country take to streets and public squares, staying day and night until our demand is met: “This Nightmare Must End: The Trump/Pence Regime Must Go! In the Name of Humanity, We REFUSE to Accept a Fascist America!”

Travis Morales was a defendant in Houston’s Moody Park 3 trial in 1979. He’s a member of the New York City Steering Committee of RefuseFascism.org and a contributor to Revolution/revcom.us.

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