September 2019 Volume 2, Issue 9
Environmental Justice News
The Environmental Justice Team at Lone Star Legal Aid welcomes you to Environmental Justice News. We’re keeping communities updated on our team’s ongoing environmental law efforts throughout our 72-county service area in Texas.

In our newsletter, you’ll find an overview of the types of legal cases we’re currently handling for eligible individuals and organizations who are living in fence-line communities and other areas where environmental justice is a concern. If you have an environmental legal matter that concerns you, please call 713-652-0077 ext. 8108 for more information on how we might be able to help your neighborhood!

Our environmental justice team is part of a broader Equitable Development Initiative at LSLA, with additional teams focusing on fair housing and community advocacy. The Equitable Development Initiative’s goal is to provide legal assistance to foster community revitalization in low-income neighborhoods by fighting systemic discrimination and degradation, and by helping residents create safe, decent and equitable living spaces.

Please feel free to forward this newsletter about Lone Star Legal Aid’s environmental watchdogs with your friends, family and neighbors! To subscribe to our newsletter and/or receive updates about your neighborhood, click here .

Amy Dinn
Managing Attorney, Environmental Justice Team
TCEQ to Consider Contested Case Hearing Requests as Residents Seek to Challenge Permit on Concrete Batch Plant
in Acres Homes
As reported previously in EJ News, hundreds of community members have mobilized over the past year to voice their opposition to Soto Ready Mix’s application to Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) for an Air Quality Permit that would allow the company to operate a concrete batch plant next to homes and across the street from Highland Park and Community Center, a treasured community gathering space in the heart of Acres Homes, a historic community of color in northwest Houston.
Despite the community's overwhelming concerns that the proposed batch plant is located across the street from a public park, TCEQ’s Executive Director granted conditional approval of the permit on May 15, stating that it “meets the requirements of applicable law.” In a sustained show of support for the residents, a number of state, local and U.S. representatives and officials including the City of Houston's Chief Environmental Science Officer have spoken out strongly against the permit over the past year. More than 50 residents have submitted requests for a contested case hearing to challenge the permit, which they say threatens the health and safety of their community. LSLA Environmental Attorney Colin Cox has been working with community members to challenge the permit. Residents are currently awaiting responses from TCEQ on their requests, expected this week. Residents will then have until September 30 at 5:00 p.m. to respond to TCEQ in writing for their requests to be considered by the TCEQ Commissioners.
On October 9, the TCEQ Commissioners will hold a public meeting in Austin to consider and vote on the residents’ requests for a contested case hearing and requests for reconsideration of the Executive Director's decision. Members of the public may attend the Commissioners' meeting in Austin to observe the proceedings. The meeting can also be viewed LIVE by clicking on TCEQ's website here on October 9 beginning at 9:30 a.m.
Above: Highland Park Community Center / Photo: Houston Parks and Recreation Department
EJ Team Presents at 2019 State Bar of Texas Poverty Law Conference

On August 28-30, members of LSLA’s EDI Unit convened in Austin, Texas for the 2019 State Bar of Texas Poverty Law Conference . All four EJ Team attorneys presented at the conference, which was attended by hundreds of pro bono and legal aid attorneys, law professors, and advocates from across the state who gathered to share their knowledge and learn from each other in the 3-day conference that covered a substantive curriculum highlighting multiple civil legal issues faced by low-income individuals and communities across Texas, including housing, immigration, public benefits, disaster recovery, and environmental concerns.

LSLA EJ Attorneys Rodrigo Cantú and Barham Richard joined Marlene Chavez, Paralegal with Texas RioGrande Legal Aid (TRLA), for a presentation and panel discussion that shared the presenters’ experiences working with communities in the context of regulatory cleanup programs to tackle contamination issues. Barham Richard provided an overview of state, federal, and community-based cleanup programs including Keep America Clean, Keep Texas Clean, Superfund, Brownfield and Texas’s remediation contracting programs, as well as funding sources for these programs.

Cantú focused on differences between two regulatory programs in place for hazardous waste and contamination cleanups - namely the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA) (“Superfund”) program, and the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) program. Cantú shared his experiences working with the IMPACT community group in Houston’s Fifth Ward, where legacy creosote contamination by Union Pacific and a predecessor company contaminated groundwater and soil in a residential neighborhood. Submitting detailed public comments on behalf of the community group to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ), Cantú says he has seen a significant increase in the substance and number of issues that TCEQ has begun to push back on, requiring Union Pacific to improve the cleanup efforts as a result of LSLA’s advocacy around this issue through the RCRA program. “My hope is that attendees walked away with an idea of how public engagement on these issues can result in technical permit terms that are more protective of human health and the environment,” shared Cantú.

EJ Attorney Colin Cox was part of a panel presentation and discussion about starting and sustaining nonprofit groups in under-served communities. Along with attorney Andrea March from TRLA, Frances Leos Martinez of the UT Law Entrepreneurship and Community Development Clinic, and Ileana Riojas and Jen Richards, also from TRLA, presenters looked at different aspects of working with community groups, sharing a holistic approach to serving the legal needs of communities while also advising groups based on their specific purpose, goals, needs, and capacity. “The advantage of working through environmental issues with groups is that the group can amplify and unite a community’s voice and channel it towards legal outcomes that benefit the entire community,” said Cox. Cox also talked about his experiences working with the Port Arthur Community Action Network (PA-CAN), a community group that initially approached LSLA for assistance after a months-long silo fire at German Pellets overwhelmed the West Side neighborhood of Port Arthur. The group later became formalized with LSLA’s assistance in order to respond to environmental issues in the West Side neighborhood during and after Hurricane Harvey. PA-CAN has continued to work with LSLA’s EJ Team since then, tackling multiple environmental issues faced by the West Side community, including air permitting challenges, enforcement issues through TCEQ, and continued work to help the community recover from Harvey.

EJ Managing Attorney Amy Dinn presented a workshop and primer alongside Maggie Barnes of Texas Rio Grande Legal Aid (TRLA) and Michael Bates of Legal Aid of Northwest Texas (LANWT) focusing on the challenges surrounding land use issues in low-income communities and potential strategies for advocates. Dinn's presentation began with a historic overview of how land use regulations played an important role in shaping the look of communities because of historic discriminatory practices against people of color, noting that large cities continue to be more and more segregated nationwide. Dinn shared also comprehensive look at negative impacts from a lack of zoning regulations in the two largest cities in the nation without zoning, Houston and Pasadena. Dinn then presented on some advocacy strategies to address environmental concerns that result from these systemic issues that communities can push for at all levels of government and implement in their communities. For example, “[i]n Harris County, we have focused on strategic community-based initiatives like implementing deed restrictions to create private zoning and protect existing residential neighborhoods from industrial encroachments,” explained Dinn. Her co-presenters then described specific case studies on land usage the advocacy work their respective organizations have been taking on in Lubbock (LANWT) and El Paso (TRLA) that further emphasized how even with zoning regulations, communities of color and low-income neighborhoods still face discrimination when it comes to site placement of facilities and long-term community planning.
Above Left: Rodrigo Cantu, Marlene Chavez (TRLA), and Barham Richard / Photo: Amy Dinn, Lone Star Legal Aid
Above Right: EJ Attorney Rodrigo Cantu gives a primer on hazardous waste cleanup programs / Photo: Amy Dinn, Lone Star Legal Aid
Above: Panelists Jennifer Richards, Andrea March, and Ileana Riojas of Texas RioGrande Legal Aid (TRLA), Frances Martinez of UT Law Entrepreneurship and Community Development Clinic, and LSLA EJ Attorney Colin Cox / Photo: Amy Dinn, Lone Star Legal Aid
Top: LSLA EJ Managing Attorney Amy Dinn introduces EJ Team members Colin Cox, Barham Richard, Rodrigo Cantu, Sal Giovanni Solis, and Heejin Hwang at the 2019 Poverty Law Conference in Austin, Texas / Photo: Jonathan Vickery, Texas Access to Justice Foundation (TAJF)
EJ Team Welcomes University of Texas School of Law Environmental Justice Fellow, Heejin Hwang

On Monday, August 26th, UT Environmental Justice Fellow, Heejin Hwang, officially joined EJ team members at Lone Star Legal Aid's Houston office, where Hwang will be housed through the Spring of 2020 as part of a 12-month postgraduate public interest fellowship. Funded by the Texas Access to Justice Foundation (TAJF) through the William Wayne Justice Center for Public Interest Law at The University of Texas at Austin School of Law, Hwang is the first UT Environmental Justice Fellow to be working directly within Lone Star Legal Aid’s Houston office. Hwang received her JD from the University of California - Los Angeles (UCLA) School of Law in May 2019, specializing in Critical Race Studies and the David J. Epstein Program in Public Interest Law and Policy. EJ News recently had a conversation with Hwang to learn more about her fellowship plans for the coming year in Houston.

Q: How did you first become interested in law, and specifically, environmental law?

A: As a person of color from a low-income background, I was always interested in justice and equality, because difference seemed inherent to both my experiences and other’s interactions with my identity, and I wanted to understand why. My interest in law itself—as a mechanism for furthering justice and equality—first arose when the law seemed to do the exact opposite. In 2009, my family left our home of over twenty years in San Francisco, because a new landlord initiated an owner move-in eviction, which the city’s ordinances allowed. That experience led me to pursue opportunities in housing rights, civil rights more broadly, immigrants’ rights and racial justice, to learn how law could empower those facing structural disempowerment. Fortuitously, this journey brought me to environmental law. While working at the American Civil Liberties Union prior to law school, I learned that immigrant communities in Flint, Michigan were not accessing clean water or health services after the water crisis because they feared being targeted for immigration enforcement. I also learned that the predominantly Black and low-income community of Uniontown, Alabama, which suffered disproportionate environmental harms, had been sued by a waste management company for posting on Facebook, “[W]e should all have the right to clean air and clean water.” It blew my mind that some communities’ basic ability to live was fundamentally compromised by their geography, race, citizenship status, or socioeconomic or political status. When I learned that there were words for this—“environmental racism”—and a movement addressing these exact issues—“environmental justice”—I knew this was what I wanted to do.

Q: What kinds of projects are you looking forward to during your fellowship here at LSLA? 

A: Everything! Both the LSLA EJ team and The University of Texas School of Law’s Environmental Clinic have placed me on incredible projects. I’m looking forward to helping with LSLA’s permitting challenges: As a Californian, I’m fascinated by Texas’s regulatory processes, and hope to learn how LSLA holds TCEQ, other governmental entities, and companies accountable through these processes. I’m also looking forward to learning more from those whom LSLA serves. Some of LSLA’s clients have long-fought racism in all its forms: They are from over one-hundred-year-old communities that were forced by segregation laws to their current neighborhoods, established strong communities despite attempts to erase them, subsequently faced targeted disinvestment and/or pollution burdens, and now are being forcibly displaced. All are subject matter experts—in technical, regulatory, scientific, commercial, or advocacy matters (to name a few)—because they have for decades sought answers to why they, their family members, and neighbors were falling ill, as well as dying, and why they must continue to suffer. I have so much to learn from them.

Q: What excites you about taking on this kind of work, specifically in the Gulf Coast of Texas?

That it is happening! That at the hub of industry (especially oil and gas), where climate change production directly collides with its impacts, in a state without the friendliest environmental laws, the first environmental justice lawsuit was brought ( Bean v. Southwestern Waste Management, 482 F. Supp. 673 (S.D. Tex. 1979)), and now legal aid attorneys are carrying on this fight on behalf of communities taking on some of the biggest names. How could I not get excited?

Q: Is there anything else you’d like to share with our readers?

A: Thank you for letting me be a part of your work!
Top: Heejin Hwang / Photo: Courtesy of Heejin Hwang
Group Client Spotlight: Environmental Community Advocates of Galena Park

When EJ News caught up with Cruz Hinojosa, President of Environmental Community Advocates of Galena Park (ECAGP), he was on his way to a planning meeting with fellow ECAGP officers to work on their game plan for the coming year ahead. Recently engaging with Lone Star Legal Aid’s Equitable Development Initiative for assistance in reestablishing the group's nonprofit status through the State of Texas and applying for tax-exempt status through the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), ECAGP has been advocating for community members in Galena Park on environmental justice concerns since 2010. 

Represented by EJ Attorney Rodrigo Cantú, the group recently completed the necessary paperwork to be reinstated as a non-profit organization through the Texas Secretary of State, and is now focused on establishing bylaws and applying for federal tax-exempt status with assistance from LSLA Community Advocacy Attorney, Ebony Young-Fair. “Once this process is complete, the group will be recognized as a tax-exempt 501(c)(3) organization through the IRS,” said Young-Fair.

With a full roster of officers and over half a dozen community members eager to join their group, ECAGP is working to address environmental concerns in Galena Park through a new project to actualize the group’s comprehensive vision for environmental equity. Partnering with Galena Park High School, ECAGP plans to engage with local youth to implement a novel approach to environmental risk communication.  “Most community members in Galena Park are Spanish speakers - children are often the only English speakers in a household,” shared Hinojosa. By teaching youth how to interpret and communicate information about air quality and environmental risks to their parents, the program will arm community members with vitally important information, especially useful during a disaster or other times when pollution levels may spike in the surrounding Houston Ship Channel area.

During the Deer Park ITC fire in March 2019, Galena Park residents received multiple updates from City of Galena Park officials as well as City of Houston and Harris County officials. Yet, not all residents were aware of whether or not the fire was causing a risk to their health while the disaster was happening. “There was a lot of fear and confusion among community members,” shared ECAGP’s Vice President, Juan Flores. While the air quality in Galena Park was not known to cause a health risk to residents during the fire, Flores said that particulate matter from the fire settled on community member’s homes and yards. Levels of cancer-causing benzene spiked in the aftermath, as flare-ups and leaks from ITC's chemical storage tanks continued for several weeks along the Houston Ship Channel after the initial fire was extinguished.

To help residents understand more about their air quality on a daily basis, ECAGP plans to install air monitors in Galena Park High School’s new building. “It’s important for educators and community members to know when children are being exposed to potentially harmful levels of VOCs (volatile organic compounds) and other pollutants,” said Hinojosa. “These monitors are going to measure air quality inside the school, where children spend most of their time.”

With over 60 years of combined experience advocating for their community, ECAGP’s officers bring a wealth of knowledge to the table. A science educator for over 20 years, Maria Barraza-Flores, ECAGP’s Secretary and Treasurer, teaches chemistry at Galena Park High School, where students recently took top honors in a science video competition. 

Cruz Hinojosa first began his work in community advocacy over 20 years ago, when he founded the nearby chapter of League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), serving as the chapter’s President. A former police officer, Hinojosa has also served on the Galena Park City Council and the local school board over the years. LULAC is where Hinojosa first met ECAGP’s Vice President, Juan Flores. “We were actually neighbors living two blocks apart for years without knowing it! But we eventually met through LULAC,” shared Hinojosa. 

Working as Outreach Coordinator with Air Alliance Houston for the past five years, Juan Flores is continuing the kind of advocacy he began years ago through his work with T.E.J.A.S. and other organizations. Like Hinojosa, Flores also served on Galena Park’s City Council, where he helped pass an anti-idling ordinance. A resident of Galena Park since he was four years old, Flores's father worked at one of the nearby refineries for 26 years. He would often share stories with his young son about the dangers of his job, encouraging Juan to take another path. When Flores was in 6 th grade, a nearby Phillips 66 plant blew up, sending a mushroom cloud into the sky and blowing out the glass in windows. The experience left an indelible impression on him that drives Flores to protect his community to this day. “I love my town,” said Flores. “I don’t want to leave, because I want to make a difference in my community.”
Above: Officers of Environmental Community Advocates of Galena Park (ECAGP) - Cruz Hinojosa, Maria Barraza-Flores, and Juan Flores / Photo: Courtesy of ECAGP

Top: City of Galena Park boundaries / Image: Google maps
Catch our EJ Team at these upcoming events!
Friday, September 20 – LSLA’s EJ Team live on The People's News , KPFT 90.1 FM, 2-3pm

Tuesday, September 24 – EPA Meeting: San Jacinto River Waste Pits, Highlands Community Center, 604 Highland Woods Drive, Highlands, TX 77562, 6:30-8 pm

Tuesday, September 24 - TCEQ Public Meeting regarding Motiva Permits No. 6056, 8404, PSDTX1062M3, GHGPSDTX156, and GHGPSDTX121M1, YMCA Westside Development Center, 601 W. Rev. Dr. Ransom Howard Street, Port Arthur, Texas 77640, 7:30 pm

Thursday, September 26 - BC Elmore Elementary Open House / Settegast Heights Redevelopment Corporation Health Fair, 8200 Tate, Houston, TX 77028, 3-5 pm

Monday, September 30 - IMPACT Community Meeting regarding c ontamination in the Fifth Ward by Union Pacific, True Love Baptist Church, 4029 Falls Street (Entrance off Emmet and Sayers Streets), 6 pm

Tuesday, October 8 – TCEQ Notice and Comment Hearing, Valero Refining Federal Operating Permit # O1381, Hartman Park Community Center , 9311 East Avenue P, Houston, TX 77012, 7 pm

Wednesday, October 9 - TCEQ Commissioners' Public Meeting, TCEQ Commissioners' Offices , 12100 Park 35, Building E, Room 201S, Austin, TX, 78753, 9:30 am
Thursday, October 10 - Harris County Attorney's Office, Environmental Disasters in Harris County Symposium, 1019 Congress Ave, Houston, TX 77002
For more information on any of these presentations or upcoming meetings, please contact our EJ Team at 713-652-0077 ext. 8108.
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