Environmental Racism in Houston's Harrisburg/Manchester Neighborhood

By Julianne Crawford, M.S. Candidate, Civil & Environmental Engineering, Stanford

Houston has long been recognized as one of the leading industrial cities in the country, and more distinctly, the “energy capital of America”. With this title also comes its distinction as one of the pollution capitals of North America. Less well known, however, is that the polluting industries are concentrated around distinct regions of the city. The Harrisburg/Manchester neighborhood is one such region whereby refineries, chemical plants, sewage treatment facilities, and hazardous waste sites encompass the homes of nearly 2,000 residents. Of this population, 98 percent are Hispanic, and many fall below the poverty line. Ultimately, the Manchester community is ignored by society and unprotected by the Environmental Protection Agency and Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. All of this adds up to the stark reality that the Harrisburg/Manchester neighborhood is a “sacrifice zone,” a “forgotten corner of the country where people are trapped in endless cycles of poverty, powerlessness, and despair as a direct result of capitalistic greed.” [1] This is just one of many examples around the world of “environmental racism”.


I was first exposed to the term “environmental racism” during a “toxic tour” led by Juan Parras, an environmental justice activist and the director of the Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services (t.e.j.a.s). This toxic tour offered a humbling look at the industrial landscape of Houston’s Eastern end by exploring regions of the city, including the Harrisburg/Manchester neighborhood, that are affected by the nearly 30 refineries and chemical plants that spew toxins into the air. Environmental justice is the belief that everyone, regardless of socioeconomic status, or race, has the right to a clean and healthy environment. “Environmental racism”, as apparent in these neighborhoods, demonstrates a complete disregard for environmental justice. It is the placement of low-income or minority communities in close proximity to environmentally hazardous or tarnished environments. As more profoundly expressed by Richard Bullard, “In the United States, based on the color of your skin and the money in your bank account, you’re literally breathing different air.” [2]


Harrisburg/Manchester is a small neighborhood of about 455 homes. Geographically, it is completely cut off from neighboring residential areas and encompassed by 21 Toxic Release Inventory (TRI) reporting facilities, 11 large quantity generators of hazardous waste, 4 facilities that treat, store or dispose of hazardous waste, 9 major dischargers of air pollutants, and 8 major stormwater discharging facilities [3]. The largest of these facilities are outlined in the following map (Figure 1). Furthermore, Figure 2a, showing a mural painted by children in the neighborhood, demonstrates the normalcy of this situation to the Harrisburg/Manchester residents. The mural depicts a playground in Hartman Park (see point 1 on the map), surrounded by refineries, highways, and chemical plants. Figure 2b depicts the horrific reality of this painting as a child plays in the park while thick grey smoke billows from one of Valero’s towers. According to Juan, local children refer to it as a “cloud-maker.”

Figure 1. Map of the Harrisburg/Manchester Neighborhood

Figure 1. Map of the Harrisburg/Manchester Neighborhood

Each of the areas we visited in the Harrisburg/Manchester neighborhood highlighted the stark disparity in environmental equality. The neighborhood was desolate, wrought by pollution and poverty. Garbage lined the streets. Everything from general litter and debris, to old mattresses, tires, and stray dogs were common sites. We even visited an old Superfund site where an elementary school had previously been located. The school was forced to shut down when they found excessively high concentrations of lead in the children’s systems. Unfortunately, it was moved to a site 30-feet away from the I-10 and U.S. 59, two of Houston’s busiest highways. Instead of lead, the children are now exposed to high concentrations of CO, NOx, SOx, and VOCs from vehicle emissions. All the while, less than 10 miles in the distance, the Houston skyline serves as a reminder of the disparity.  

Figure 2. (a. Left) Mural in Hartman Park depicting the stark reality in the Harrisburg/Manchester neighborhood. (b.Right) child playing in Hartman Park while smoke billows from Valero’s refinery

Figure 2. (a. Left) Mural in Hartman Park depicting the stark reality in the Harrisburg/Manchester neighborhood. (b.Right) child playing in Hartman Park while smoke billows from Valero’s refinery


There is compelling evidence to prove that low-income minority populations are exposed to higher levels of environmental pollution and other forms of “environmental racism”. Looking at the race and income distribution in the Harrisburg/Manchester neighborhood specifically, 98.96 percent of the total population (approximately 6,000) is comprised of minority groups, of which, 96.7 percent are Hispanic [4]. The median household income is approximately $38,600, and nearly one-third of the population lives below the poverty level [5]. Approximately 90 percent of people living in the Harrisburg/Manchester neighborhood live within 1 mile of a chemical facility [6]. By comparison Bellaire, one of Houston’s wealthiest and primarily white neighborhoods, has an average household income of $226,333 and a poverty rate of 3 percent. Only 9 percent of residents live within 1 mile of a chemical facility [7].


These disparities become even more striking when comparing the health of residents in the Harrisburg/Manchester neighborhood with residents in Houston’s west communities. Each year, an average of 484,000lbs of toxic chemicals are released into the Harrisburg/Manchester air from the 21 surrounding TRI facilities. For comparison, the Rice University neighborhood (only 10 miles away) has 0 TRI facilities and a release of 0lbs. In a study conducted by the Union of Concerned Scientists and t.e.j.a.s, it was found that the toxicity levels – derived from concentration values given by the reporting facility sources that release toxic chemicals into the air – in the Harrisburg/Manchester neighborhood are between 3 and 12 times higher than the levels of neighborhoods in west Texas [8]. In terms of the Harrisburg/Manchester population’s health, this corresponds to a cancer risk that is 22 percent higher compared with the overall Houston urban area [9].


Throughout the SUS Seminar series, we discussed how urban systems can be modeled by several interlocking systems that all aim at supporting the human experience. Within this system, there are three primary objectives, namely sustainability, resilience, and well-being/equity. These objectives can be measured/tracked quantitatively and qualitatively using a variety of metrics and indicators which allow us to analyze the performance of the urban system. This report focuses primarily on the third objective: well-being & equity in the context of Houston’s urban system. Analyzing several metrics including race, income, proximity to environmentally hazardous facilities, and health, reveals the stark disparity in well-being and equity within Houston’s landscape.

It is important to note that the disparities highlighted in Houston’s Harrisburg/Manchester neighborhood are not isolated. Entire parts of the world are considered sacrifice zones, such as the Niger Delta where massive amounts of oil are spilled every year, or Bangladesh where 3.5 million workers in garment factories produce goods to export to the global market [10], or even in East Palo Alto where low-income homeowners “living on an average salary of $30,000 per year” struggle to pay for and maintain their homes in a market where the average selling price is $3,000,000 [11]. Each of these scenarios, though not all directly related to environmental racism, demonstrate distinct instances of inequity in urban systems.

At the end of the toxic tour, we asked Juan why nothing had been done at a governmental level to protect these vulnerable communities. He said the reason is simple: because it would implicate the government and their powerful business partners. Although the metrics have been analyzed and research has been conducted, no concerted effort has been taken to systemically address the root cause. Following the tour, Juan encouraged us to internalize the disparities, educate others, and vote differently. By doing so we can begin to affect change in Houston’s urban system. Until then, organizations like t.e.j.a.s. can only ease the symptoms of the issue, because ultimately, environmental racism as depicted in the Harrisburg/Manchester neighborhood is a systemic problem that must be addressed at its core.


[1] Moyers, B. (n.d.). Journalist Chris Hedges on Capitalism's ''Sacrifice Zones'': Communities Destroyed for Profit. Retrieved February 22, 2018, from http://www.truth-out.org/news/item/10494-journalist-chris-hedges-on-capitalisms-sacrifice-zone

[2] Invisible Houston: Full Interview with Dr. Robert Bullard, Father of Environmental Justice Movement. (n.d.). Retrieved February 23, 2018, from https://www.democracynow.org/2017/9/7/invisible_houston_full_interview_with_dr

[3] Williams, S.L. (1999). Community Health Profiles: Harrisburg/Manchester Super Neighborhood.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Houston Chemical Facilities Put Vulnerable Communities in Double Jeopardy. (2016, October 27). Retrieved February 23, 2018, from https://www.ucsusa.org/news/press-release/double-jeopardy-houston#.Wo7fjxP4_OS

[7] Ibid.

[8] Double Jeopardy in Houston. (n.d.). Retrieved February 23, 2018, from https://www.ucsusa.org/center-science-and-democracy/connecting-scientists-and-communities/double-jeopardy

[9] Ibid.

[10] Klein, N. (2015). This changes everything: capitalism vs. the climate. London: Penguin.

[11] Chen, C. (2018, February). Presentation on Rebuilding Together Peninsula.