By Daphne Chang
Ride for the Future 2013 is a summer leadership development program of Better Future Project comprised of 6 college students and recent graduates biking 500 miles from New Orleans to Houston over the course of 2 months in the sweltering heat to draw attention to society’s deadly addiction to coal, oil, gas and new emerging unconventional fuels like tar sands, which are more toxic to produce. The program’s mission is to highlight the harms being imposed upon Gulf Coast communities by extraction methods like drilling, waste disposal like toxic injection wells, landfills and poorly regulated processing plants, and refining, through actively listening to affected individuals and working with various organizations like Louisiana Democracy Project, Louisiana Bucket Brigade, Project Green Light, T.E.J.A.S. (Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services), and Bridge The Gulf. From New Orleans, which has experienced both extreme weather and toxic pollution disasters in recent years, to Houston, home to the largest concentration of oil and gas corporate offices, refineries, and other facilities, we call for these companies to behave in a responsible manner, to stop any new investments in coal, oil, and gas, and instead, explore ways and spark conversation to transition to renewable and sustainable energy like solar and wind.
During this program -from June 4th to July 30th- we met a wide spectrum of people with varying interests and positions on the global issue of fossil fuel burning for energy consumption, including professors, scientists, frontline communities, non-profits, activists, civilians, media, lawyers, philanthropists, and others. By connecting and building meaningful relationships with these individuals and organizations, we hope to carry their stories along with us, share them to a wider audience and strengthen networks to help build a movement.
One of the last parts of our journey was our involvement in and support of the Manchester’s Health Festival, organized by volunteers with T.E.J.A.S., which occurred on July 19th at Manchester’s Hartman Park. Manchester, a predominantly Latino community, is surrounded by a multitude of refineries owned by Valero, Texas PetroChemical and LyondellBassel, as well as many other heavily polluting industrial facilities. We witnessed the real impacts such facilities have on the human experience for the first time when we rode to Manchester to distribute flyers promoting the festival. Unavoidably pungent, rubbery and undeniably unpleasant odors perforated the air as we were getting closer to the community. It was shocking and bittersweet to see children riding on bikes, playing sports and throwing frisbees on the grassy field of Hartman Park with a giant refinery continuously pumping thick white plumes into the air.
We connected with T.E.J.A.S. less than a week before the festival, so by then a lot of planning and organizing for it was already underway. Our participation in one meeting helped us understand the goals of the festival, which we understood as increasing awareness and education on environmental health and community members’ rights to human health, creating opportunity for members to connect with political candidates on this issue, increasing community members’ political awareness and voice, and serving as an opportunity for Houston organizations working on these issues, like Air Alliance Houston and Houston Tomorrow, to connect with each other and the community and build coalitions. The festival was a success in fulfilling many of these goals and was a personally rewarding experience for us riders to participate in since it turned out to be productive for networking and lots of fun with great music, food, dancing and games!
Our booth at the festival displayed “1,000 Paper Cranes”, an ongoing project throughout our journey inspired by our mission and based on the story of Sadako Sasaki, an 11-year-old Hiroshima survivor who died of leukemia, and the Japanese legend that if you fold 1,000 paper cranes you are granted one wish. It is the riders’ cry for peace and a better future, which are both integral motives of the riders’ work and efforts. We asked individuals from the Gulf Coast communities to share their stories and their vision of a better future on pieces of paper.
1,000 Paper Cranes was not only a booth at the Manchester Festival but also had a presence at Discovery Green Park, in downtown Houston on July 27th, followed by a potluck, where we invited all the amazing, inspiring and passionate individuals we’ve met along our journey to share their stories and so we could express our appreciation of them for contributing to our enlightenment of the great work happening in Louisiana and Texas for environmental, social and political justice.
The most powerful moments of the journey for us included seeing a large refinery for the first time, seeing the shockingly immediate proximity of communities to these refineries, learning that all the frontline communities we visited were predominantly African American or Latino, learning of the complete lack of respect by these facilities and industries for human and environmental health and, inspiringly, learning of the passion and determination of individuals from these communities in standing up and fighting for the rights to their own health. In Baton Rouge, we helped Stephanie Anthony, member of the Louisiana Democracy Project, to canvass in a neighborhood so close to the ExxonMobil Refinery that the air was constantly permeated with headache-inducing odors. One resident there said that every incident of accidental release by the local refinery shook the ground and houses as if there was an earthquake. We collected petitions in the neighborhood to stop the Environmental Protection Agency from granting air permits to ExxonMobil to release more sulphur dioxide into the air. What was frightening was how this dangerous living situation was an actuality for so many communities.
In Port Arthur, as part of a tour by Hilton Kelley, we witnessed a strip of housing for residents, who fell under the poverty line, directly across from a row of large refineries which stretched far along the road. The sight of children’s playgrounds with the backdrop of large refineries pumping chemicals into the air was depressing and, unfortunately, not uncommon, as we saw a very similar sight in Manchester.
We also met Carrie Withers, a resident of Lake Charles living across from Industrial Carbon Services, a facility processing petroleum coke, and other members of the neighborhood. Ever since the facility started operating illegally without a permit, residents have suffered from allergies, burning eyes, respiratory irritation, asthma, headaches, and other symptoms.
Carrie Withers reminisced of a time when residents could barbeque and gather outside, now the socializing only occurs indoors. Listening to the narrative of her fight against Industrial Carbon Services, and hearing about the blatant inaction of the city council and legislation to hold the facility accountable for all the harm it has inflicted on the people’s health, was frustrating. It also emphasized the importance of empowering the community to recognize their political voice and unite to resist such abuses to human rights to a healthy life.
Ride for the Future revealed to us uncomfortable and unjust truths and changed our understanding of our own capabilities and power to change these truths. It changed paradigms we had previously created for ourselves by showing us all the connections and relationships we have, as daily consumers of energy, to frontline communities and the earth, and shined light on our responsibility to take action so that these relationships are positive rather than detrimental, and contribute to a future where both frontline communities and the earth are no longer unnecessarily sacrificed. While confronting the reality of direct and immediate impacts from fossil fuel burning, we also witnessed the many admirable efforts in fighting for a system and, ultimately, a future where an individual’s energy consumption does not have to lead to an increased risk of developing cancer for someone else. There are many passionate individuals struggling for this justice and making laudable progress, but the fight is far from over.