First-person perspectives on the world of work
Photo: Liana Lopez

Poisoned by pollution, so I fight for climate justice

My name is Bryan Parras. I grew up in Houston, Texas, known as the energy capital of the world, about two and a half miles from where the Houston Ship Channel begins. It stretches for 25 to 40 miles and all along, it is one oil refinery and chemical plant after another. When we’d drive into the city, I would see this donut, this brown donut of pollution in the air.

Fossil fuels have always been part of our lives. My family is from West Texas, the Petro patch as they call it, right in the middle of the Permian Basin, the largest oil-producing region in the United States. There was a small refinery in my father’s town, and where my mom grew up there were pumpjacks for extracting oil, right on the grounds of her school.

Growing up in the 1980s, there wasn't a whole lot of work being done around the negative impacts of the oil and gas industry on public health. I grew up with asthma and I didn’t know what it was. I wasn’t diagnosed until I was an adult. I had attacks where I really had difficulty breathing. I just thought I was out of shape and that this is what happens when you overexert yourself. I had to learn on my own how to address that, because I didn't have any kind of medication to help. I also had headaches and felt tired all the time. We went to a doctor in high school but they never diagnosed me with asthma.

It wasn’t until I moved to Austin, Texas, to go to college – which is a really beautiful, cleaner place – that my so-called “allergies” cleared up. I didn’t want to go home to Houston during the holidays because it made me so sick. By then there was a recognition that Houston was a dirty city and had bad air. And climate change was starting to surface in conversations and in mainstream magazines.

It made me upset to see kids growing up in a similar situation to me and being told they had allergies when in fact they were being poisoned by pollution.

Bryan ParrasEnvironmental justice advocate

After college I was teaching kids, and it made me really upset to see them growing up in a similar situation and being told that they had allergies when in fact they were being poisoned by pollution. 

It really got me thinking about these issues. My dad at this point had already been doing environmental justice work and had taken a job at Texas Southern University at the environmental justice legal clinic.

That's really when I started to dive deeper into environmental justice work. I realized that it was a role that I could play too. I had actually grown up in these neighborhoods where the refineries and the chemical plants and the rail yards are. So, I could speak about these issues from first-hand experience.

Bryan Parras speaks in front of a microphone at an outdoor event with a banner behind him where it’s written: "We demand to know what you are forcing us to breathe!"

I was involved in a campaign to stop the KXL Pipeline from making its way to Houston Refineries with highly polluting tar sands oil. On the banner behind me it's written: "We demand to know what you are forcing us to breathe!".

© tejas

At first, I did environmental justice work as a volunteer. But now I work full-time at an environmental organization called the Sierra Club. I was working on the Dirty Fuels campaign and in 2020 I moved to the Healthy Communities campaign.

I try to make sure that the most vulnerable have an opportunity to voice their concerns. I'm also a big believer in bottom-up organizing and that the people who are most impacted have the most to offer. They can come up with solutions because they live it.

In the last 10 years there's been recognition that if we're to curb the worst of our impact on the climate, we have to stop any further fossil fuel exploration and development, and we have to begin to transition to a greener economy. So that’s at the core of the dirty fuels campaign.

On the ground what it means is stopping expansions, stopping pipelines, shutting down old facilities and transitioning out of the fossil fuels industry.

Part of that is recognizing that workers in this industry should not be left to fend for themselves, they should be supported, either with training or in other ways, to ensure that they can continue to make a living.

Certainly, if we shift in a big way, there's going to be plenty of work and actually more reliable work, cleaner work, safer work. We have to move in this direction, or we will no longer be an energy leader.

If we're to curb the worst of our impact on the climate, we have to begin to transition to a greener economy.

Bryan ParrasEnvironmental justice advocate

Houston has to clean up its mess first. And I think that's where a lot of the jobs will be. We have brownfield Superfund sites – these are places identified by the United States Environmental Protection Agency that are contaminated with hazardous materials and will require a long-term clean up. There are also abandoned oil wells and abandoned pipelines to clean up and dispose of properly.

In my ideal world, that would be a priority. If that doesn't happen, even if we switched to clean energy, we will still have this legacy of pollution that will linger on for decades, hundreds of years, some of it for even longer. And people will not fully appreciate the transition because they will see that we're still getting sick. We’ll still have high cancer rates. We’ll still have people dying. We’ll still have high rates of childhood leukemia.

Bryan Parras takes a photo of a car in a flooded parking lot with skyscrapers of Houston in the background.

Documenting the impacts from Hurricane Harvey in 2017.

© Julie Dermansky

We need to change the way we think and be much more conscious of the fact that we have one livable planet, and it is a delicate system. We can't just take, take, take what we want. We have to give back. There's a relationship that requires some level of reciprocity. I’ve found that these are concepts that are rooted in indigenous ways of thinking that we lost at some point in our own histories. It has to come back, as a way of approaching everything we do.

Leaders have gathered this week at COP26. My message to them is be courageous. And whatever they agree to has to be legally binding. That’s the problem, it’s not binding. A transfer of power, a change of leadership in a country, should not mean a change of agreements. If you look at the business community, a contract still matters even if there’s a new CEO in charge.

We're smart people. We can figure this out, and we're adaptive enough to survive making the changes we need to make. It’s in all of our interests. We all share the climate and environment. We can’t isolate that with a fence or by drawing a line on a map. I think the COVID-19 pandemic has proved to us that we can respond to a crisis on a grand scale. It’s given us an opportunity to realize that we can do this – we can transition away from fossil fuels. We really can.

Bryan Parras poses for a group photo with other environmental justice advocates, in the Peruvian rainforest.

I recently participated in an award-winning documentary “The Condor & The Eagle” to raise awareness about the impacts of climate change. I travelled to the Peruvian rainforest by the Tigre River where I met other environmental justice campaigners, including local indigenous people.

© Clement Guerra

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