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Using Civil Rights Laws for Environmental Justice Along the Texas Gulf Coast

By Erin Gaines & Kelly Haragan
Daniel Pena, Lamont Taylor, and Rev. Adam Carrington at the Citizens Alliance press conference announcing the agreements.

The city of Corpus Christi, on the Texas Gulf Coast, is home to a dense concentration of petrochemical facilities. Several neighborhoods, including the historic African American neighborhoods of Hillcrest and Washington-Coles, are located along the Corpus Christi ship channel next to these industrial operations. After over a decade of planning, Texas recently proposed constructing a new billion-dollar bridge and highway over the Corpus Christi ship channel and through these historic and already overburdened neighborhoods.

Rosie Porter grew up in Hillcrest and later returned to her childhood home to raise her children. She has a towering stack of medical files documenting the numerous respiratory and other health problems they faced growing up in Hillcrest adjacent to two refineries, a ship channel, and a highway. When Rosie learned in late 2014 that the proposed new Harbor Bridge route would isolate her neighborhood on a fourth side, adding yet more noise and air pollution, she and other Hillcrest residents declared that enough was enough.

Here we recount a community’s decades-long fight for environmental justice and how organizing, outside resources, and civil rights laws led to an agreement to tackle some of the lingering effects of segregation, discrimination, and environmental injustice in the Hillcrest neighborhood.

Hillcrest Neighborhood: A Case Study of Environmental Injustice

The Washington-Coles neighborhood was specifically developed as Corpus Christi’s neighborhood for black residents. In 1944, because Washington-Coles had no room for new residents, the city council allowed black homeowners to move into neighboring Hillcrest. Over the next two decades, Hillcrest transformed from a predominantly white community to predominantly black. Today Corpus Christi is approximately 3.9 percent African American, whereas Hillcrest and Washington-Coles are 38 percent and 31 percent African American, respectively. The neighborhoods have a 93.7 percent minority population.

Hillcrest and Washington-Coles have a rich, though segregated, history: well-attended schools, vibrant churches, restaurants, musicians, locally owned businesses, and community activism. Nevertheless, industrialization, the construction of Interstate 37, and contamination took their toll.

The Port of Corpus Christi opened in 1922 and primarily shipped cotton. With the discovery of oil nearby in the 1930s, the construction of several refineries soon followed. Now the Corpus Christi ship channel is home to six refineries, numerous petrochemical and energy companies, and the eighth-largest port in the country.

We knew the government agencies had not adequately studied or mitigated the enormous environmental justice impact from this billion-dollar bridge.

As a result, Hillcrest residents have lived with air pollution, noxious odors, sirens, and industrial flares. Industrial accidents, including explosions and fires, have caused evacuations as well as “shelter-in-place” warnings and the constant fear of a major accident or release.

In 1958, as industrial growth encroached on Hillcrest and Washington-Coles from the north, Interstate 37 was constructed on their south side, isolating them from the rest of residential Corpus Christi and leaving them surrounded by industry.

Over time, housing values in the neighborhoods declined, making it impossible to sell a home for an amount sufficient to purchase another home in a safer area. Many residents with financial means left, and they left behind abandoned houses. About 40 percent of families in Hillcrest and Washington-Coles live below the poverty level.

A History of Environmental Justice Advocacy

Neighborhood residents and local advocacy groups have worked for decades to reduce the area’s industrial pollution and related effects on health. With legal and technical assistance from our organizations—the University of Texas School of Law Environmental Clinic and Texas RioGrande Legal Aid—as well as other local, statewide, and national organizations, over the past decade residents prevented the introduction of a sewage treatment plant, defeated plans for a new power plant, fought permits for facility expansions, and forced more stringent cleanups of closed industrial sites.

Settlements of lawsuits and permit challenges have reduced pollution and resulted in some buyouts of homes in the ship channel area. Over 400 households remain, however, in Hillcrest. And the Corpus Christi industrial complex continues to expand around the neighborhood, particularly with the growth of oil production from fracking in South Texas.

When rumors of a new Harbor Bridge began to circulate, residents became concerned about how this would affect Hillcrest and whether it might mean voluntary or involuntary relocation.

A New Harbor Bridge

Corpus Christi’s existing Harbor Bridge, constructed in 1956, spans the mouth of the ship channel. Ships and barges pass under it to reach the Port of Corpus Christi’s Inner Harbor and associated petrochemical plants.

In 2003 the Texas Department of Transportation conducted a feasibility study that recommended replacing and relocating the bridge. The study cited the need to answer bridge safety and maintenance concerns, as well as (1) accommodating larger vessels by raising the height of the bridge and (2) relocating the highway to connect Corpus Christi’s baseball stadium and cruise terminal to existing beachfront development and the central business district.

The feasibility study identified alternative routes and recommended the “red route,” which would bisect the Hillcrest and Washington-Coles neighborhoods and raise the bridge from 138 to 205 feet. The red route, it stated, “would serve as a barrier between the newly developed Northside people-oriented area and the Port and industrial facilities located to the west of the red alternative,” entirely ignoring the several hundred Hillcrest households that would be isolated on the “industrial facilities” side of the barrier.

A Lengthy Environmental Review. In 2011 the state revisited the plans for the new Harbor Bridge. The environmental clinic filed comments on behalf of the local organization Citizens for Environmental Justice and highlighted the project’s effects on environmental justice and raised concerns about inadequate public outreach to the low-income minority neighborhoods that would be most affected.

Over the next four years, legal aid and the environmental clinic submitted comments on behalf of several community and environmental groups at each stage of the environmental review. The comments focused on the plan’s failure to assess and mitigate adequately the disproportionate health and economic effects on Hillcrest and Washington-Coles.

A neighborhood that had a significantly higher African American population than the rest of the city would suffer the health and economic burdens of the new bridge route, while the rest of the city benefited.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) also filed comments echoing concerns about the addition of air pollution and soil contamination to an already overburdened community, noise effects, reduction in property values, and impact on nearby subsidized housing residents.

Despite these concerns, the final environmental impact statement was published in November 2014 without major changes. It confirmed that the red route would result in “disproportionately high and adverse effects to minority populations and low-income populations.” Yet the mitigation it proposed—including a hike and bike trail, a “livability summit” that had already occurred, oral histories of neighborhood residents, and very limited noise abatement—did little to meet the needs of the community or the magnitude of the impact.

While we waited for the record of decision allowing final authorization for the project, we prepared to challenge the environmental review documents in federal court. We knew these cases were difficult to win because of the deference given to the agency under the “arbitrary and capricious” legal standard of review, but we also knew the government agencies had not adequately studied or mitigated the enormous environmental justice impact from this billion-dollar bridge.

Community Lawyering. Many Hillcrest and Washington-Coles residents had heard about the new bridge off and on for years, but, because of the prolonged and confusing regulatory process, most did not know that the project was moving into its final planning stages.

During the final environmental review, we started holding a series of educational meetings about the bridge in the homes of residents who had fought against the refineries for decades. Many of these residents were tired from years of empty promises from government agencies and false hopes from court cases.

Out of these meetings, several residents, pastors, and a retired legal aid attorney began strategizing about a new neighborhood coalition. Residents had been divided between those who wanted to restore Hillcrest to what it used to be and those who wanted to be able to move away from the health and safety hazards. This new group, called the Citizens Alliance for Fairness and Progress, sought to unite residents regardless of their vision for the neighborhood and to advocate fair options for all. The group was formed to focus on the Harbor Bridge and conditions in the Hillcrest and Washington-Coles neighborhoods and to ensure that residents of these neighborhoods were informed about the Harbor Bridge.

Title VI Complaint

Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 requires federal agencies to ensure that recipients of federal funds do not discriminate on the basis of race, color, or national origin. Anyone discriminated against by a recipient, whether by intentional discrimination or disparate impact, can file a Title VI administrative complaint asking the federal agency to withdraw its funding from that recipient. While the EPA has an abysmal record of responding to civil rights complaints, Title VI complaints filed with the U.S. Department of Transportation have yielded some success stories.

With this history in mind, and cautiously optimistic, in March 2015, before the final approvals were issued for the bridge, we filed a Title VI civil rights complaint with the Office of Civil Rights at the Federal Highway Administration on behalf of two longtime Hillcrest residents. Shortly after, the newly formed Citizens Alliance joined the complaint and rallied more residents around it.

Our administrative complaint alleged that Texas’s proposed route, funded with federal transportation funds, would cause adverse disparate impact—including increased isolation, noise, and air pollution—based on race.

Our administrative complaint alleged that Texas’s proposed route, funded with federal transportation funds, would cause adverse disparate impact—including increased isolation, noise, and air pollution—based on race. Compared with the lengthy, technical comments we filed during the environmental review, the Title VI complaint was more straightforward: a neighborhood that had a significantly higher African American population than the rest of the city would suffer the health and economic burdens of the new bridge route, while the rest of the city benefited. Hillcrest would not be in the direct right-of-way of the route, but Hillcrest would be cut off by the route. Moreover, because Hillcrest had been subjected to discrimination by the construction of Interstate 37 and the surrounding industry, the Department of Transportation’s Title VI regulations required the recipient to “take affirmative action to remove or overcome the effects of the prior discriminatory practice.”

By early April 2015, we learned that not only would the Federal Highway Administration’s Office of Civil Rights investigate our complaint, but also it would stop the bridge from moving forward during the investigation. A civil rights investigator visited Hillcrest several times to meet with residents about the participation process, the potential impact from the bridge, and hoped-for outcomes. This serious investigation and the delay in a billion-dollar transportation project proved to be the leverage that led to settlement discussions with various local and state governmental stakeholders.

While the investigation was ongoing, residents added pressure through media, local and state political advocacy, and community organizing.

Fair Housing Experts. Recognizing that the bridge would cause serious effects on public housing and private tenants, we sought out expertise from two renowned fair housing advocacy groups. Both were invaluable additions to our team.

First, John Henneberger and a team of fair housing advocates at the Texas Low Income Housing Information Service researched the history of government-sanctioned discrimination in Hillcrest and Washington-Coles, analyzed demographic data, created a powerful documentary, and helped develop creative housing solutions.

Second, Joe Rich, a fair housing attorney at the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights, brought a critical understanding of Title VI and fair housing enforcement at federal agencies and the U.S. Department of Justice.

Air Pollution Expert. With a grant from the Impact Fund in Berkeley, California, we hired Deb Niemeier, professor of civil and environmental engineering, University of California, Davis, and cofounder of Sustainable Systems Research, LLC, to analyze the likely traffic and air pollution effects of relocating and raising the bridge. She found that the “red route” would increase toxic air pollutants, such as benzene, in the neighborhood and presented her findings about benzene and other hazards at a community meeting in the summer of 2015.

Media. Most articles in the local press about the new bridge had focused on its positive economic and aesthetic impact on the city. We sent out regular press releases during the environmental review and civil rights investigation, and soon the articles and television stories about the bridge were also discussing the negative impact on Hillcrest residents. These articles helped bring broader attention to Hillcrest and Washington-Coles and the civil rights complaint while we worked behind the scenes toward an agreement.

Policy Advocacy. Citizens Alliance members began speaking regularly at city council meetings about the bridge, the city’s long-term planning efforts, and other issues important to the neighborhood. This put the elected officials on notice that they had to be accountable to residents of these long-neglected neighborhoods.

A group of Citizens Alliance members also traveled to Austin in May 2015 to testify at a state transportation hearing and meet with legislators. They proposed an amendment that State Sen. Sylvia Garcia added to a transportation funding bill requiring that impact on low-income, minority communities be analyzed early in the planning for future transportation projects; the bill added protections for other Texas neighborhoods facing similar threats. The bill passed, and the residents felt empowered to return home and keep fighting.

Negotiations. We saw early in the negotiations that a satisfactory neighborhoodwide settlement could not be reached and funded unless a number of parties who were not directly involved in the Title VI complaint participated. Those parties included (1) the Port of Corpus Christi, which had a keen interest in seeing the Harbor Bridge constructed, (2) the Corpus Christi Housing Authority, which was responsible for the public housing that would be directly affected by the bridge, and (3) the City of Corpus Christi.

Also seeing that additional federal agency expertise would be needed to craft any effective settlement, we reached out to both HUD and the EPA. We asked them to confirm the disparate impact of the bridge and think creatively about funding that could help us craft a settlement.

Meanwhile, the Citizens Alliance continued to present a unified front and argue that residents did not all have to agree on a single solution but were instead entitled to options to mitigate the future impact of the bridge on the neighborhood’s historical legacy.

Agreements

In mid-December 2015 the Federal Highway Administration and the Texas Department of Transportation entered into a voluntary resolution agreement to resolve our Title VI complaint and allow the Harbor Bridge to be constructed. Together with a related four-party agreement among the Port, City, housing authority, and Texas Department of Transportation, the agreements fund and implement the following:

While the agreements do not fix all of the issues raised by residents during the investigation and resulting negotiations, the agreements offer meaningful options to over 400 households in Hillcrest, including the ability to relocate to a safer neighborhood away from heavy industry and closer to good schools, grocery stores, and city services. Because of the different isolation effects on different parts of the community, Washington-Coles residents east of the new bridge were not eligible to relocate.

At the Citizens Alliance press conference announcing the agreements, Rosie Porter—the mother and Hillcrest resident who in 2014 had decided that enough was enough—stated, “These agreements have enabled us to move forward and create a livable and healthy future for ourselves…. I don’t yet know what my plans are, but I’m thankful to have the opportunity to be able to have a choice.”

Because of the agreements, the Federal Highway Administration did not issue a civil rights finding, but it will monitor and enforce the agreements through quarterly reports and a community advisory board. If the parties fail to comply with any part of the agreements, a finding of violation can be issued.

We continue to work with Washington-Coles residents who are not eligible for the relocation option, and we still work to ensure the safety of everyone who continues to live in Hillcrest. Since the agreements were signed, the Citizens Alliance has held workshops with hundreds of residents to help them understand their options and has begun a community-led planning for residents who wish to move together to envision a “Hillcrest 2.” Over the next three years or more that the agreements will be in place, we will continue to represent residents to monitor the planning and make sure it is implemented fairly.


The resolution of the Harbor Bridge complaint illustrates how Title VI can be used to craft creative resolutions that broadly tackle inequities created by years of discrimination. Crucial to this settlement were the willingness of the Federal Highway Administration’s Office of Civil Rights to involve parties outside the formal complaint, such as the Port, which is funding $20 million of the settlement, and the Federal Highway Administration’s willingness to think broadly about disparate impact, both existing and future, as well as impact beyond those within its particular agency expertise.

There is, of course, still room for improvement. First, we believe complainants should be parties to any voluntary resolution agreements. In this case, only the Texas Department of Transportation and the Federal Highway Administration were signatories to the agreement, and therefore residents cannot enforce the agreements other than by bringing their concerns to the Federal Highway Administration’s Office of Civil Rights through the community advisory board. Second, better interagency coordination is needed in cases like this where the remedy is complex and transcends one agency’s area of expertise. Third, federal agencies must establish and enforce standards that broadly recognize disparate environmental impact, particularly for communities, such as Hillcrest, subjected to multiple sources of pollution.

Most important, the Harbor Bridge agreements demonstrate that when neighborhoods stand together and federal agencies act promptly on Title VI complaints, the Civil Rights Act can still be a powerful tool for redressing the real, lasting impact of discrimination.

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