Children playing and Valero flaring in Manchester, Texas
Tar Sands Blockade
Children play at a park in front of a Valero refinery in Houston, Texas.

For many, the battle over the Keystone XL pipeline is about national energy strategy and global climate change.

For residents of the Manchester neighborhood in Houston, it’s also about what will be processed and spewed into the air in their backyards.

Activist Doug Fahlbusch recently brought some attention to the community when he held up a sign at a Valero-sponsored golf tournament that said, “TAR SANDS SPILL. ANSWER MANCHESTER.” That protest got him carried away from the links by security guards and arrested.

What did Fahlbusch mean? Why are he and his colleagues at Tar Sands Blockade so concerned about Manchester?

Yes! magazine reporter Kristin Moe took a trip to the embattled neighborhood, where a refinery owned by Valero Energy Corp. could end up processing most of the tar-sands oil that flows south through the proposed Keystone XL pipeline. Here is a little of what Moe found in “Houston’s most polluted neighborhood”:

Yudith Nieto, 24, has lived in Manchester since her family came from Mexico when she was a small child. While it’s OK to visit the playground, she says, it’s not OK to bring her camera. On several occasions, security guards from the Valero refinery next door have appeared and asked her to leave, claiming that taking pictures in the park was “illegal.” They’ve even brought in Houston police as reinforcements. Valero, one of the major oil companies operating in this industrial part of Houston, keeps its security busy: Nieto says that they have harassed documentary filmmakers and journalists. And when college students participating in an “alternative spring break” program came to the park to talk to her about the neighborhood’s problems, a guard drove up in an unmarked vehicle and took video of the meeting on his cellphone. “I’m not afraid of the attention I’m getting from these people,” Nieto says, “because we want people to know that we’re aware.”

Manchester, one of Houston’s oldest neighborhoods, is surrounded by industry on all sides: a Rhodia chemical plant; a car crushing facility; a water treatment plant; a train yard for hazardous cargo; a Goodyear synthetic rubber plant; oil refineries belonging to Lyondell Basell, Valero, and Texas Petro-Chemicals; as well as one of the busiest highways in the city. Industrial development continues uninterrupted down the Houston Ship Channel for another 50 miles south to the Gulf of Mexico. The refineries around Houston have been called the “keystone to Keystone” because they’re expected to process 90 percent of tar sands crude from Alberta [PDF] if the controversial Keystone XL pipeline is completed.

It’s one of the most polluted neighborhoods in the U.S., one where smokestacks grace every backyard view. But it’s taking on a new significance as the terminus of Keystone because the pipeline is at the center of the highest-stakes environmental battle in recent years. As international pressure builds, residents are beginning to organize, educate themselves, and speak out for the health of their families. …

Manchester is in some ways typical of low-income urban neighborhoods: it’s almost entirely Latino and African American, with a large number of undocumented immigrants. A full third of residents live below the poverty line. Drugs, unemployment, and gangs are a problem. And there’s a strange smell in the air: sometimes sweet, sometimes sulfurous, often reeking of diesel. The most striking thing is that people here always seem to be sick. They have chronic headaches, nosebleeds, sore throats, and red sores on their skin that take months to heal.

Manchester is where the tar-sands rubber will hit the ground. Or where the bitumen will hit the air, if you will. To learn more about the community’s battles against Valero and Keystone XL, read the full article in Yes!