The Trump administration's rollback of regulations has had a real cost in terms of public health among minorities. AP’s Ellen Knickmeyer reported that's nowhere more apparent than in the shadow of the big oil refineries and chemical plants that have grown up around African American neighborhoods on Texas' Gulf Coast.

With African American and Hispanic communities in the Houston region already suffered higher rates of asthma and other diseases than the nation at large, AP’s Ellen Knickmeyer decided to focus on the area for a story on ordinary Americans living through the Trump administration’s public health and environmental rollbacks. 

The Houston and Port Arthur region had seen a half-dozen major industrial accidents – explosions, chemical releases and fires – that had forced evacuations, killed people and exposed communities to hazardous plant emissions. But at the same time, the administration was cutting back on rules limiting and monitoring harmful industrial pollutants, slashing enforcement for violators and weakening an industrial-disaster rule that had mandated more emergency planning and more public disclosure on risks.

Knickmeyer, a Washington-based environmental issues reporter, spent months searching out Houston residents, including reaching out when they came to Washington to testify at hearings about the harm they said they were experiencing. When she traveled to Texas last month, in the last days before COVID-19 shut down most such travel, one of those contacts she had met in Washington, activist Hilton Kelley, took her around and introduced her to people in Port Arthur, encouraging them to share their stories with her. 

Knickmeyer tells those stories along with deep reporting on the regulatory actions and their consequences. “They’re basically killing us,” says 37-year-old Danielle Nelson, whose best monitor for the emissions billowing out of the refineries and plants surrounding her home is the heaving chest of her 9-year-old asthmatic son. She herself has been diagnosed with respiratory problems since moving to the community after Hurricane Harvey in 2017.

Houston photographer David Phillip followed up and made photos (although COVID concerns meant he could no longer meet with some of the women Knickmeyer had talked to. Given the families’ respiratory problems, cellphone photos would have to do). The story featured Kelley talking about the train tracks that divide the “good” and “bad” halves of Port Arthur, the polluted and less polluted sides, and Phillip’s photos included a portrait of Kelley on those same train tracks.

Former EPA Director Gina McCarthy was among many retweeting the story, calling it a “must read” article. The story received a solid 68,000 page views. The Houston Chronicle was among the AP members running the story in print, and usage included front-page play elsewhere in Texas.

For a rich, insightful look at the consequences of the Trump administration’s regulatory rollbacks on vulnerable communities, Knickmeyer wins this week’s Best of the States award.

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