The stench of toxic chemicals is nothing new to people living on the east side of Harris County, Texas. The region is the gritty heart of North America’s petrochemical industry. Refineries process 2.6 million barrels of crude oil a day there. Thousands of plants store and process volatile chemicals. Trucks and rail cars rumble through. 

But the garlic-like odor that permeated the region on July 14, 2021, was far worse than the usual stink that fills the air in towns like Galena Park and Jacinto City. People huddled inside their homes, praying the odor would dissipate. Some threw up. Nobody knew what to do or where the stench was coming from. The company responsible for the chemical leak, LyondellBasell, didn’t own up to it until more than two days later.

That night — exactly one year ago — Public Health Watch began investigating the release. The stories of the people who live and work in East Harris County formed the backbone of our recent investigative narrative, “A Texas County Wants to Punish Polluters. The State Won’t Let It.” 

Toni Perez — Galena Park Resident

Toni Perez on her front porch in Galena Park. Perez and her 4-year-old son were coughing and wheezing for hours when a garlic-like odor swept into their home on July 14, 2021. Credit: Julie Dermansky

Toni Perez was with her 4-year-old son on the night of July 14, 2021, when the garlic-like odor seeped into her Galena Park home. Desperate to keep it out, she ran through the house, placing towels under every door, her head pounding with every step. She turned off her air conditioner to limit the air flow from outside and crawled into bed, hoping she could sleep through the episode. Instead, she lay there sweating, coughing and wheezing for hours, wondering when things would get better. 

At 2:30 a.m., she’d had enough. Perez grabbed her son, got in her car and drove to her sister’s house in a nearby town. But when she returned two days later, the odor was still there. Her throat burned and she felt lightheaded, to the point where she “felt drunk and was seeing triple” when she was studying for her college math class, she said. Ten days later, she was still fatigued. 

Perez is angry that Galena Park’s elected officials didn’t give residents clear advice during the crisis and that LyondellBasell played down the accident’s severity. But she lives in her childhood home and isn’t ready to leave town.

“I own this house. I planned on my child being raised here and going to school here. I really don’t want to move,” she said. “But at the same time, I can’t help but wonder: Is this going to keep happening? Are we really safe here? Are people hiding things from us that we don’t know? Because the last thing I want is for my son to develop leukemia by the time he’s seven.”

Juan Flores — Clean-Air Advocate and Galena Park Resident

Juan Flores in Galena Park. He’s determined to curb the pollution that has plagued his hometown his entire life. Credit: Julie Dermansky

Juan Flores knows the dangers posed by petrochemical pollution better than most. Born and raised in Galena Park, he has seen generations of families ravaged by cancer. His own daughter, Dominique, was born with a malignant tumor in her stomach that required chemotherapy and multiple surgeries before her first birthday. 

So, when the garlic odor descended upon his community on July 14, 2021, Flores — who works for Air Alliance Houston, a nonprofit that combats pollution in industrialized neighborhoods — didn’t panic. He jumped in his car and started searching for its source.

Flores knows that living in Galena Park poses a threat to his health. He wouldn’t be surprised, he said, if he received a cancer diagnosis within the next decade. But he refuses to leave his hometown.

“Why should we leave? Why should we have to abandon our homes, our loved ones, our communities because these companies can’t play by the rules?” Flores said. “We’re not asking for these plants to be shut down. We just want them to be good neighbors — and for Texas to actually step up and enforce the law. We just want to live our lives like everybody else.” 

Daniel Valdez — Lawyer and Jacinto City Native

A smokestack looms behind Daniel Valdez, a lawyer who attempted to sue LyondellBasell for a chemical release last July. Valdez dropped the suit but plans to continue fighting for clean air. Credit: Julie Dermansky

Attorney Daniel Valdez was in his Central Houston office when his phone rang on the afternoon of July 14, 2021. It was Diana Gonzalez, an old classmate from Galena Park High School. She sounded desperate. The garlic-like odor had penetrated every corner of her small home. Gonzalez had asthma and was still recovering from a COVID-19 infection. Her 6-year-old daughter was so dazed she couldn’t get out of bed. Her 79-year-old mother was delirious. All Gonzalez could do, she told Valdez, was spray air freshener into her air conditioner vents and hope the smell went away.

Valdez, who was 38 at the time, was well aware of the threat posed by petrochemical pollution. His father had worked in refineries for decades; before Valdez went to law school, he’d considered entering the industry, too.

In the weeks that followed, Valdez set up community meetings and sorted through pollution reports. He asked other lawyers to join him in a class-action lawsuit against LyondellBasell, the international chemical giant that had caused the accident. But residents didn’t show much interest, and his peers told him the case would be impossible to pull together. Valdez was just one lawyer, working out of a rented office in a co-working space. LyondellBasell had an arsenal of well-heeled litigators.

Valdez scrapped the idea of a lawsuit two months later but has saved all the evidence he gathered in a file on his computer. He doesn’t believe his efforts were wasted. His father’s generation worked in the petrochemical plants to provide for their families. Now, it’s his generation’s job to protect the community from the pollution those plants produce. 

“We need to step up and have a voice to let state agencies and government know, ‘Hey, we need help here. We need protection,’” Valdez said. 

Dr. Denae King — Associate Director of Texas Southern University’s Bullard Center for Environmental and Climate Justice

Dr. Denae King at Texas Southern University in Houston, where she’s associate director of the Bullard Center for Environmental and Climate Justice. Born and raised in the East Houston neighborhood of Kashmere Gardens, King is working to protect low-income communities of color from pollution. Credit: Julie Dermansky

When Denae King heard what had happened in Galena Park, she wasn’t surprised. King grew up in Kashmere Gardens, one of Houston’s most industrialized neighborhoods. The sound of scraping metal from a nearby car-crushing operation filled her childhood home. Fumes from a garbage facility seeped into her elementary-school classrooms. And, like many residents of the historically Black community, she had lost aunts, uncles and other relatives to cancer.

But King’s story is one of hope and resilience. She has spent the past 15 years working with fenceline communities, including Galena Park, as a toxicologist and peer of Dr. Robert Bullard — a professor at Texas Southern University who is known as the father of the environmental justice movement. Her mission, she said, is to help residents understand what’s in the air they breathe every day and help them advocate for a safer environment.  

For years, that mission was largely neglected by local politicians. But new leaders are emerging, and King sees an opportunity to create generational change in Harris County.

“We’ve got some clear momentum, and that’s exciting, because there are so many communities here that have been ignored for too long,” King said. “It should be a human right for you to be able to live, work and worship in a safe environment. We all deserve that. We’re all worthy of clean air and safe drinking water. That’s what keeps me going.” 

Hannah Molina — Jacinto City Resident

Hannah Molina with her daughters Maribel, now 3, (left) and Sophia, now 2, in Jacinto City, Texas. They were trapped in their house for a day and a half last summer by a garlic-like odor that left them dizzy, nauseated and lightheaded. Credit: Julie Dermansky

The garlic-like odor that engulfed Hannah Molina’s home on July 14, 2021, was inescapable. It felt like she and her two little girls were “under attack,” she recalled. Her eyes watered. Her lungs tightened. Her throat stung. She became so lightheaded that she collapsed onto her couch.

But what frightened her most was seeing her then-2-year-old, Maribel, throw up in their living room. That’s when everything changed, Molina said. She’d never envisioned herself as an activist. Then again, she’d never thought she’d be trapped inside her home for days due to a chemical leak. She started posting messages on social media about the odor and the lack of response from local politicians. She created TikTok videos calling out LyondellBasell for its tone-deaf  — and, in several cases, false — statements about the chemical leak. But today, Molina is focused on one thing: Saving enough money so she and her husband and their girls can get out of East Harris County as soon as possible. 

“It felt like the reaction from so many people outside of the community to the garlic smell and to any other pollution problems is basically, ‘Y’all are fine. Nobody died,’” Molina said. “That sticks with you. It hurts. It makes you feel invisible. It makes you want to leave this place and never come back.”

Dr. Brett Perkison — University of Texas School of Public Health and Occupational Health Expert

Brett Perkison outside of the University of Texas School of Public Health in Houston. An expert in occupational and environmental health, Perkison sometimes questions his decision to raise a family in Harris County given its heavy pollution. Credit: Julie Dermansky

When Brett Perkison arrived in Galveston, Texas, in the late 1980s to attend medical school, he was struck by the sight of refineries and chemical plants scattered along Galveston Bay. It was a harbinger of the work he’d eventually dedicate himself to.

Today Perkison is based in Houston, the biggest city in Harris County, and is recognized as one of the nation’s leading voices on occupational and environmental health. He lives with wife and kids on the west side of Houston, where the air is much cleaner than it is in Galena Park. Remaining in Harris County has been critical to his research, he said, because it has given him firsthand insight into the petrochemical industry’s power, influence and potential to improve. But he sometimes questions his decision to stay. 

“I feel guilty living in Houston, with my own kids having grown up and been exposed to this air pollution,” Perkison said. “But that concern would be compounded if I lived in Galena Park or somewhere like that. I can’t really quantify it, but probably double the concern, I think, as a parent.”

Christian Menefee — Harris County Attorney

Harris County Attorney Christian Menefee in front of his father’s childhood home in Houston’s Fifth Ward — a historically Black area where the rate of cancer is exceptionally high. Menefee has made environmental justice a priority since taking office last year. Credit: Julie Dermansky

Harris County Attorney Christian Menefee sat in his downtown Houston office on the morning of July 15, 2021, considering whether to sue LyondellBasell for its chemical release. Menefee’s father and grandparents grew up in Houston’s polluted, economically depressed Fifth Ward. The first Black man to serve as county attorney, the region’s chief civil lawyer, Menefee has emerged as a key ally for environmental-justice advocates since winning election in 2020.

Menefee had the power to sue against polluters, and he worked with his legal team and Harris County Pollution Control investigators to craft a lawsuit that charged LyondellBasell with 114 pollution violations and could have carried up to $2.85 million in fines for the multibillion-dollar Dutch corporation. But Texas law gives the state the power to supersede counties in lawsuits against polluters — and the state attorney general’s office did just that. 

Led by Attorney General Ken Paxton, who has accepted $4 million in campaign contributions from petrochemical donors since entering office, the state filed a lawsuit against LyondellBasell in March 2022. The court documents Paxton’s office has filed so far say LyondellBasell is facing “civil penalties that could exceed $100,000.” 

Public Health Watch asked Paxton’s office and the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality for updates on the case, but both declined to comment, saying they couldn’t discuss ongoing investigations. Although he was prevented from suing LyondellBasell, Menefee said he remains committed to holding Harris County polluters accountable. 

“My goal is, and always has been, to help people, to look out for the places and communities that have long needed protection from pollution and industry,” he said. “That’s all that matters to me. If I don’t speak up for them, maybe nobody else will.”