Christian Menefee, the first Black person to serve as Harris County Attorney, has deep roots in Houston’s notoriously polluted Fifth Ward. Now, as he pushes oil and gas companies and other industries to clean up their operations, he finds the state of Texas standing in the way.
Harris County, Texas is the hub of America’s fossil fuel and petrochemical industries. Hundreds of refineries and chemical plants cluster in the county, which includes Houston, and they are responsible for cancer-causing chemical pollution that disproportionately harms communities of color.
At 35, Christian Menefee, a Democrat, is the youngest, and the first Black person, to serve as Harris County Attorney. Since his election in 2020, he has made addressing pollution — and its racially disparate impact — a top priority. His office, which handles civil cases, has taken legal action on issues from petrochemical emissions to toxic contamination from a rail yard to the impacts of a major highway expansion. In an interview with Yale Environment 360, Menefee says Texas’ conservative leadership does everything it can to hobble such efforts. Constrained by limitations the Republican state legislature has imposed on city and county officials — and frustrated with a state environment agency that is “asleep at the wheel” — he says his office has to be creative to check industry’s abuses.
Menefee notes that he represented oil and gas companies at the start of his career and says that even many residents of neighborhoods suffering pollution appreciate the industry’s economic role. “I am very careful to never come in and suggest that I’m trying to close the plants. I’m about fairness,” he says. “In this country, we hold people accountable for all kinds of things. In Texas, we don’t often hold industry accountable for their mistakes.”
E360: How has your experience growing up with Houston’s pollution shaped your approach as county attorney? Contamination from oil refineries and petrochemical plants is a big issue here, especially for communities of color.
Christian Menefee: Harris County is one of the ground zeros of the environmental justice movement. And it’s in part because Houston has one of the world’s largest petrochemical complexes, and we’re the energy capital of the world. There’s not many people here who did not grow up within a short distance of a facility emitting toxic contaminants. So my story is similar to everybody else’s. My grandmother raised my father and his siblings in the Fifth Ward, which is one of our uniquely bad environmental justice communities. There are several concrete batch plants, metal recyclers. The air feels nastier than in other parts of the county. The houses and apartments we lived in when I was growing up, every one is a few miles from some chemical plant. My high school was a mile and a half away from a Superfund site. It is just something that’s inextricable for most working-class folks here.
After law school, I worked at a firm to pay off my loans. We represented oil and gas companies, and it gave me an interesting perspective. I’ve seen the boardrooms. I’ve helped prepare executives for trial. My upbringing gave me the one lens. Representing companies gave me the other lens. And now that I’m here and we’re suing these very same companies, it kind of brings you home.
We’re in a state that has set every single rule of the road in favor of industry. At times it feels like David and Goliath. You’re up against a very powerful industry that has a lot of support with state officials. But I always try to look through the lens of my grandmother and my aunts and uncles, and the people in these neighborhoods. We’re just asking for fairness and compliance and enforcement — very basic things in other parts of the country that we don’t get here.
“If you go out to neighborhoods in east Harris County, you can feel [the pollution] in your eyes, and it doesn’t smell right.”
E360: Petrochemical production in particular has been growing in this region in recent years. What has that looked and felt like on the ground?
Menefee: There’s a duality to it. For communities like the one I came from, which is incredibly diverse — lower-middle class African Americans, Latinos — you have the economic side of it. The oil and gas industry is very much a path for many people to a six-figure lifestyle. I have many friends who have worked on oil rigs. But the other side is, if you go out to neighborhoods in east Harris County, you can feel it in your eyes, and it doesn’t smell right. Petrochemicals are by far the number one cause of pollution here. And that’s just business as usual. Add in the large-scale emissions events, the illegal flaring. Over the past four years we’ve had plant explosion after plant explosion. Watson Grinding and Manufacturing, that explosion was in 2020. I was on the other side of the city, and I was jolted awake. It’s become the norm. In River Oaks [a wealthy area], you’re not going to see many industrial facilities. But for lower-income, predominantly Spanish-speaking, African American, immigrant communities, when the smoke is in the air, the chemicals are in the air, these are the communities whose schools get evacuated. Everything stops while they get the benzene levels under control.
E360: What can you do to protect those neighborhoods, given the obstacles you mentioned?
Menefee: It’s onerous, sometimes prohibitive. Conservatives love this idea of states’ rights. They’re always looking for protection from the federal government. But when your statewide officials have a blatant disregard for communities, who protects the local governments from the state? It’s a weird dynamic, where you have these large metropolitan areas whose leaders are more diverse, more forward-thinking, and then you have statewide officials with a very repressive, draconian view of how government is supposed to work.
We’re just constantly at odds. The state legislature sets the rules of the road. And we’ve seen a very intentional, concerted effort from state government aimed at counties like ours. Several years ago, the then-speaker of the house was recorded saying he wanted the next legislative session to be the worst ever for cities and counties. And that’s exactly what happened — bill after bill was proposed to tie the hands, not just of local governments, but sometimes this office specifically. For example, they passed a law where if we’re going to file an enforcement action, we have to give notice to the state of Texas, and they decide if they want to pursue the case. If they do, they take it away from us. And they settle it for pennies on the dollar. It’s happened time and time again.
E360: What can you do, given those obstacles? And how has it been going?
Menefee: We fight like hell, and take any opportunity to creatively find solutions. The good news is that the communities are like, “Yes, you’re fighting for us.” But they also expect you to win. And if both arms are tied behind your back and you’re kicking, and ultimately the community isn’t satisfied with some shin damage, and they wanted a few punches to the face, it’s something you have to navigate.
The thing I’ve been more optimistic about is our ability to find leverage points. A good example is the $10 billion I-45 highway expansion. It was approved at every level of government, and the final review was completed two months into my term. We could have said, “Look, this ship has sailed.” But we sued. The federal government got involved, and they paused the project. We were never going to stop the highway, but we negotiated with the Texas Department of Transportation, and we got some concessions that put communities in a better place than they were. Another example: With the city of Houston and a nonprofit, we sent Union Pacific a notice of intent to sue over creosote contamination from a rail site in the Fifth Ward, where there are two or three identified cancer clusters. Community members have been beating the drum on this for a long time. Now we’re negotiating with Union Pacific in hopes of getting some wins for the community. So we have figured out ways to find pressure points. Ultimately the goal is to move the needle for the people who live there. And if the state is continually tying our hands behind our back, this is us using every tool in our toolbox.
“The average person in industry feels, ‘I want the environment to be safe. I want people to have clean air.’”
E360: You talked about the perspective you got from representing fossil fuel companies. What did you learn from that experience?
Menefee: Firstly, a lot of good people work in the industry. My father works in oil and gas. The average person in that industry feels, “I want the environment to be safe. I want people to have clean air.” But like other industries, there’s a set of biases. For any corporation, shareholder value is top of mind. So there tends to be a view that claims of damage to communities or the environment are exaggerated. And they prioritize economic impact. This industry is making a lot of people a lot of money, including people who had no other way of having access to it. So you view things through the lens of the company.
E360: Does that economic role mean there’s resistance to pushing industry too hard?
Menefee: That’s what makes framing so important. I am very careful to never come in and suggest that I’m trying to close the plants. I’m about fairness. There are rules of the road. If you run a stop sign, and a police officer is around, you’re going to get in trouble. We have companies routinely running stop signs in this area, and we have a state regulatory agency that is asleep at the wheel. There are other ways you could frame the argument that would turn people off, because it would be viewed as an attack on their livelihood instead of simply asking for fairness.
E360: You mentioned the state regulator, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ). What problems do you see at that agency, and what changes would make it more effective?
Menefee: This is the result of legislative session after legislative session of far-right legislators continuing to weaken the TCEQ. It no longer views itself as a regulatory body or enforcing authority. I think they view their role as a facilitator: “We are facilitating you getting your permits. We are facilitating you polluting the air.” As opposed to, “We are reviewing your application to see if you’re going to harm communities. We are doing routine checks. We are enforcing the laws.” It would take a fundamental change from top to bottom, and viewing itself as the agency that holds industry accountable. And it would take legislative changes. In this country, we hold people accountable for all kinds of things. In Texas, we don’t often hold industry accountable for their mistakes.
E360: With climate change causing more intense and frequent storms, how worried are you about the vulnerability of Harris County’s industrial infrastructure?
Menefee: Hugely concerned. It’s just unique, being in Houston, which has all these floods, all these hurricanes, and then being the world’s petrochemical and energy capital at the same time. We’ve had like seven “once-in-500-year” floods in the past few years. These things make you very nervous when you live close to this many chemical facilities. Obviously we want the facilities to be as resilient as possible. There are two issues for us. One is that each storm causes chemical releases. The second is the risk of a storm whose eye goes right through the Houston Ship Channel, where all these chemical plants are, and just tears into them. It could be catastrophic, unlike anything we’ve seen in modern history in this country, and I don’t even know how we would begin to deal with that.
“If you signed up to be an advocate for people and to fight these fights, you need to fight these fights.”
That’s why we’re so focused on the reinstatement of the federal chemical disaster rule. The Obama administration created a standard for reporting, for mitigation, for understanding exactly what’s at each facility. And Trump rolled it back. The rule is coming back now. It increases reporting requirements for the facilities. It increases information sharing. We have like 1,200 chemical facilities, so for communities and first responders to have information to deal with these disasters is a very big deal. When there’s some unknown chemical coming out of a facility because of an explosion, it is a terrifying event.
E360: What can other communities living with heavy industries learn from your experience?
Menefee: Well, I hope they’re not dealing with the same restraints. But there are some lessons about not being afraid to think outside the box, not being afraid that industry’s going to come running after you. If you signed up to be an advocate for people and to fight these fights, you need to fight these fights. In every case, we’re starting with the outcome that we want, and we’re working backwards. So the lesson learned is that you probably have a better situation than us, so use the creativity and make the most of it.
This interview was edited for length and clarity.