Houston Plays Host to First On-Site SEJ Conference Since 2019

March 2, 2022

A quarter of the 20 U.S. hot spots for highest levels of cancer-causing air are in Texas, including neighborhoods around the Houston Ship Channel. Above, birds near Lynchburg Landing, with a view across the channel to an ExxonMobil refinery. Photo: Roy Luck, Flickr Creative Commons. Click to enlarge.

SEJ News: Houston Plays Host to First On-Site SEJ Conference Since 2019

By Perla Trevizo and Naveena Sadasivam

It will have been 2 1/2 years and countless virtual gatherings since members of the Society of Environmental Journalists last met in person in Fort Collins, Colorado, for SEJ’s 29th annual conference, way back in 2019.

So we’re getting excited to actually see everyone in person in just a few short weeks, when Rice University hosts SEJ’s 31st annual conference (we counted one virtual event as our 30th) March 30 - April 3 in Houston.

Where better to meet up this year than Houston? With the Biden administration and Regan Environmental Protection Agency focusing money and energy on environmental justice issues and toxic emissions, we have a ton of tours, plenaries and breakout sessions highlighting all of these topics this year.

 

While environmental injustice issues plague

communities across the country and globe,

Houston stands out for its juxtaposition

of oil wealth and residential poverty.

 

While environmental injustice issues plague communities across the country and globe, Houston stands out for its juxtaposition of oil wealth and residential poverty — refineries in poor neighborhoods — where entire communities are exposed to a multitude of environmental problems.

Over the last several years, the fourth largest city in the country and its surrounding area have been home to a number of industry-related explosions and the identification of a cancer cluster in a historically Black neighborhood that EPA Administrator Michael Regan visited last year. Texas has a quarter of the 20 U.S. hot spots for highest levels of cancer-causing air stemming from industrial pollution, according to a ProPublica analysis. These include neighborhoods around the Houston Ship Channel, disproportionately impacting communities of color and lower income.

 

Emphasis on diversity, environmental justice

Who better to lead off this important discussion of our times than the “father of environmental justice” himself? We’ve got Robert Bullard of Texas Southern University — he also co-chairs the National Black Environmental Justice Network — welcoming us at our Wednesday, March 30, opening reception and speaking at our opening plenary on Friday morning, April 1.

Bullard spoke on an environmental racism panel at SEJ’s first annual conference in Boulder in 1991, and has been back to numerous SEJ events since. He has a lot to say about the history of environmental justice, as well as the current situation in Houston and across the United States.

An emphasis on diversity and environmental justice has undergirded our efforts while planning this conference. Every panel, plenary and tour touches on themes of environmental racism in one way or the other.

This year we’re also excited to partner with The Uproot Project, a network of environmental journalists of color launched in 2021. In collaboration with Uproot, SEJ is supporting 25 journalists of color to help them attend the conference in Houston.

 

EPA staff coming in force

The EPA is coming too! SEJ hasn’t heard from an EPA administrator at its annual conference since before the Obama administration, and we’ve not seen EPA staffers in large numbers since Obama’s first couple of years.

So, we’re very pleased that this year EPA staff are coming in force to SEJ’s gathering. As of this writing, we expect both Rosemary Enobakhare, associate administrator for public engagement, and Carlton Waterhouse, principal deputy assistant administrator for the Office of Land and Emergency Management, to attend the event, as well as about eight to 10 public information officers.

Late Friday afternoon, April 1, will be dedicated to conversations with EPA officials, from a plenary Q&A session to informal networking happy hour tables with regional public information officers from across the country.

 

Getting outside for tours and breakfasts

SEJ’s signature tours are also back. If you think virtual panel sessions are starting to get old, virtual tours are an environmental journalist’s oxymoron nightmare. We’ve got the remedy.

  • Nine in-person all-day tours across the Houston region on Thursday, March 31, including fishing on a big boat in Galveston Bay, exploring Houston’s Ship Channel and birding during spring migration at renowned High Island. You’ll also have opportunities to see and learn about a traditional prescribed burn with Indigenous leaders, the largest urban solar farm in the country, Superfund sites, refineries, highway projects and more.
  • Don’t forget about our Saturday mini-tours. This year’s options may include: urban biodiversity on Rice’s amazing campus; a tale of two parks; prairie chicken conservation; sustainable buildings and green design; and possible biking and/or kayaking in Buffalo Bayou.
  • Finally, the Institute for Journalism & Natural Resources is back to host SEJ’s post-conference tour, this year heading down to the Corpus Christi area for bird and sea turtle migration and discussions on Gulf fisheries and Gulf ecology.

We’ll also be outdoors for both the party on Saturday night, April 2, and the breakfast program on Sunday morning, April 3.

Boardwalk at the Houston Arboretum. Photo: Roy Luck, Flickr Creative Commons. Click to enlarge.

For the party, we’ll mix and mingle with Rice University faculty and students, as well as Houston community leaders, in an outdoor dinner extravaganza. Research demos, lawn games, hands-on projects and behind-the-scenes tours will be offered throughout campus.

Food stations will spread us out as leading Gulf Coast environmental artists and activists offer performances of their work. We’ll visit James Turrell’s Twilight Epiphany Skyspace for a sunset light show before dancing in the dark.

Sunday morning’s two books and breakfast programs will be at the Houston Arboretum, which should be in full spring bloom at this time of year. Among the half-dozen authors joining us will be Douglas Brinkley, back again with another environmental history treatise, this time featuring Rachel Carson, John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Baines Johnson.

 

Enjoying Houston’s attractions

Our conference venue this year, the Royal Sonesta Houston Galleria, is both very large and very nice, and we’ll spread out and use the whole space, no doubt, including its cool bar and inviting outdoor pool and spa area.

There are numerous restaurants with different cuisines within walking distance of the hotel in Houston’s upscale Galleria District. Friday night Beat Dinners, including one hosted by Uproot for its members, will be your best opportunity to get out and about in the city.

Bring the family. Stay an extra day or two. The ocean beaches aren’t far away. Or just enjoy Houston’s warmth and sunshine at its countless parks and museums — from the world renowned and newly renovated Rothko Chapel to the stunning live oaks and large-scale outdoor sculptures in the urban oasis of Menil Park.

You’ve probably heard about Houston’s notorious humidity and heat, but be assured this time of year the weather in Houston is usually lovely, perfect for a stroll or a bike ride, and certainly a respite from winter for our northern attendees.

We can’t wait to see all of you and to continue what, so far, have been very insightful conversations around these exciting yet complex topics around the environment, climate change and the communities we live and work in.

Visit our conference website for additional details and to register.

[Editor’s Note: See more about environmental issues in Houston and Texas more broadly in our recent special TipSheet, “​​Deep in the Heart of Complexity … Or, the View From Texas.”]

Perla Trevizo and Naveena Sadasivam are co-chairs for SEJ’s 31st Annual Conference. Trevizo is a reporter with the ProPublica/Texas Tribune Investigative Unit. Sadasivam is a senior staff writer at Grist.


* From the weekly news magazine SEJournal Online, Vol. 7, No. 9. Content from each new issue of SEJournal Online is available to the public via the SEJournal Online main page. Subscribe to the e-newsletter here. And see past issues of the SEJournal archived here.

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