When Wetland Restoration and Big Oil Collide

A blue river surrounded by dark green shrubs and grasses on a cloudy day. Industrial buildings sit in the background.

This essay on the Baytown Nature Center is the seventh piece in the Unpure Imagination series, which seeks to engage with and challenge themes of toxicity, purity, pollution, and restoration in an always compromised world. Series editors: Ben Iuliano, Kuhelika Ghosh, and Richelle Wilson.

The Baytown Nature Center sits on a peninsula jutting out into the Houston Ship Channel. I arrive early in the morning, and at the main gate I’m greeted by a woman with a familiar East Texas twang who offers me a birding guide. The center acts as a sanctuary for 317 species of birds on top of being a wetland restoration project and a community park. There’s a road that winds out of sight deeper into the park, but I see a walking path too. I park my car as soon as I’m past the entrance and head out on foot. The channel isn’t visible yet through the trees lining this first path, but I can smell it on the briny air. After a few minutes of walking, I emerge into an open field. Between me and the now-visible channel is the restored coastal wetland ecosystem of the Baytown Nature Center.

The BNC is unusual as nature parks go because it defies the expectation that “real” nature is separate from human culture. The wetland I’m now looking at was built on what was once a housing development for Humble Oil executives. The ship channel is itself a built structure—it was dredged out in the early twentieth century to turn Houston into a port city. The 50-mile long channel is a global petrochemical hub with over 6,000 miles of oil, gas, and chemical pipelines. I can see smokestacks in the distance, and there are places where the new wetland ecosystem emerges out of built materials left behind after the housing development was abandoned.

Much of the shoreline is protected from erosion by a blockade of materials repurposed from the neighborhood that once stood there: chunks of foundation, concrete pipes, and broken roadways make a jagged shore that’s clearly visible from the walking paths. On my walk, I spot other remnants of this history, including young trees growing out of the weathered foundation of an abandoned home and a ring of bricks flush with the grass where a pool was once carved into the earth.

Big blocks of concrete rubble sit on the shoreline of Baytown Nature Center
Found materials were used to build up the shoreline. Photo by author, 2022.

While the park is open in displaying these markers of its recent history of human habitation, it makes little mention of the land’s Indigenous history. Near the entrance to the park, one sign informs me that the Osage orange tree I’m standing in front of was used in crafting bows by Indigenous people; however, the sign is not clear on whether the Karankawa or Akokisa were the ones using these trees for that purpose. I don’t see any other sign that makes mention of Indigenous people or names these specific tribes.

The Ship Channel

The Houston Ship Channel is not an obvious nor even perhaps a desirable location for a wetland restoration project. Almost 200 tons of material are moved through the channel annually because of the ten oil refineries and 500 chemical processing plants on its shores. There are 21 Superfund sites that the EPA has identified in or near Houston. At least seven of these sites flooded during Hurricane Harvey in 2017, causing an estimated half a billion gallons of chemical processing waste to spill over into the ship channel and surrounding areas. All of this happens in the same waters that wash onto the shores and into the wetlands of the Baytown Nature Center.

The honesty with which the center presents its industrial neighbors surprises me. Whereas in a more traditional park, trails are often designed in part to bring park-goers to scenic vistas, the Baytown Nature Center’s trails bring me to places where refineries are in full view. Emerging off one of the paths, a fleet of signs warns me of the presence of chemical and gas pipelines beneath the park. There is something profoundly unexpected about being in a wildlife preserve or a restored landscape and being told there is industrial pumping happening below. My surprise is itself revealing: even in the midst of radical climate change, even standing so close to one of the world’s largest fossil fuel hubs, I have come to expect nature parks to present themselves as blithely separate from those human inventions.

Many small signs on the side of a nature center path with a body of water in the background.
At the Baytown Nature Center, restored ecologies are mixed with industry. Photo by author, 2022.

In Against Purity, Alexis Shotwell takes as a given that we live in ethically and environmentally impure times. We live in bodies and on a planet that have been altered and polluted at a dramatic scale by industry. Human and nonhuman pollutedness are indelibly intertwined in ways we cannot individually escape. While the scale of our environmental troubles is global, their impacts are not experienced evenly across race, class, or nationality. Taking as a given our own enmeshed impurity is only a first step toward fully engaging the environmental injustices that define our times. To really consider the Baytown Nature Center as a restoration project requires the wider context of its own enmeshment.

Environmental Injustice

The Superfund sites, industrial plants, and pipelines that litter the Houston Ship Channel and surrounding areas all do harm to the health of human and nonhuman beings living nearby. Right now, the Karankawa Kadla are fighting a Houston-based oil company’s attempt to expand their export terminal onto an historical Karankawa settlement. In and around Houston, the pollution from the ship channel is densest in neighborhoods that are predominantly Black or Latinx and where disabled people are most likely to live. These neighborhoods have higher quantities of lead in their water and other known carcinogens in their air, including benzene, a byproduct of petrochemical processing. Research by the Texas Department of State Health Services found that incidences of liver cancers and lymphoma were both significantly higher in a low-income part of Baytown than in the rest of the country. Legal discovery from a lawsuit against the Exxon plant in Baytown found that in just eight years the plant had nearly 4,000 unreported emission events. Individually, these releases were smaller than Texas requires be reported, but cumulatively they have ongoing effects on the air and the beings breathing it in.

Flooding is also becoming more frequent and severe due to climate change and loss of elevation. Like during Harvey, these floods also make acute exposure to harmful toxins more likely. Despite this, the Texas General Land Office denied federal flood mitigation funds to the primarily low-income areas of Houston that most needed it and instead gave those funds to wealthier, whiter inland areas less prone to flooding.

A large live oak stands tall in front of the bay.
A live oak stands along the shore of the Houston Ship Channel just off of the main road. Photo by author, 2022.

These are not new problems for the Houston area, and the disproportionate impact polluting industries have had on neighborhoods whose residents are historically Black and low-income has been well-documented by the works of, among others, environmental justice scholar and activist Robert Bullard. It is difficult not to see the insufficiency of a marshland restoration in the face of the racialized and multispecies environmental violence that is central to this region’s recent history.

Restoration & Pollution

The expectation that parks feel separate from the built environment does nothing to dissuade us from the false notion that we as a species are separate from the rest of nature. It is an extension of the original myth behind the national parks: that they were untouched wild spaces rather than colonized Indigenous lands. While the Baytown Nature Center’s refusal to perform that kind of “pure, untouched nature” might be a radical departure from other parks’ troubling attachment to the illusion of purity, it isn’t indicative of a wider willingness to engage with the implications of colonialism, pollution, or their violences. As Eli Clare writes in Brilliant Imperfection, “When it works, restoration can be a powerful force contributing to the Earth’s well-being . . . or [it] may be a Band-Aid stuck onto a gaping wound.” In the case of the BNC, a little of both might be true.

In an interview, a park employee tells me that she loves being able to sit in one of the gardens and see the industrial sites in the distance. She sees the park as coexisting with industry, a sentiment in line with the center’s own stance. During my visit, I find an educational sign reminding park-goers of the role the petrochemical industry has played in Baytown’s economy. The same sign also informs the viewer that these industries “play a vital role in community improvement by funding tree plantings, recycling programs, and marine debris abatement programs.” It’s clear that the park’s intent with this sign is to soften the image of industry, to frame them as good ecological neighbors in contrast to the actual environmental harm that they do. That attempt to recast the petrochemical industry in this way is, of course, probably because Baytown is an oil community, and it’s certainly in line with the industry’s wider efforts to rebrand themselves as leaders in climate change mitigation. Nonetheless, this sign interests me given that the center itself would not exist at all if those same industries were not doing obvious environmental damage.

There is nothing ethically nor materially pure about the Baytown Nature Center or its history.

The Brownwood housing development that once stood where the park now resides was declared unfit for human habitation following years of repeated floods culminating in Hurricane Alicia in 1983. These floods were the direct result of voracious use of groundwater in and around Houston—particularly by large corporations like Humble Oil. The aquifers beneath the area were so severely depleted that the earth there began to compact, causing a drop in elevation. This subsidence was particularly bad around the ship channel, where the ground lost as much as two meters in elevation. Despite this, local politicians were slow to regulate the businesses that had turned Houston from a relatively small settlement lying in the shadow of Galveston into a major city by the mid-century. Industries were allowed to continue drawing groundwater long after the municipal supply had moved to surface water, leading areas like Brownwood to become so subsided that residents had to be relocated.

A decade later, the petrochemical industry intervened in this landscape again. The EPA found that a group of corporations—among them oil giants Exxon, Chevron, and Texaco—had collectively dumped 90 million gallons of waste in the area called the French Limited Superfund site. This Superfund site is in Crosby, another small oil town outside of Houston off the San Jacinto River. That river runs straight into the Houston Ship Channel. The restoration of the first 60 acres of what would become the Baytown Nature Center was funded by a remediation requirement placed upon these polluting corporations by the federal government.

Making Sense of Impurity at Baytown Nature Center

On my visit to the Baytown Nature Center, I make sure to walk every path I can find—I want to see it all. There are families having cookouts by the playscape and locals fishing for crabs in the channel. Standing on the shore by the park, the sound of the choppy water mixes with the sound of electricity surging through the powerlines running above the water toward Houston. Despite my meager identification skills, I’m able to spot egrets, red-winged blackbirds, cardinals, and herons. I write down descriptions of the birds I cannot identify. In one pond, I see a submerged traffic cone, an old tire breaking through the surface, and an egret hunting, its head bobbing back and forth. I watch the bird as it watches the water until the egret suddenly shakes as if trying to get dry. The water has a sheen to it.

There is nothing ethically nor materially pure about the Baytown Nature Center or its history. The money that initially funded it does not undo the dangerous behavior of Houston’s polluting industries or fix the French Limited Superfund site. It does nothing to address the ongoing environmental injustice perpetuated by these industries. Additionally, funding the marshland restoration can be used to make those profiting off harm look good. The Port of Houston does exactly that on its official website, where they have given these restoration efforts their own page. The Baytown Nature Center thus acts as good PR for an industry producing ongoing harm.

Green grass and the back of a metal sign sit in front of gray waters with a white bird in flight.
Another pipeline hazard sign in the foreground while an egret flies over the Houston Ship Channel in the background. Photo by author, 2022.

I am unwilling, however, to write this marshland off. It is impure, but purity shouldn’t be the goal, and “not enough” is not the same as nothing. This restoration effort provides habitat and shelter for many nonhuman species that would not have found the Brownwood development so hospitable. The Baytown Nature Center might even act as a visual reminder of the lasting impacts of human environmental decisions, despite the center’s efforts to sugarcoat that fact. Its wetlands also provide a barrier of flood protection to the neighborhoods lying further inland behind it. This park offers a rare chance in such an industrialized city for locals to consider nonhuman nature more closely.

The Baytown Nature Center is an incomplete remediation of harm; it should be understood as a starting point in light of the immensity of damage done. I want to critique it without falling prey to the temptation to write off the imperfect or the impure. The center, as imperfect as it is, still represents the kind of land restoration that Eli Clare highlights: “not a return to the past nor a promise to the future, although it may hold glimmers of both. Rather it is simply an ecosystem in transition.” I am not yet certain whether in this case that transition is only a Band-Aid on the environmental harms of this landscape or a sign of something better—what I do know is that a wetland is better than another refinery or a neighborhood for oil executives. I am certain that the people, birds, and other beings who enjoy these green spaces deserve access to them. I’m also certain that the Baytown Nature Center could do more to name the role industry has played in shaping and endangering this human and nonhuman ecosystem.

Attempting multispecies restoration in a damaged, compromised world requires that we transition damaged ecosystems into greater ecological abundance that supports multispecies health. For this one wetland ecosystem, this imperfect solution might be an important step in that direction.  

Featured image: Throughout the Baytown Nature Center, views of nature are mixed with views of industry. Photo by author, 2022.

Gardiner Allen Brown (he/him) is a queer essayist and environmental writer from Texas. He holds an M.S. in Environmental Humanities from the University of Utah and currently works as a writing instructor. His writing and research focuses on disasters, environmentalist thought, and queer ecology. His work has previously appeared in Burrow Press, Blue Mesa Review, and elsewhere. His last contribution to Edge Effects was “The Queer Ecology of Steven Universe” (June 2020). TwitterContact.