July 2, 2019 | Jim Townsend
University of Houston-Clear Lake alumna Jackie Young was a model, until poisoning by heavy metals in her home’s water supply changed her life’s course. Now she’s a model citizen: a vocal environmental activist, grass-roots organizer and clean-water advocate.
Young, who graduated the College of Science and Engineering in 2013 with a bachelor's in Environmental Science, founded Texas Health and Environment Alliance in 2015 — a nonprofit organization
dedicated to protecting water resources from toxic waste by educating and engaging
the public, policymakers and media.
Since her graduation, she has been quoted in dozens of news publications nationwide — and at least 22 times in the Houston Chronicle — for her mission of environmental justice.
“In Harris County there are over 20 Environmental Protection Agency-designated Superfund sites,” Young said. “I find it highly unacceptable that current and future generations have to be concerned about living next to one of these sites, or that their groundwater may be contaminated by one of these sites from contaminants that somebody dumped 40 or 50 years ago.”
For her community efforts, Houston’s Bayou Preservation Association recently awarded Young its annual stewardship award for the non-profit sector. “Her advocacy with the San Jacinto River Coalition dramatically impacted the Superfund process for the San Jacinto River Waste Pits, resulting in the EPA’s commitment to fully remediate the toxic site along the San Jacinto River,” the association said.
In 2017, just weeks after the EPA discovered that stop-gap measures to cover the Superfund site had failed during Hurricane Harvey, the agency agreed to a $115 million plan to completely remove and relocate the toxic waste. Cleanup is scheduled to begin in September 2020.
“We submitted over 55,000 comments for strengthening of the remedy, to see that the pits were cleaned down to residential and recreational standards, rather than an industrial standard,” Young said. “And (former EPA Administrator Scott) Pruitt signed into record the decision to clean the site to residential standard. That was that was a huge victory for the organization.”
Young can add this award to a growing list of accolades:
The first time the Chronicle quoted Young was in 2013, after she had been crowned Miss Houston Rodeo and before she graduated UH-Clear Lake. Young found corporate modeling as a means of supporting her education.
However, in 2010 Young developed a debilitating autoimmune disorder, developed skin lesions, experienced seizures and eventually lost use of her hands. Young lived in Highlands, 2 miles from the San Jacinto Waste Pits, where in the 1960s, paper mill waste was disposed in 14 acres dug along the west bank of the river.
Over years of flooding, subsidence, and erosion, the pits became partially submerged and forgotten, until they were rediscovered in 2005. In March 2008, the EPA put the Waste Pits on its National Priorities List of Superfund Sites. That September, Hurricane Ike “overwhelmed the Waste Pits and could have contributed to scouring and associated leakage of dioxins detected nearby,” analysts told the EPA six years later.
In 2011, Young transferred from Lee College in Baytown to UHCL, where she received important clues to as to what happened to her health. “In 2011, I was down to 90 pounds and I was having about an average seven seizures a week,” she said.
For a class assignment in her hydrogeology course, she brought water samples from home for testing. The water sample from her home’s well contained heavy metals. Ingestion of heavy metals – such as lead, mercury, arsenic, cadmium and others – can damage the brain, kidneys, liver, other organs and blood composition, the National Institute of Health says. Subsequently, Young had her blood tested. She tested positive for 19 of 21 heavy metals.
Also in 2011, and as a direct result of her discovery, Young began volunteering for the San Jacinto River Coalition, a citizen’s group determined to see the Waste Pits completely remediated.
In 2013, after multiple treatments and transfusions, a change in water supply — and eventually, a move — Young’s health slowly improved. In an assignment for an environmental management course, Young went door-to-door to gather residents’ health histories. She heard stories of rare, childhood brain cancers, eye cancers, blood cancers and lymphoma — all of which have long been linked to dioxin exposure.
By 2014, fierce debates raged over whether the Waste Pits were the cause of dioxin-suspected cancers, the Chronicle reported, while environmentalists, fishermen, landowners and corporations battled over cleanup plans. Young and the coalition – and later, her non-profit alliance – remained in the center of these storms. She rallied citizens and pressed the EPA, as well as elected and appointed officials, for complete removal of the pits. She gained a reputation as a respected environmentalist and community activist.
These days, as executive director of the Texas Health and Environment Alliance, she is working closely with the EPA and with Harris County’s technical review team as they make their way through the Waste Pits cleanup design process.
When she started this journey, she reached out to the Environmental Protection Agency for help. Now, the EPA reaches out to her to help inform the public and policymakers about its work in the region, and to help organize their responses.
“One of the most important parts of my job is making sure everybody’s talking,” she said. “We’ve worked very hard over the years to get in the good graces of the agencies we work with. Often, when things happen, I’m the first one the EPA calls. So, then I need to call our local pollution control, our local congressman, our representative, our county attorney, and make sure that all the people here on the local level are aware of what’s going on.”
Despite her years as a model, Young says she had always intended to work in environmental science, and early on had thought she would pursue a career as a geologist. “I went to UH-Clear Lake with the intent of graduating with the degree that I did. I never would’ve dreamed I would found and run an environmental non-profit organization.”
She says she maintains close relationships with several professors whom she regards as her professional mentors. “My experience at UHCL shaped me as a person and undoubtedly led me to not only getting back on my feet with my health, but also to my career.”
UHCL offers bachelor’s and master’s degrees in environmental science, including an online master’s degree, a linked B.S.-M.S. degree and several specialization tracks. For more information, visit UHCL's Environmental Science Program.