Shadow Over Texas City

Petrochemical plants and refineries are the lifeblood of Texas City's economy. But for Hester Joiner and her neighbors, all they've provided are foul odors, property damage and mysterious ailments.

To do that, the residents would need the companies to pay a relocation premium when they purchased tracts for their greenbelts. Instead, though, industry seems content to wait the residents out -- in at least one case, against the advice of a consulting firm hired to recommend a greenbelt strategy -- and buy the land cheap after the owners die or find some tolerable housing alternative. "We've bought some of the properties when they've come available at the right price," says Marcy Boone of Union Carbide.

And while the city's own long-range plan urges that companies take a more aggressive approach toward creation of the greenbelt to "help mitigate human life dangers beyond the perimeter of the refinery in the event of harmful chemical releases, fires or explosions," the actions of city officials smack more of collusion with their powerful corporate neighbors than advocacy on behalf of the residents.

To speed the process, a number of people who live close to the plants have filed suit for damages in several actions against the major companies. But even if they win, the litigation could take years to resolve, and that leaves the residents, many of them elderly, feeling trapped.

"I'm hoping they buy us out so I can go back home [to Harlingen]," says Reynaldo Partida, who lives with his family a block north of Texas Avenue near the Sterling Chemical plant in a small place his parents bought years ago. "Until then, I'm stuck with that house."

Martha Darden was born and raised south of Tex-as Avenue and has lived within earshot of the refineries all her life. So have her relatives, though none of her immediate family survives. Her younger brother died of cancer at age 40, and her older brother died two years ago of lung disease after a lengthy illness.

Darden herself wears a wig to cover the bald spots that checker her skull. Her eyes water constantly, and she has chronic respiratory problems. "If I walk down there," she says, pointing down the street a short distance, "I can hardly breathe."

At the moment, she's visiting her cousin Nell Swan, who lives close to the Sterling plant. It's a reunion of sorts, though not a happy one: On May 8, 1994 -- Mother's Day -- Swan was hosting her annual holiday dinner with eight relatives and friends when the powerful smell of ammonia interrupted the festivities. As the group began to choke on the fumes, Swan called the police to find out what was happening. "They told me nothing was going on," Swan says. That story changed as hundreds of other calls began flooding the emergency switchboard.

The group fled to the Mainland Center Hospital, where they received treatment for ammonia exposure. "They put the oxygen on me," says Darden. A week after the incident, Swan's hair began to fall out. "It was some kind of terrible," she says. Since then, Swan has had only one more Mother's Day dinner. "Nobody don't want to come over no more," she says.

Eventually, about 5,500 residents, including Swan and Darden, sued Sterling for damages resulting from the release, which occurred after a plant operator turned the wrong dial in the acrylonitrile unit and caused at least 3,000 pounds of gas to vent into the air. The first of several cases was set for trial this week.

Sterling wants to limit the scope of this week's and subsequent trials to the Mother's Day incident: In pretrial motions, company lawyers asked Judge William Bell to exclude evidence of other releases or environmental hazards posed by any of the petrochemical plants that line a four-mile corridor west from Galveston Bay just across the La Marque line, including the Sterling facility. That's because the volume makes the Mother's Day blowout seem like a mere whiff of car exhaust. While the plaintiffs' experts peg the release at closer to 8,000 pounds of ammonia -- Sterling claims it was actually 3,000 pounds -- data compiled by the federal Environmental Protection Agency reveal that the plant released more than 19 million pounds of ammonia between 1986 and 1994, including more than 300,000 pounds into the air.

That total doesn't include the hundreds of thousands of pounds of benzene, ethylbenzene, propylene, hydrogen cyanide and other dangerous toxins that state and federal permits allowed Sterling to spew from its stacks during the same period. (Sterling attorney Frank Vandiver says the company will not discuss any issues that relate to pending litigation.)

Nor does that include the emissions from Marathon, Amoco, Union Carbide or the other plants in the corridor: millions of pounds of hazardous material that float over the city each year. While much of it disperses harmlessly in the atmosphere or drifts out to the bay, much of it doesn't. And the greatest concentrations are often closest to the plants.

The evidence of those emissions is not hard to find. The twigs on the trees around Nell Swan's house are black with soot that rubs off easily at the touch. Relatively new vehicles show advanced signs of corrosion, their paint stained and peeling. The brown and shriveled remnants of thriving gardens and lawns that died overnight for no apparent reason dot the neighborhoods.

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