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.

Sterling also wants to avoid mention of the periodic disasters that have made Texas City famous, most notably the 1947 explosion that killed at least 581 people, the worst industrial calamity in U.S. history. More recent additions to the dubious achievement list include the 1978 Texas City Refining Company explosion and Marathon's hydrofluoric acid release in 1987, when 4,000 people had to be evacuated from the vicinity.

For those who have lived through the disasters, it's hard to escape a nagging sense of foreboding. Joe Coefield, who survived the 1947 explosion and lives a block away from a Marathon storage tank farm, remembers that grim day every time plant sirens blow or bad smells suddenly cause his airways to constrict. Just a couple of weeks ago, a smell from one of the plants similar to that of rotten eggs made him gag. "You can't help but think about it," Coefield says. "Them tanks cross your mind, too."

To quantify the hazards of living near the plants, lawyers representing the Sterling plaintiffs commissioned an "environmental site assessment," a formal document that would ordinarily attend any plan to develop a potentially sensitive area. The study, done by the firm Phase Engineering, examined a typical house near Sterling's plant. Noting that "environmental concerns due to releases, spill[s], explosions, fire, etc. exist and have historically existed," the report concluded that "the subject area exhibits a high degree of environmental risk exposure from off-site sources in the general area."

Sterling countered the Phase report by asking the judge to exclude it from the testimony on grounds that it makes reference to the 1947 explosion in Texas City -- any mention of which Sterling contends is "wholly irrelevant" to the litigation.

The cumulative effect of the negatives associated with living near the plants -- the disasters, property damage, sicknesses and foul odors -- has been to render the property around the plants essentially worthless for any but industrial use. According to Houston real estate appraiser and analyst William Forrest, who examined the Texas City market for the plaintiffs in the Sterling case, the houses south of Texas Avenue have little to attract anyone looking to invest. "The ones right around the [Sterling] plant within, say, three-quarters of a mile, have no value left to the properties," Forrest said in a deposition.

Forrest's assessment is backed by John Spear, an architect and real estate consultant who directs the Community Design Assistance Center in Houston, a non-profit agency that helps facilitate housing development in low-income neighborhoods. Because of the environmental concerns in south Texas City, says Spear, the area is ineligible for federal funding or other public assistance to help rebuild the deteriorating houses or build new ones. No bank would lend money in such a tainted zone, meaning that continued decay is its only possible fate. "You can't [get money] through the private sector," says Spear. "You can't do it through the public sector. The community has been irrevocably lost."

Mayor Chuck Doyle and others deny that funding is unavailable for redevelopment, but they're short of examples where money has been forthcoming. Nor can Doyle, who founded the Texas City-based Texas First Bank and serves as its president and CEO, recall any housing loans Texas First had provided in the area. "I don't know if we've even had a request," he says.

That leaves only one group with any interest in buying the houses close to the petrochemical plants -- the companies themselves, most of which have been slowly purchasing property and building greenbelts to shield the plants from their neighbors. But since they're only willing to pay market prices in an area where values are depressed to virtually zero, existing residents are left without options.

That's news to Doyle, who said in a deposition for the Sterling case that no one had ever complained to him about economic constraints. He even denied knowing that residents had environmental concerns at all. "I have never had anyone come to me and express a concern for their health, safety and welfare," he said. Those who live in the vicinity of the plants do so simply because they want to, he added. "They have a choice to live there if they wish."

Doyle calls it "the centerfold of my administration." More than an inch thick, the Texas City Goals 2000 Comprehen-sive Plan sets the city's direction for the foreseeable future. Published in 1992, the plan lays out nine broad objectives and 40 more specific goals, complete with strategies for accomplishing them. Among the primary objectives are "a new image projecting an improved city attractiveness" and "adequate, affordable housing for all income levels."

Peppered throughout Goals 2000 are references to a greenbelt that would stretch from Galveston Bay west to Highway 146, and from Texas Avenue south to the plant boundaries. The concept had actually been identified as early as 1982 in the city's land use plan. "Texas City has long recognized the need of an open space buffer zone between these industries and the other residential and commercial sectors of the city," Goals 2000 reads.

The comprehensive plan doesn't merely suggest that a greenbelt would be a nice idea. Rather, it proposes an official "greenbelt initiative" as a priority: "A more aggressive effort to purchase and remove the qualifying structures, consistent with the necessary legal requirements, should be pursued ... with all deliberate speed."

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