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.

The city isn't alone in wanting to establish a greenbelt. The oil refineries and chemical plants that border the neighborhoods all have buffer programs, some more extensive than others. Amoco, for instance, has been buying property north of its fence line since 1992, and two years ago unveiled a sweeping greenbelt project to the city that included a detailed wildlife habitat design. Marathon, on the other hand, makes a few purchases a year but doesn't publicize its efforts.

But all the programs seem to have one element in common: They're moving slowly. Though the four largest plants bordering the community -- Sterling, Marathon, Amoco and Union Carbide -- have identified desired buffer boundaries, the companies are making no active effort to acquire properties. Instead, they wait for an owner interested in selling to call. Amoco, according to spokesman Brian Dinges, has a standing offer to buy property in its greenbelt area, but doesn't broadcast the terms to the residents. "How is our offer communicated? It is strictly by phone calls to Amoco from interested property owners," Dinges says.

That offer appears to be the same at the other plants. "We've pretty much gone with the appraised value," says Marathon spokesman Bob Sovine.

The appraised value doesn't amount to much, which is why the residents who want to leave won't, or can't, sell. "There are certainly some people that we've been unable to reach agreement with on the value of their property," acknowledges Sovine.

The companies seem willing to stall until the owners tire of waiting, or die, or move away, and then acquire the properties cheaply. A March 1994 internal Sterling memo discussing a particular parcel within its proposed greenbelt confirms the strategy: "Environmental Affairs still recommends addition of this property to the Greenbelt. Hopefully, we can pick this up for back taxes and little more."

That strategy may satisfy industry pressures to keep short-term costs as low as possible, but it could prove far more costly in the long run. With no other recourse, residents have taken to the courts. If they win, the cost to the companies will dwarf what it would have taken to pay a little more for the properties up front. Plant executives are aware of that possibility, but still have failed to act.

In January 1992, Carbide plant manager Foley Provenzano met with John Mitchell of Prudential Relocation Management, a firm specializing in helping companies manage relations with residential neighbors. By November, Prudential had prepared a feasibility plan for an aggressive buyout of 119 houses in a pair of subdivisions west of Carbide's fence line, similar to greenbelt buyouts the firm had managed for Dow Chemical in Louisiana, Conoco in Oklahoma and Hoechst Celanese in Florida.

The corporate wheels grind slowly, and a year later Mitchell pitched the plan again in a letter to Sterling vice president Charles Kline. "We remain convinced that taking such steps will materially serve to protect Union Carbide's long-range profitability, viability and public image," Mitchell wrote. Allowing that the project does not improve revenues, he gave another rationale for moving forward: "... Simply because it reduces a risk that Union Carbide has already identified. Our experience indicates that proactive, voluntary programs are far less expensive than reactive ones."

Carbide had indeed already identified the risk. In 1991, 197 residents, most in the proposed greenbelt area, filed a nuisance suit against the company claiming that high-pressure steam noise emitted for two months had caused physical and mental problems. Carbide settled the suit in 1993 for $400 million.

At least one Carbide official needed no further convincing. Responding to Prudential's plan, site services department head Jim Hockersmith drafted a strategic plan to develop the greenbelt in July 1994. "Of major concern is the lack of distance between the plant and the residential areas to the west and southwest, and for the traffic on heavily traveled state highway 146, which borders our entire western fence line," Hockersmith wrote. "These areas are vulnerable to possible [environmental] incidents."

Citing the $400 million settlement, Hockersmith noted other reasons to proceed with a buyout: ongoing noise and odor complaints from nearby residents, the fact that 80 of their homes would require either "blast absorbing" or "blast damage limiting" construction if built new due to their proximity to the plant and the need to maintain good relations with the community.

"Continued opportunistic property purchases will never result in the establishment of a satisfactory greenbelt," Hockersmith concluded. "Management of this recognized risk needs to be pursued as rapidly as possible."

But Hockersmith's proposal was rebuffed by upper management, which just didn't want to pay for the buyout. "I called John Mitchell and advised him that at present option 1 [opportunistic buys] was all that was available and that dollars were extremely tight," Hockersmith wrote plant manager Foley Provenzano late in 1994. "I suggested that we put the project temporarily on hold until the financial picture clears."

The risk increased with the discovery in early 1995 that chemicals from Carbide had migrated west of the plant and contaminated the groundwater, affecting four houses on 3rd Avenue just west of the Texas City line in La Marque. The company decided to purchase the four houses immediately -- rejecting a proposal by Prudential in favor of a cheaper plan to buy them through a local realtor. The plan involved offering the owners "fair market value," which apparently wasn't enough, because more than a year later no agreement had been reached.

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