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.

Equally beholden are certain health care providers in town whose practices hinge on treating plant employees -- James Nebout says that the medical records of some of his clients who were treated for ammonia exposure have mysteriously disappeared, meaning they can't prove they ever received treatment after the Mother's Day release.

It's tough enough just to find a lawyer, which is why many of the cases currently in the courts are being handled by Houston firms. One exception is Nebout, whose firm also represents Local 4-449 of the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers union. "You can't have this town without those industries," says Nebout. "But those industries have just completely abused the system."

Where the sympathies of town officials lie is no secret, either. Mayor Chuck Doyle worked for Union Carbide for 13 years in industrial relations, and he and the other city commissioners routinely glad-hand the industry at commission meetings -- not to mention grant the companies generous tax abatements and other benefits. At the regularly scheduled meeting ten days after the ammonia incident, for instance, most of the commissioners sang Sterling's praises for its splendid record of community service. Never mind that city emergency coordinator Jeff Eller told the commissioners that no one from Sterling ever called back with information about the release after he'd asked someone at the plant to check on the problem. "Commissioner [Frank] Simpson commented that he felt Sterling is an excellent corporate citizen," according to the minutes of the meeting, "and feels that everyone that has truly suffered from injury will be cared for."

At least one commissioner, however, says that in order for that to happen, Sterling and the other companies need to do what the city's Goals 2000 plan calls for -- create the greenbelt "with all deliberate speed."

"Industry is gonna have to spend a buck," says Lynn Ellison, who represents the area south of Texas Avenue and still lives there himself. "It wouldn't take more than $10$15 million to buy out this whole area. Buy it out."

Ellison's figure may be shy of the actual mark, but the companies aren't bandying figures about, even though Union Carbide, at least, has calculated the costs. Regardless, given the plants' reluctance to move forward, and given the lack of coordination on the issue, Ellison isn't sure how to expedite such a buyout. "Maybe the city would have to initiate it," he suggests.

Instead, the city seems to be colluding with the plants to maintain the status quo. Though the land use plan denotes the area south of Texas Avenue as greenbelt, the city won't update the zoning ordinance or maps to show it, possibly because such a move could be legally construed as a "takings" and force the city to offer property owners compensation. And according to a city building official, the city maintains an informal policy of not granting any building permits south of Texas Avenue -- informal because an ordinance to that effect could open the door for owners to force compensation. "They're trying to discourage any housing down there," the official says.

Doyle vehemently denies that there is such a policy. Anyone who thinks differently, he adds, is misinformed.

On the other hand, Doyle doesn't know if any significant permits for home construction or renovation have been granted in the past several years. "I can't say whether they have or haven't," he says.

Texas City may have been more actively helping the companies save money. The city has set aside substantial sums for the past several years in federal Community Development Block Grant funds, including $100,000 in 1995, to demolish and clear dilapidated structures in the rundown sections of town. City housing authority chief George Fuller says none of that money has been spent to aid greenbelt development, perhaps because the use of federal funds would trigger the Uniform Relocation Act and mandate relocation funds for the remaining residents. Yet Fuller never sent the list of properties on which the funds were used that he promised the Press.

Anyway, it's a mistake to interpret the language in Goals 2000 as indicating a desire to swiftly establish the greenbelt, Doyle says. Such things take time, maybe as long as ten or 15 years to complete. "We never did expect this to be a real quick turnaround kind of thing," he says.

Shuffling papers in the ragged office suite on 6th Street, Selaine Jolly remembers her childhood, when the snow fell in Texas City. At least she and her playmates pretended that the white flakes that cascaded from the sky were snowflakes, even though they burned to the touch instead of chilled. "We would be outside playing in it," Jolly recalls, "like, oh, it's snowing!"

Jolly didn't start to fear the petrochemical plants that flamed and roared near her home until after she finished school at College of the Mainland. The evening in 1978 when the Texas City Refining Company blew up marked her change of attitude. "It was so close, I told my mom, 'The neighbor's house is on fire,' " says Jolly. "The flame and heat actually burned my skin."

In 1988, Jolly joined her friend Pearlie Johnson and began holding informal meetings in the community south of Texas Avenue to brainstorm about issues of concern -- unemployment, drugs, schools. The refineries were often part of the discussion, but "we weren't picking on the plants," she says.

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