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 children racing across the lawn seem oblivious to the spherical monolith directly across the street from their public housing complex on 4th Avenue South. If the Marathon storage tank ever ruptured or exploded, they would be equally oblivious, because the fire would incinerate them in seconds.

That a public housing project -- as well as a city park, swimming pool and basketball courts -- sits across the street from a refinery angers John Spear, the architect and real estate consultant who was deposed for the lawsuits a-gainst Sterling. "This is the worst proximity [to a hazard] I've ever seen. It's un-conscionable in the absolute extreme."

Fifty years ago, such a location would have been nothing unusual. When the refineries were built, cars were scarce and environmental concerns virtually unknown, and many of the workers lived near the plant gates. Even after the 1947 disaster, residents rebuilt their houses right back up to the fence line.

But over the years the demographics of the area changed as the city expanded. Well-paid workers moved away from the plants to the north and west of town and were replaced by low-income African-Americans and Hispanics. As with many cities around the country, Texas City had a de facto segregation policy until the civil rights movement opened the doors, and for many years minorities could only buy homes south of Texas Avenue. Today, the area directly north of the plants is more than half black and Hispanic, according to census data, with almost 32 percent living below the poverty line. About half of the adult residents never finished high school.

That such a high concentration of poor and minority residents has ended up closest to the petrochemical plants is no accident. The same arrangement seems to attend many toxic zones around the country, including many of the Gulf Coast refining towns such as Pasadena and Corpus Christi. The concentration of hazardous facilities in low-income minority areas has been the subject of much debate the past two decades, even spawning a new phrase to describe it: environmental racism. "As many studies show, there is a disproportionate environmental hazard burden on minority communities in this country," says John Spear.

As in other communities, a number of Texas City residents trapped near the plants by economic circumstance are using the racial equity argument to force companies to either clean up their acts or get the people out. Often with the support of grassroots groups, the residents have filed suit seeking -- and sometimes winning -- millions in damages.

The companies recognize that this issue poses a threat. Arguing in 1994 that Union Carbide should proceed with a greenbelt buyout, manager Jim Hockersmith added the issue to the list of reasons outlined in his proposal to management. "Establishment of a greenbelt would ... lessen the possibility of 'environmental equity' issues (our neighbors are in predominantly black and Hispanic subdivisions)," Hockersmith wrote.

Addressing inequities isn't just the responsibility of Union Carbide or the other plants. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development has guidelines that would prevent any new projects from being built in environmentally sensitive areas, including methods to measure "acceptable separation distances" from explosive materials. "The site you choose should never raise an environmental justice concern," advises one HUD publication.

By any measure, the public housing project violates HUD's guidelines. Andrew Johnson, a HUD environmental expert who works out of the area office in Houston, has said the housing project flunked on the several occasions when his agency calculated the acceptable separation distances from the Marathon tank. Texas City's Goals 2000 plan states that "the city will have to determine the feasibility of relocating its public housing facilities and other facilities."

But neither the feds nor the city have moved to transfer the residents to safer apartments or raise the funds to build a new complex. Instead, the city housing authority has asked for, and won, two grants in the past five years to sink additional money into the project for repairs and renovations.

Asked why the agency would pour additional funds into a project that shouldn't be there, HUD area office head George Rodriguez says that the grants were technically allowable under the rules, even though the agency had the discretion to disapprove the request. The bigger problem, Rodriguez says, is that federal funds for public housing have been slashed in recent years, and the funds don't exist to move the residents elsewhere. Nor will that change anytime soon. "We're sorry to say this is gonna be a very long, cumbersome situation here," Rodriguez says.

That leaves the public housing residents in the same straits as the other residents south of Texas Avenue. And despite the insistence by the companies that life near the plants is perfectly safe, statistics say otherwise. State and federal environmental records show that the Texas City plants have accumulated hundreds of incidents, violations, complaints and fines in the past decade.

For its ammonia release, OSHA initially tagged Sterling with five serious violations and a $25,000 fine before negotiating a milder reprimand. The company's list of incidents includes a release of 193 pounds of hydrogen cyanide the week before the Mother's Day ammonia incident, which earned the company an EPA fine, and an 11,000-pound propane release three months later.

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