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.

Amoco announced in 1988 that 750,000 barrels of hydrocarbons, including more than 50,000 barrels of benzene, a known carcinogen, had pooled underneath the plant from years of leaks and spills, though plant officials claim that not a drop has seeped under the fence into the neighborhoods. The company doesn't dispute 34 state environmental rules violations from 1990 through 1994, however.

Union Carbide has been cited and fined more than $230,000 by the EPA for various violations seven times since 1991, has polluted the groundwater near its plant and shelled out $400 million in 1993 to settle a pollution suit. State records show 469 incidents at the Carbide plant from 1990 through 1992, including several releases of more than 100,000 pounds.

Those figures don't include the millions of permitted pounds of toxic chemicals belched into the air by the Texas City plants every year.

Still, says Union Carbide's Marcy Boone, the numbers are nothing to worry about, at least not enough to prod the company to buy out the neighborhoods. "We have not had any incidents or potential incidents that would indicate there is an urgency to do that type of project," Boone says.

George Fuller, who heads the city housing authority, agrees. Without some compelling evidence, there's no reason for the authority to hastily move residents elsewhere. "We have no evidence that they're in any danger of anything," Fuller says. "Can you show me some? I don't have any."

On February 12, a gasket failed in the Alky 3 unit at the Amoco refinery, located a short distance from the northern fence line. A cloud of hydrofluoric acid was released into the air -- the same highly corrosive substance that injured 1,000 in the 1987 Marathon release. According to workers who were on the scene, the wind was initially blowing toward town but shifted suddenly and pushed the acid out toward Galveston Bay. Rain kept the material low to the ground, limiting the risk to the workers. Still, two were injured and had to be hospitalized.

Amoco says the release was contained and never posed any threat to the community. But the workers dispute that claim, says OCAW local secretary-treasurer Sonny Sanders. Had the wind not shifted or had it not been raining, Sanders says, the toll could easily have matched or exceeded that of 1987.

"We were lucky," he explains.

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