Blowing Smoke

Government and civic boosters know the way to clean up the air in polluted southeast communities: add another chemical plant

Since Michelle Martinez moved to El Jardin with her family in 1997, ill health has stalked her daughters. Five-year-old Melanie has contracted a variety of respiratory ailments including sinus infections, bronchitis and pneumonia. Prior to the move, Melanie had experienced garden-variety allergic reactions; now, she regularly breaks into hives that turn her welt-peppered back a solid red. "It's an everyday thing," says Martinez. "She stays on Benadryl."

Last June Melanie developed a mild cough. Nothing unusual, her mother thought, though her condition worsened enough to warrant a visit to the doctor, who prescribed antibiotics. Within two days she was burning with a 104-degree fever, and Martinez rushed her to the emergency room. After studying an x-ray, the doctor diagnosed a "pre-pneumonia" lung infection.

Martinez didn't immediately connect her daughter's condition to the methyl acrylate release from the nearby Hoechst Celanese chemical plant, which had left a sweet, fruity smell permeating her house for several days. After getting the scoop on the release from her neighbors, though, she called the Harris County Health Department, which confirmed that exposure to methyl acrylate can cause severe respiratory reactions. "It scares me to think what would have happened if we'd waited any longer," Martinez says.

Occasionally issuing a wheezy laugh, Martinez recites her own litany of ills: asthma attacks that leave her gasping for air, inflamed and dripping nasal passages, chronic bronchitis. Several hours after she crossed paths with fumes from a tanker truck that had jackknifed a few blocks from her home last August, Martinez went through two bottles of industrial eyewash to stop the painful burning that practically blinded her. "Ever since we moved here, I've been almost constantly sick," she says.

To Martinez, who visibly spins through entire emotional cycles as she talks about her daughters, it's obvious that her family's afflictions are tied directly to the air pollutants pumped from the many petrochemical plants within sniffing distance of her home. In addition to the periodic accidents that expose residents to potentially dangerous doses of hazardous chemicals, the plants legally emit hundreds of tons of carbon monoxide, particulate matter and other toxic compounds (see "Great Escapes"). The omnipresent odors of rotten eggs, tar and sulfur that the plants issue may be harmless, but harmless odors aren't usually followed immediately by crippling asthma attacks. "We didn't have these problems until we moved here," she says.

The logic may be irrefutable, but Martinez would have a hard time proving it. Though the incidence of respiratory disease, cancer and other maladies appears to be elevated all along the Gulf Coast, it is virtually impossible to show a conclusive link between a certain illness and exposure to a specific chemical from a particular plant. And while the effects of exposure to high levels of isolated chemicals have been demonstrated in the lab, little is known about the long-term effects of low levels of exposure, especially to combinations of chemicals.

For most of Martinez's neighbors in the bayfront communities east of Houston, the bad smells and other nuisances associated with the petrochemical industry simply go with the territory; it's the tradeoff they make in exchange for living away from urban chaos in a quiet home near the water. But for residents in El Jardin, Seabrook and Shoreacres, that tradeoff looks a little less appealing these days. The Port of Houston Authority is planning to build a huge container terminal in Bayport that will permanently alter the serene landscape and foul the air with the diesel exhaust from 7,000 trucks a day. And a new petrochemical plant and incinerator complex near Seabrook that will annually belch about 500 tons of pollutants into the sky appears headed for approval with state regulators.

The city of Seabrook formally opposes the port project and hired environmental attorney Jim Blackburn to help stop it. Community activists likewise joined the fray, raising money and awareness. But few citizens have stepped forward to challenge the new petrochemical plant. "There's not many people coming to complain about it," says Seabrook City Councilman Pete Bracchio, whose antenna is tuned to pick up environmental warning signals.

The plant will be operated by American Acryl, a new company formed by two international chemical giants, Elf Atochem and Nippon Shokubai. American Acryl representatives wooed local politicians and business groups with promises of a clean, first-class operation staffed by local workers, and the message has taken hold -- Acryl literature cites support from nine heavy hitters including Harris County, the cities of Seabrook and Pasadena, and the Greater Houston Partnership. "We have every intention of this being a showcase facility," says Acryl deputy general manager Leon Connor.

Such assurances aren't enough to put everyone at ease. While Nippon Shokubai's one United States plant has a relatively spotless environmental record, Elf Atochem's 26 plants in 16 states, including four in Texas, have left a trail of lawsuits, fines -- and in the case of its now-defunct plant in Bryan -- birth defects and bodies. "If this company, with such a lousy track record, is allowed to come in here and build, then anybody can come in here," says El Jardin Community Association president Ruth Lang, an outspoken critic of the project.

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