Under The Volcano

Crown Central Petroleum spews, sputters and flares up. Neighbors of the plant view it uneasily, never quite sure when it's going to blow.

Amid the construction companies, shuttered storefronts, gun center and other colorless buildings in old Pasadena stands the brick courthouse annex that is home to Harris County Pollution Control. The location here in the provinces gives the agency's 50-member staff a leg up in responding to complaints about the Ship Channel industries. Investigators need only step out onto their rooftop and peer northward, past Little Vince Bayou, a railroad spur and a thicket of power lines to find Crown Central Petroleum, about a half-mile away.

Since 1990, pollution control has issued 45 violation notices to Crown for a variety of infractions, from nuisance odors to coke and oil spills in nearby waterways. Only once, however, did it refer a case to the county or district attorney. And that case -- a predawn blizzard of alumina silica catalyst that covered downwind yards, homes and vehicles with 20 tons of the sandlike material -- was too dramatic let pass. (The office of then-D.A. Johnny Holmes deemed it a weak criminal case and did not pursue litigation, says Jennifer Wheeler, pollution control's enforcement coordinator.)

Reality check: A sign in Pasadena reminds residents of what to do in an emergency.
Deron Neblett
Reality check: A sign in Pasadena reminds residents of what to do in an emergency.
Environmentalist Rick Abraham got in Crown's face and refused to go away.
Deron Neblett
Environmentalist Rick Abraham got in Crown's face and refused to go away.

Rather than come down too hard on polluters, the agency prefers to let companies take corrective action on their own, says director Rob Barrett.

"One of the things we try to do here is not get crosswise with companies," Barrett says. "We try to keep good relations…to maximize what good we can do."

Pollution control is the first tier of a regulatory system that includes the TNRCC and, to a lesser extent, the EPA, which tends to delegate enforcement of federal laws to the states. A shortage of inspectors, combined with the reluctance of politicians to give the agencies any real bite, has made the Houston area a haven for polluters, says Neil Carman, the clean air director for the Sierra Club in Texas.

"The agencies don't have enough manpower," Carman says. "But you can't totally blame the agencies."

For years, regulators and Crown have been locked in a cat-and-mouse game rigged in industry's favor. Texas allows facilities to exceed pollution limits if an emission is deemed unplanned and not preventable -- an "upset," in bureaucratic parlance. While the term is meant to apply to events such as explosions, tank ruptures and other unforeseen disruptions, Crown has blamed tons of excess emissions on purportedly unavoidable breakdowns in operations.

"Of course you're going to say it's an upset. Why? Because you don't have to meet any emissions limit," says Paul Newman, an environmental coordinator with pollution control.

Old facilities such as Crown's Pasadena refinery benefit from another provision in the law favorable to polluters. Plants in existence before the Texas Clean Air Act of 1971 were exempted from a permit requirement mandating that facilities use the best available controls to cut pollution. Only if these grandfathered facilities added significant new sources of emissions would they need permits.

About 40 percent of the 3,210 tons of five major pollutants emitted by Crown in 1999 were from grandfathered sources, according to the TNRCC.

"The grandfathered facilities have gotten a huge, huge break, and it's one of the reasons why Houston continues to have massive pollution problems," Carman says.

Officials at Crown, which got slapped with a $455,825 fine in 1991 for increasing pollution without seeking a permit or an exemption, contend that its emissions pale in comparison to a plant like Exxon Mobil's Baytown refinery, with its more than 17,000 tons of total emissions.

"If Crown didn't exist, it wouldn't change the Houston pollution issue one little bit," says spokesman Bruce Hicks.

By the early 1990s the majority of Crown's units were under permits, placing limits on emissions. Crown began to rack up an astounding record of violations, particularly for sulfur dioxide, a "damaging" pollutant that impairs breathing, according to the American Lung Association. Despite thousands of hours of violations of levels established by the EPA to protect the public, Crown officials insist their plant's pollution has had no serious health consequences.

"Although we've had violations of permit standards, we do not have a situation where [regulators] are determining levels of substances that…even come close to meeting the standards that endanger health," Trembly says.

Those residing near Crown have learned to live with the smell of sulfur dioxide wafting from the refinery, a distinct burned-match odor that leads some to tag their hometown "Stinkadena." Individuals like Javier Castillo believe their health has been affected. Sitting in the Mexican restaurant he owns on Pasadena Boulevard following the lunch-hour mayhem, the friendly 38-year-old says he is plagued by allergies that disappear whenever he leaves town for an extended period. His two-year-old has asthma.

"When you go to the bathroom it smells bad, but you don't get sick from that," he says. "But if you live in the restroom all day long…"

Crown's many years of spewing noxious stuff onto the community had earned it a buildup of ill will. The smoldering frustration among residents needed only a spark to make it explode.

When Rick Abraham popped up in Pasadena in early 1997, Crown Central Petroleum officials had little idea that the activist would hound them for years and force them to change. The 52-year-old, who fought for desegregation in the Mississippi of his youth, doesn't recall the exact date he learned of the troubles in Pasadena. It was around the time his nonprofit Texans United was winding down a clean-water case against Exxon Mobil.

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