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.

The notice to vacate arrived from the city on January 3, and now, a day later, a crew from Channel 13 Eyewitness News is on the scene at Los Vecinos Apartments to talk to the displaced residents. They knew their homes in the complex of gray two-story buildings and tiny cabins were ridden with termites and lacked heat. And yes, sludge had accumulated on the ribbon of grass along West Pitts Avenue. But this was home, and nobody likes to be booted from their home.

"I was kind of perturbed, kind of pissed off," Tamathia Hough says about finding out they would have to go.

Tamathia Hough, Ricky and pal Joe Lopez, one day after learning their apartments were being condemned.
Deron Neblett
Tamathia Hough, Ricky and pal Joe Lopez, one day after learning their apartments were being condemned.
Crown executive Randy Trembly finds the refinery's latest troubles "heartbreaking."
Deron Neblett
Crown executive Randy Trembly finds the refinery's latest troubles "heartbreaking."

Extension cords snake from the white Channel 13 production van out front and through the open door of Hough's disheveled home, where reporter Cynthia Cisneros and a cameraman cast about for a catchy live shot for the 7 p.m. broadcast. Dressed in black slacks, a burgundy blouse and a flowing black overcoat that matches the sweep of her hair, Cisneros considers the four shimmering gas burners on the stove turned up at full blast for heat, and decides they'll do the trick.

For now, Hough stands in the doorway with one foot inside and one outside on this chilly evening, while Ricky and a friend romp around in front, amusing themselves with a baseball.

The woman with limp hair and frowsy sweater seems distracted by the goings-on and oppressed by questions of what's next. She says she doesn't want to go back to her hometown near the Louisiana border. That would stir up the ghosts of her divorce from a guy doing time for breaking and entering.

Hough hopes to find a new home nearby so Ricky can go to the same school. The kid's been diagnosed with attention deficit disorder and goes ballistic when his routine is changed. But finding a two-bedroom in the $450-a-month range will be tricky.

"I have a few prospects, but not many," she says before the countdown to the newscast begins.

Crown, too, is fishing around for prospects. The Baltimore-based company, a family-controlled operation since it was bought in 1930 by the same man who founded Amoco, has sputtered in recent years. Outgunned by major oil companies, Crown is looking to sell off its Pasadena and Tyler refineries to focus on the retail side of the business. The company owns some 330 service stations, mostly in the mid-Atlantic states.

With the future uncertain, Randy Trembly says he wants to concentrate on running as efficient a refinery as possible.

During an interview inside a bright orange conference room at Crown's offices in Pasadena, Trembly, who came here from company headquarters in 1992, repeatedly springs to his feet to diagram some aspect of operations. The fit, soft-spoken man with neat banks of sandy hair on either side of his head sees the workings of a refinery as a cycle of life and death. He estimates that operators have to regularly check and maintain some 20,000 parts. Strainers get plugged, turbines trip, motors burn out. The plant's warehouse is stocked with spare parts to keep the oil flowing.

"By design, you know, you have these failures," he says.

As part of its agreement with the TNRCC, Crown put in a $1.3 million scrubber to attack the problem of excess sulfur emissions. Critics railed that the company was skirting other, costlier controls. But even Abraham concedes that Crown's sulfur dioxide emissions are way down.

"To the extent that they're doing better, it's to the extent that they are under a microscope," he says.

The refinery continues to draw scrutiny from regulators. In December the Department of Justice filed a civil action against Crown, alleging numerous violations of federal clean-air and hazardous-waste statutes, including faulty storage tanks and excess emissions of nitrogen oxides. Many of the alleged infractions stem from a 1997 inspection of the refinery by the EPA.

Despite this latest knock, Bobby Phillips, a process operator at Crown and a leader of the union, says that since he returned to the refinery last February after being locked out for five years, he's seen evidence that the company has changed.

"From my God's honest opinion, they're trying to make things right," he says. "If we did anything to hurt the environment, we're hurting ourselves. We're the first people to get hurt."

On January 13, Crown blew up again. This time refinery officials blamed an isobutane leak.

The latest wake-up call may have shattered what patience city officials had left.

"The sooner we meet with Crown the better," says Michael Massey, the mayor's public safety assistant.

Residents in the outlying neighborhoods make morbid calculations, weighing future risks against what they've already invested in their homes. Frances Hernandez and husband Lupe have lived in their frame house tucked behind a hedge on Pitts Avenue for the last eight years. Hernandez says they have no choice but to pay off the mortgage. She doubts they could sell the property.

"If we could, we would move," she says. "I guess sooner or later the plant's going to blow us away."

The Hernandezes are among the hundreds of residents who joined the 1997 suit alleging that Crown had damaged health, caused anguish and diminished property values. The case is pending in the state district court of Judge Dale Wainwright.

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