Moving Target

The city is rolling out the welcome mat for CITGO. But many workers want the company to get lost.

Billy Ray Sterling believed in working hard. An operator at the Lyondell-CITGO refinery, he took on 16-hour days, 80-hour weeks -- no sweat. On holidays, Sterling readily volunteered. "I always stayed on for the ones who had kids," he says.

His wife understood. They'd been together since junior high nearly 50 years ago; she knew what kind of man he was. "He's one of those rare people who liked to do his job," Donna Sterling says.

When Billy Ray Sterling had a heart attack in June 2001, his bosses at the refinery called an ambulance. Then they didn't contact him for five months.

No one from the company visited Sterling while he 
was hospitalized. The firing came via certified mail.
Daniel Kramer
No one from the company visited Sterling while he was hospitalized. The firing came via certified mail.
The union is pushing its message on Texas 225.
Daniel Kramer
The union is pushing its message on Texas 225.

In and out of consciousness in his hospital bed, Sterling didn't notice, not at first. He had a triple bypass. It failed. Doctors tried implanting stainless-steel tubing, but that only caused scar tissue. For a time he was unable to talk; later, he couldn't walk. His doctor told him he'd had a stroke on the operating table.

But when the hospital sent him home to recover, Sterling started bracing himself. He knew what was coming.

In November, his refinery bosses obliged, with a terse letter via certified mail. His sick time had been used up, it said. They were unable to continue his employment.

He had been fired.

"They just cut me loose," Sterling says behind eyes that remain a sad, patient blue. A slow drawl betrays both his Port Neches roots and his constant shortness of breath. At age 62, he's waiting to die. "I'm working with a third of a heart," he explains. "I still can't walk the length of my driveway."

As for his termination from Lyondell-CITGO, timing was everything. If the refinery had waited just one month, Sterling would have received another half-year of medical coverage. Instead, the firing sent him scrambling. Donna Sterling was forced to go back to work; the couple has to support a mentally disabled son as well as a grandchild. Medical bills were mounting.

His wife was angry, but Sterling wasn't surprised. "I knew what they were going to do," he says, "because that's the way they do things."

Sterling had seen plenty in his seven years at the refinery: In the past four years, the company has averaged more than 100 grievances annually and has fired a total of 46 workers, many for reasons far more spurious than a heart attack. Despite getting big bonuses, employees say morale is at an all-time low.

The strife made the embittered workers that much more stunned to learn the news last fall: The city of Houston was wooing a Tulsa-based industrial giant to relocate its headquarters here.

The name of the corporation: CITGO. And as the Greater Houston Partnership confirms, the usual grab bag of tax incentives is being proffered.

CITGO's main presence locally is the plant for which Sterling worked, a joint operation with Lyondell Petrochemical Company. And that refinery is hardly an argument in CITGO's favor.

It fought tougher state restrictions on pollution control. And though Harris County and the city of Houston granted tax breaks for a big upgrade, despite a promised $720 million in investment and $6.6 million in reduced taxes, it's hardly worth more today than it was in 1993.

Refinery workers insist that record -- and their workplace woes -- should be examined as Houston considers bringing CITGO to town. The promise of another tax break, they say, makes their problems relevant to everyone.

"We don't need a bad corporate neighbor here," says Richard Shaw, secretary/treasurer of the Harris County AFL-CIO. Of the 400 companies with which his unions work, CITGO is among the very worst, he says. "Someone needs to say to them, 'Straighten out your problems at the Lyondell plant,' " Shaw says. " 'Otherwise, go somewhere else.' "

Lyondell-CITGO's sprawling 677-acre complex on Texas 225 is 85 years old, but it looks more space-age than industrial, an otherworldly farm of short metallic smokestacks and huge cylindrical drums. The plant's operation is complex, but the end result is simple. Thick, sulfuric oil is processed into gasoline.

Lyondell Petrochemical Company was the operator of the plant until CITGO Petroleum Corporation acquired a 41 percent ownership interest in 1992. The two formed a joint venture, Lyondell-CITGO Refining. The Lyondell refinery would get a steady source of crude from CITGO, and CITGO would get adequate gasoline supplies for its service stations.

Relations between the two owners, however, haven't always been cordial. Lyondell sued its partner in 2002, claiming CITGO unfairly reduced the amount of oil supplied to the plant from 1998 to 2000.

CITGO is wholly owned by the Republic of Venezuela, which has been run for the last four years by President Hugo Chavez, a former paratrooper. Unabashedly leftist, Chavez wooed Venezuela's poor with his strong pro-worker stance and condemned oil executives as whiskey-drinking hedonists. Under his rule, however, more than half of CITGO's Venezuelan workforce was brusquely terminated.

Despite the eventual tension between the partners, the city of Houston saw a benefit to CITGO's arrival. To ready the plant for CITGO's crude oil, the refinery needed a $720 million upgrade, and that gave the city an opportunity to demand better environmental controls.

The city had sued the refinery in 1993 over a host of infractions, alleging pollution releases and more than 400 leaks that Lyondell took its time fixing, according to records. As part of the upgrade, Lyondell-CITGO promised $6 million in improvements to burn off pollutants instead of sending them into the air. It also agreed to pay $700,000 in fines and $50,000 in legal fees, according to court documents.

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