By Craig Malisow
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By Angelica Leicht
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That was good enough for the city. It settled. Says Deborah McAbee, the city's senior assistant attorney, "We really want the company to focus on actions they can take to prevent the problem from reoccurring."
But even with the upgrade, the refinery continues to release noxious discharges. Permits allow it to emit 4,916 tons of nitrogen oxide each year. That compound is one of the biggest challenges to clean air locally -- and Lyondell-CITGO contributes about 2 percent of the total in Houston's eight-county region, says John D. Wilson, executive director of the Galveston/Houston Association for Smog Prevention.
The Environmental Protection Agency cited the refinery last May for two sudden chemical expulsions. In one incident, it released 60 times the allowable amount of carbon monoxide, says EPA spokesman Dave Bary. In the second, it released a cocktail of sulfides and oxides in excess of its permit. The matter remains in negotiation; the company faces up to $220,000 in fines, Bary says.
Lyondell-CITGO hasn't exactly been eager to cut its pollution. Under Texas's federally mandated plan to cut smog in the Houston area by 2007, the refinery was ordered to decrease nitrogen oxide releases by some 84 percent, Wilson says.
But the company joined with several others to wage war against the plan in court. And the state folded. It agreed to a compromise that would allow the refinery to release 1,240 tons of nitrogen oxide each year -- less than before, certainly, but nearly 500 tons more than in the state's original plan.
"This is one of several decisions the state has made that means it's not going to achieve clean air by 2007," Wilson says. The revised plan, he says, is "the biggest setback we've faced in the past few years in the fight for clean air."
At first it didn't look like the new partnership with CITGO would bring many changes to the workers. After all, Lyondell continued to run the refinery, and it holds a perennial spot on various "Best Places to Work" lists.
"Everything was good then," says Robert Greenlee, an instrument technician who's worked at the plant for 24 years. "Everybody kicked in."
They were good jobs. Union officials put the average salary at $54,000, and there was plenty of overtime. A guy like Billy Ray Sterling, who was eager to take it, could make as much as $100,000.
Sterling considered himself lucky. Growing up in Port Neches, he knew his choices were limited. "Either you went to college, or you married the buck-toothed girl next door and worked at the filling station."
Instead, he joined the marines at age 16 and spent the next five years in places like Japan and Vietnam. He was on a ship heading to Korea when President Kennedy was shot. "I was disillusioned by a lot of things," he says. "I don't think I ever got over it."
Back in Texas, he married his sweetheart and started refinery work.
As an operator in the coker, he had one of the most dangerous jobs at Lyondell-CITGO. The backs of his hands are still scarred from a fire four years ago. "The worst I ever saw," he says matter-of-factly. He reveled in the danger; coker workers, he explains, are "a different breed of people altogether."
It took a different breed of managers to poison the atmosphere at the plant. And while guys like Sterling didn't see it coming, union representatives did. David Taylor, who is secretary/treasurer of the plant's Local 4-227, says he knew of CITGO's reputation for contentious labor relations from other leaders in the Paper, Allied-Industrial, Chemical and Energy union, or PACE. "I knew what was coming," he says.
Still, it was not until 2000 that the refinery brought in two new managers, one from CITGO and one from the outside. One of them soon summoned Taylor into his office.
There were two years before the labor agreement was due to expire. But, Taylor recalls, the manager announced that the agreement was too rigid. "It will not allow me to make the changes I need to make to be as successful as the owners want me to be," he said. When Taylor balked, the manager told him, "I accept that you and I will bump heads."
"And from that point on," Taylor says, "we had a rocky relationship."
Some of the changes were big: Workers were told they had to wear pagers and be on call for blocks of off-duty time. Others were small: Management reduced the stipend for overtime meals, says machinist Ronnie Larson. It cut a half-cent from the 39.5-cent mileage reimbursement; it eliminated the company picnic. And it was no longer enough that workers not read newspapers on the job -- suddenly, even carrying a newspaper was grounds for termination.
As a supervisor explained in an e-mail provided to the Houston Press: "Is reading the sports section worth losing your job?" The boss wrote that at least one worker apparently was ready to risk that. "No one wants to be put into a position to discipline anyone, but make no mistake about it. I will execute my job duties without hesitation."
The refinery averaged six terminations per year from 1995 to 1999; after 2000, that average quickly jumped to 17, according to company records.