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Blowing Smoke

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.

 

But the regulatory process favors approval of American Acryl's plant. Short of a noisy, organized outcry from the surrounding communities, the chemical complex and incinerator will likely become the latest entry in Harris County's petrochemical sweepstakes.

Nor will it be the last, especially if the Bayport terminal is built. "I don't see anything right now that would change the course that was set in place 30 years ago," says Pasadena city spokesman Dave Benson.

For Michelle Martinez and others concerned about the effects of the existing plants on their health, the steady march of new facilities across the few remaining patches of green in eastern Harris County spells doom. She intends to fight American Acryl, but if she loses, her family may have no choice but to get out. "How do you tell your kids, 'Don't breathe?' " Martinez says, her voice tinged with resignation. "I would rather live in a box under a bridge than see my kids getting sick all the time."

American Acryl wants to be wanted. Company representatives have dutifully attended city council and neighborhood association meetings and have employed a public relations firm to smooth the rough spots. They portray the facility in the most glowing terms: A gleaming $150-million plant using state-of-the-art technology, employing 115 local residents for the production of materials used in such feel-good products as disposable diapers, hand lotion and lipstick. A plant profile distributed to the community boasts that American Acryl's No. 1 priority is to "Protect the safety and health of our employees and the public."

Last October American Acryl cosponsored the city's big cultural event, the annual Seabrook Music Festival. To further ingratiate itself, the company has offered to expand the city's meager parklands by donating or leasing about a sixth of the 230-acre portion of its property that falls inside Seabrook (which can't be used for heavy industry). "The approach that they've taken has been very positive," says city manager Ron Wicker.

So positive, in fact, that several people active in the effort to kill the port project believe that American Acryl is on their side. "The word I've gotten from them is that they're against it," says Seabrook parks board chairman Jerry Larsen, who is helping with the park negotiations and opposes the port.

John Gehbauer, who heads American Acryl's public relations effort, admits opining against the proposed container terminal on a number of occasions but says he was only voicing a personal view. "American Acryl has no position on the Port of Houston expansion," Gehbauer says.

It's hard to figure why the company would work against the port, since it will be using the facility's rail lines and barges to ship its products. But the impression that American Acryl sides with Seabrook certainly hasn't hurt its support in the community. "I view American Acryl as an ally," says Larsen.

To maintain its warm and fuzzy image, American Acryl has soft-pedaled the more alarming aspects of its plan. The hazardous waste incinerator, for example, which will emit the lion's share of the pollutants, barely rated a mention in the company's lengthy presentations. Instead, the company raved about the relative safety of the primary chemicals the plant will produce, ignoring the emissions from the process. "I don't recall anything being said about an incinerator," says Seabrook Councilman Pete Bracchio. "Until you just did, I haven't heard anybody use the word incinerator," echoes Pasadena spokesman Dave Benson.

Gehbauer disputes that the incinerator component has been hidden from public view. "We have always talked about it," Gehbauer says. "We've always tried to talk about all our permitting up front."

In the company's request for a tax abatement from Harris County, however, the word incinerator is almost entirely missing. American Acryl refers only to an acrylic acid and butyl acrylate plant in its introduction to the request. The incinerator is hidden in the cost summary under the heading "General Plants," described as "services, utilities, etc...."

The application includes other questionable items. Abatements serve as incentives to help lure business; in theory, the net economic gain from having the business outweighs the tax money lost. The customary abatement in Harris County is $500,000 per job created; American Acryl asked for $750,000 per job. Otherwise, the company might be forced to locate elsewhere. "A variance is important to American Acryl," the application states, "because it would make this site more competitive with the other sites in Louisiana which are under consideration."

 

That same rationale was pitched to John Wilson, superintendent of Clear Creek Independent School District, when the company sought his support for a district tax abatement. "They kept going, 'Hey, we can go to Louisiana,' " Wilson says. "They kept selling that real hard."

Neither the county nor school district abatements came through. The company chose Pasadena anyway.

Gehbauer defends the company's tactics. "There's nothing about that that was untrue," he says. "Every company has to look at a package of things, and you weigh all the elements of a package against each other and make a decision." The package, he says, came out top-heavy for Pasadena.

Besides, Gehbauer says, that's the way all corporations negotiate a site. "You drive them to give you the best possible deal."

Mark Westerman knows that at least in American Acryl's case, sometimes the negotiations go hardball.

Westerman knew he'd have chemical plants for neighbors when he moved into his Seabrook home in late 1994. He and his wife, Laurie, felt that sporadic smells and dicey incidents were more irritant than deterrent. But enough, says Westerman, is enough, and he's fighting the proposed plant. "Somewhere you've got to draw the line," he says. "I picked a line and said, 'What we have [already] is too much.' "

A scraggly electrical engineer whose company builds computer networks, Westerman decided last July to post an Internet site about the proposed project. Registering the web domain americanacryl.com, he included information culled from the company's air emissions permit applications, letters of opposition and support, chemical compounds the plant would produce and other pertinent documents. Though American Acryl's views were represented, the site left little doubt as to Westerman's position, starting with the image of a skeletal hand clutching a bottle of poison graced with a skull and crossbones.

The company did not take kindly to the free flow of information. Claiming that the public would think the site was affiliated with American Acryl, the company had a lawyer write a letter demanding that Westerman change his web site name and add a prominent disclaimer. "This confusion poses a serious threat of substantial damage to the good will of American Acryl," the letter stated.

Westerman added a link to American Acryl's own web site (which as yet has nothing on it), and he placed a this-is-not-Acryl banner atop the site that would seem to eliminate any confusion about the company's involvement. But he declined to change the name, and the company sued him for trademark infringement.

Whether the strike against Westerman is due to a legitimate concern about trade infringement or imparts a different hue on the company's benign posture is difficult to gauge. But the lawsuit, and the scuffs on American Acryl's glossy approach, leave skeptics suspicious. "They say they want to be a good neighbor to us, but they've gone on the attack," says El Jardin resident Charlotte Cherry. "I don't feel they've been up-front with us."

Fueling that suspicion are the pains American Acryl has taken to distance itself from Elf Atochem, one of the two corporate partners in the venture. "American Acryl is a separate company from the partner owners with its own operating philosophy," states a passage in an informational handout distributed to neighbors. "We hope people will allow us to be judged by our actions, not the past difficulties of others."

El Jardin resident and plant opponent Frank Bettencourt doesn't buy it. "I can call myself something else," he says, "but I'm still Frank Bettencourt."

American Acryl's attempt to secure a tax abatement in Harris County blew up at the last minute. To the chagrin of the county's abatement team, Commissioner Steve Radack and Assistant County Attorney Cathy Sisk argued in December that giving the company a break while the county was suing Elf Atochem's two area plants for pollution violations wasn't such a great idea.

Despite its public pronouncements that Acryl is not Elf, the company didn't belabor the point with the commissioners. The connection between them is umbilical: Both use the same corporate address in Philadelphia, and Elf executives make up half of American Acryl's management. Board chairman William Kraus doubles as group president of Elf Atochem North America; Jean-Claude Rebeille, the contact person listed on the abatement and permit applications, is also executive vice president of EANA.

He doesn't ruffle easily, but John Gehbauer shows exasperation when asked about Elf Atochem's taint. Yes, Elf has had some problems, he admits. But he doesn't understand why people don't give equal weight to the clean environmental record of the other parent, Nippon Shokubai, when questioning the lineage of the baby. "It's a very lopsided approach," Gehbauer says.

 

Elf Atochem can't seem to stay out of trouble with regulators or the communities that host its plants. The company controls 66 sites in 19 states with potential liability of hundreds of millions of dollars for environmental claims. Class action is practically Elf Atochem's middle name.

Elf's four plants in Texas have had their share of trouble. The Beaumont facility has been cited by the Texas Natural Resources Conservation Commission for excessive emissions of hydrogen sulfide and other extremely dangerous chemicals and has been fined at least twice. In Bryan, residents sued Elf for poisoning the water supply with arsenic. The company agreed to pay $170 million to settle the claims. TNRCC fined the company a then-record $2.5 million for violating its permits, part of an $11 million package that included money for buyouts and cleanup. The Bryan plant has since incurred an additional $416,000 fine.

Elf's rap sheet in Harris County offers a lot more of the same. Its Crosby plant has been hit with citations and fines from the TNRCC, Environmental Protection Agency and Harris County within the past five years. A 1994 sulfuric acid release sent four community residents to the hospital, including a five-year-old girl whose blistered face took a year to heal. Three chemical releases at the company's plant on Haden Road resulted in Elf's paying a $27,500 fine and establishing a $75,000 fund for emergency air sampling.

The Haden Road plant has had so many releases of sulfur dioxide and other chemicals that references to its abysmal compliance history routinely pop up in agency documents. "Notifying us each time they add a new chemical may be a burden on the company," noted a TNRCC memo concerning a permit revision request from Elf, "but we need to know what is going on at the facility -- especially in light of the current problems they are having." A July 1995 report by a Harris County Pollution Control investigator stated that sulfur dioxide emissions above permitted limits had occurred "almost daily" for more than a month.

Elf has stated many times that the bulk of its problems was inherited when the company absorbed the Pennwalt Corporation, which Elf rescued from a hostile takeover attempt in 1989. Pennwalt owned the four Texas plants as well as many of the others across the country that have since turned into ecodisasters for Elf. According to a letter Elf attached to a draft of its tax abatement application, the company came into the Pennwalt picture as a "white knight" and failed to do "the normal due diligence" before making the purchase.

Even if Elf somehow blinded itself to Pennwalt's dirt before the move, evidence indicates that the company neglected to clean up its act even after it became aware of Pennwalt's legacy. James Bogia, former environmental engineer at the Crosby plant, alleged in 1991 that management had knowingly threatened the community's ground water, a charge that resulted in an investigation and findings of multiple violations. In the Bryan case, the state accused Elf of knowing about continued arsenic contamination but not acting immediately to stop it.

And while Elf says it has acted aggressively to curb pollution problems at its plants, many of the moves the company has made, including the installation of upgraded equipment, improvements in emergency warning systems and better emissions monitoring, were leveraged by regulators. "It was because they had to, not because they wanted to," says Bonnie Butler, who lives near the Crosby plant and whose daughter was injured by the sulfuric acid release.

Not that Elf has ever admitted wrongdoing. In the wake of the record fine and huge lawsuit payouts in Bryan, for example, the company has maintained its good-guy pose. "Although Elf Atochem believes there were and are no adverse health effects which resulted from the facility's operations," the company wrote in a letter to the county, "Elf Atochem nonetheless addressed the concerns of individuals living in the vicinity of the plant through a proposed class action settlement."

The company even has trouble fessing up when caught red-handed. In its submissions to TNRCC and Harris County, Elf refers to the violations that led to enforcement actions as "allegations" and "possible exceedences." Perhaps technically true in a narrow, legal sense, says a Harris County environmental official, but disingenuous. "They're weasel words," the official scoffs.

Of course, all companies negotiating settlements insert such disclaimers in every possible document. James Taylor, Harris County Pollution Control operations manager, says the situation at plants like Haden Road has improved since Elf took over. "I was impressed with the way they responded to the [county] lawsuit on Haden Road," Taylor says. "That plant was a disaster when it was Pennwalt, and now it's not."

 

Residents near the Haden Road plant might be more consoled by those sentiments were it not for the spate of odor problems that still plague them, many of which they attribute to Elf. The presence of four other plants in the vicinity (all the subject of a class-action nuisance suit) makes the source of a stink hard to pinpoint. "There are at least 41 unresolved complaints in 1997 in the Haden Road area that Pollution Control believes may stem in part from Elf Atochem operations," assistant county attorney Sisk wrote in a summary of Elf's compliance history. "We hope and expect that the company's recent efforts will improve the situation, but we cannot say that has been accomplished."

Which Elf Atochem will help manage the American Acryl operation -- the compassionate, responsive Elf or the weaselly, complicit Elf -- remains to be seen. But the company's catalog of transgressions casts a shadow on American Acryl's glowing self-portrait. And it adds an ominous air to basic truths about the petrochemical industry, such as the one included in the company's permit application: "American Acryl LP expects that emergency situations and shutdown emissions may occur infrequently, but no specific frequency or event can be predicted."

Everyone, it seems, is blowing smoke about clean air these days. Mayor Lee Brown and Judge Robert Eckels recently announced nine "Principles for Cleaner Air" to reduce the region's ozone pollution, second only to Los Angeles as the worst in the country. At the Greater Houston Partnership's tenth annual meeting, newly crowned chairman Ned Holmes reiterated the importance of reducing air emissions. "New manufacturing or refining facilities, which would add new jobs and could add to the emissions quota, could be prohibited until we meet the standards," Holmes told the assemblage of business leaders.

The ban won't come from the partnership, which has no authority over permitting. Nor will it come from the city or county or other municipalities, which are in the same boat. Besides, the partnership's economic development arm helped recruit American Acryl to town and worked closely with the company to obtain a tax abatement. Until Radack and Sisk put the brakes on it, the county was equally gung ho about the abatement and had even prepared a letter to Elf Atochem announcing preliminary approval.

When the objective of cleaning the air clashes with business interests, there's little doubt which side the power brokers will choose. "We're looking at the overall air quality of the region," says Partnership president Jim Kollaer. "Our mission is to bring jobs to the region, and also to bring prosperity to the region."

Chairman Holmes's commitment to clean air is also somewhat suspect; as chairman of the Port of Houston Authority, he's pushing the proposed Ned S. Holmes Bayport terminal, which would roll 7,000 trucks a day through the Seabrook area and make whatever vacant land remains in the vicinity that much more attractive to heavy industry.

The ban is not likely to come from the TNRCC, either, although the agency does have authority over the permitting process. Among the criteria TNRCC can use to block an application is a company's compliance history, though agency spokesman Patrick Shaughnessy can't recall that ever happening. "I don't believe any permit has been denied [for that reason]," he says.

In fact, the state's application process is designed to grease the wheels for industrial development, not impede it. "In Texas, building a chemical plant is like getting a permit to build a garage," says James Taylor, the county pollution control official. "The rules are structured so that if you do certain things, you get the permit."

The EPA bans any new sources of two primary ozone-forming chemicals, nitrogen oxide and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) in all the areas that flunk the ozone test, including the eight-county zone around Houston. But there's a loophole: A new source can be permitted if it offsets any new emissions with reductions from some other source at a ratio of 1.3 to 1. So American Acryl, for instance, can pump its 186 tons of nitrogen oxide into the air every year as long as it cuts 241 tons someplace else. Those reductions can be bought in the form of pollution credits, which can come from shuttered plants or units within plants anywhere in the eight counties.

That's just what the company intends to do. "American Acryl will go out into the open market and purchase credits," says PR man Gehbauer. "They'll come from somebody who's got credits to sell."

Unless those credits come from nearby (which is unlikely, since the plants closest to the proposed plant have been in the expansion mode), the net effect on the neighborhoods in Seabrook and El Jardin will probably be an increase in ozone pollution.

 

All the noise about air pollution has focused on reducing ozone levels in order to meet federal mandates by a 2007 deadline. Whether the area can possibly achieve the goal without taking draconian measures is in dispute. But ozone is only a fraction of the clean air equation. American Acryl will emit many tons of dangerous compounds, including carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide and particulates, that are federally regulated but don't have offset requirements in Houston.

At least not yet. In 1997 the EPA set a new standard for small particulates (less than 2.5 microns in size, known as PM 2.5) that won't take effect until at least 2003. Preliminary data compiled by the city indicate that the Houston area may well fail the standard -- without any additional sources. American Acryl maintains that it will have negligible PM 2.5 emissions, but Neil Carman, who directs the state Sierra Club clean air program, disputes that. Very little may issue directly from the stacks, he agrees, but small particulates often form in the air around such pollutants as nitrogen oxide. More than 100 tons of nitrogen oxide a year, American Acryl's estimated output, can yield large volumes of PM 2.5.

If the state has its way, small particulates may not ultimately be a problem, but not because it won't be causing lung damage. Before the EPA announced the new standard, TNRCC lobbied against setting any limits and will likely lobby in the future to relax the standard to bring places such as Houston into compliance, as it did with the ozone limits. To establish a threshold on small particulates, TNRCC wrote in a letter objecting to the concept, "would not only be flawed public policy but may even be construed as an arbitrary and capricious action on EPA's part."

The state's permitting process falls short in another area: measuring the cumulative impacts of exposure to pollutants. Since the rules require that American Acryl be evaluated as though it would sit alone on the West Texas prairie, TNRCC won't factor in the toxins from other nearby plants that residents have to breathe. While taking cumulative risk into account would pose a major scientific challenge, considering permit applications in a vacuum ignores the reality of life in petrochemical country. "The [model] they're using is badly flawed from a public health perspective," says Carman.

So even if American Acryl operates free from explosions, spills or other incidents -- which would be a first in the industry -- its everyday operation will add to the region's pollution burden. Ozone reductions notwithstanding, that's a trend that will continue as long as the system remains static.

As to the consequences, who knows? "It's one big chemical soup," says James Taylor. "We're all breathing it, and nobody knows what it's doing."

Judge Eckels thinks globally. Better to have petrochemical plants here, where at least some controls keep emissions in check and the county can press the state for tighter regulations and strict enforcement of existing rules. The alternative, he notes, may be worse -- have them locate in Louisiana, a polluter's nirvana, or Mexico, and get hit by the fumes anyway. By keeping American Acryl and others away from Harris County, he says, "We solve our problem in the local community, but on the global scale we're making things worse."

That's small consolation for Frank Bettencourt, an El Jardin resident who bought a brand-new home almost two years ago. At the time, the location offered the perfect atmosphere to produce his paintings and laser shows, and it gave his wife an easy commute to her job at NASA.

Beset by chronic health problems, they regret the move. "Until we came here, I'd never had a sinus infection," Bettencourt says. "I've had one for eight months. I'd never had an ear infection. I've had one for eight months. I've had pneumonia; I've had bronchitis."

His physician has no doubt that exposure to chemicals from the nearby plants is to blame and has recommended Bettencourt move away to save himself. "My wife and I are having problems with whatever they're venting," he wheezes convincingly. "She's short of breath; I'm short of breath."

The thought of another plant within a couple of miles doesn't appeal to Bettencourt, and he's filed for a formal hearing before the TNRCC to register his feelings, which citizens can do if they can demonstrate potential adverse effects from a new facility. He's also protested American Acryl before the Seabrook city council and has tried to rally his neighbors, with marginal success. "There seems to be a lot of apathy, like there's nothing we can do about it," Bettencourt says.

Apathy wasn't an issue in 1992, when Chi Mei Industrial Co. wanted to build a plant in almost the same location. An outcry from Seabrook residents caused Chi Mei, which had already bought the land, to withdraw.

 

Compared to the American Acryl project, Chi Mei looked like a winner: 300 jobs as opposed to 125, fewer projected emissions and no hazardous waste incinerator. And compared to Elf Atochem, Chi Mei came across like a flag-waving environmentalist.

But residents didn't want another chemical plant in the neighborhood. They were still smarting from the encroachment of the other plants, which had happened contrary to the belief dating back to the 1960s that no petrochemical facilities would be built east of Highway 146.

Burned out from previous duels or distracted by the port threat, however, the residents just don't have the energy to mount an offensive this time. American Acryl's careful coddling has also weakened resistance to the project. "The focus has changed to the port expansion," agrees Pete Bracchio.

The company has seized on the lack of organized opposition to dismiss those who have stepped forward as a tiny minority who wouldn't be happy unless a total moratorium on development were declared in the area. A better gauge of community feelings, says John Gehbauer, is the number of locals who have already sent in their resumes for the jobs the plant will create. "There are a handful of vocal people against American Acryl, and they have several handfuls of associates," Gehbauer says. "We're talking about a small number of people who oppose this, or any plant."

Gehbauer is probably right, at least about the core issue. "As far as I'm concerned, I am not for any more emissions," Bracchio says. "We have plants that do not belong here to begin with."

Without a coordinated grassroots effort, the chances of keeping American Acryl out are practically zero. Except for individual city councilmembers like Bracchio, officials in Pasadena, Seabrook and other municipalities that have the standing to make a formal protest haven't expressed qualms about the plant. Instead, they'll rely on the experts to declare the plant safe and ready to fire up. "Basically, our position is that you've got the EPA and the TNRCC and Harris County Pollution Control looking at the [air quality] problem," says Pasadena spokesman Benson, "and I don't think the city feels it wants to get involved."

If the operation proves profitable, American Acryl sees the proposed plant as only the first step in a long-term development scheme. "The construction of this proposed facility may result in the opportunity for future expansions," notes the company's tax abatement application. Of the 137-acre parcel that can be developed, Gehbauer points out, the current plant design requires only about 50. "You've got plenty of room," he says.

As more plants move in, the critical mass of raw materials and feedstocks make the area ever more attractive to other American Acryls. For the residents of Seabrook and El Jardin -- and everyone else in the region who makes daily contact with the hundreds of chemicals floating around in the breeze -- the only options are to move or hope that nothing bad comes of it. "If it was that big a concern," says Benson, "probably we wouldn't live in the Houston metro area."

Frank Bettencourt puts it more simply, with a sigh: "Around here, that's just the way life is.


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