Shadow Over Texas City

From certain angles, Hester Joiner's wood-frame house on the south side of Texas City looks like any pleasant small-town dwelling: modest but tidy and well-kept. A 1988 Buick Regal sits in the carport, flanked by a planter and shade trees and shrubs and a mowed lawn interchangeable with millions of others.

But behind Joiner's house rises a towering flare stack that often breathes fire after dark, part of the massive Amoco Oil Company refinery that sprawls for more than 1,300 acres directly across the street to the west. Accompanied by an industrial roar that has literally rattled the foundation and shaken hangings off the walls, the flare stack sometimes burns so brightly that Joiner doesn't need a light to navigate her hallway.

A month ago, Joiner awoke at about 3 a.m. to a loud boom, followed by an apocalyptic flame from the stack. For an instant, Joiner feared a repeat of the 1978 explosion at the old Texas City Refining Company plant that killed three workers. When she stuck her head out the door, she saw nothing but orange. "It was just like my house was on fire, there was so much fire," she recalls.

The Amoco flare stack is but one nasty fact of life for Joiner and her neighbors. The Marathon Petroleum Company refinery, the source of a major release of hydrofluoric acid in 1987 that injured almost 1,000 residents, borders the Amoco facility just a few blocks north. The odor of strong chemicals, smelling vaguely of rotten eggs, burning tires, cabbage or nail polish, periodically wafts from the plants and permeates the skin. Ambulances and fire trucks often scream down 14th Street past Joiner's house and disappear into the mass of pipes, pumps and reactors.

"It's nerve-racking," says Joiner.
Joiner has other ailments. Her eyes burn sometimes, and for more than two years she's been afflicted by a persistent rash her doctors can't seem to cure.

But Joiner is one of the lucky ones. Of the almost 4,000 residents who live south of Texas Avenue in the shadow of the many petrochemical plants that dominate Texas City, hundreds suffer from asthma, bronchitis, hair loss or other chronic ailments. With the casual tone reserved for everyday occurrences, neighbors tell stories of relatives as young as 30 who had heart attacks, strokes or rare forms of cancer. The precise causes of their illnesses are almost impossible to prove, but almost everyone believes that living next to the plants and breathing the toxic chemicals they produce have a lot to do with their problems.

Among the believers are the physicians who treat the residents. "It's a daily nightmare," says Lena Bruce, a family practitioner who works at the Beeler-Maneske Clinic five blocks north of Texas Avenue. Bruce says she and her colleagues see extremely high incidences of lupus, brain and lung cancer, liver failure and chronic respiratory disease among the residents near the plants. While in medical school and as an intern in Galveston, Bruce says, she saw about one patient a year with lupus, an often terminal immune system disease. Now, she says, "I personally have probably 100 lupus patients myself."

While the cause of a given illness can't be traced to a specific chemical or even a particular refinery, it's hard to escape the inevitable conclusion. "There's got to be some association with the plants," Bruce says. "I would certainly not advise anyone to live anywhere near them."

Only a few thousand people live adjacent to the plants, but in Texas City it is impossible to avoid their influence. The city of 41,000, located about 40 miles southeast of Houston in Galveston County, depends on the petrochemical industry for its survival. The city's top ten taxpayers are energy companies, and oil and chemical refineries are six of the ten largest employers in town, including the top three. At night, the flash and glow from the swath of more than a dozen plants that stretch from La Marque to Galveston Bay make Texas City look like some kind of industrial Disneyland.

But it's the people living next to the fences who must suffer the less savory impact of industry. Hester Joiner would just as soon sell her house and move out of the area, but finding a buyer will prove difficult -- the neighborhoods nearest the plants, inhabited predominantly by low-income minority residents, have deteriorated badly in recent years, and their dilapidation and proximity to the refineries make them less than desirable to prospective homeowners. Real estate records show only a handful of sales south of Texas Avenue since 1990.

Of the few properties that have been sold, most have been bought by the petrochemical companies themselves, part of an effort to create buffers -- known as greenbelts -- between their plants and the residential areas of Texas City. But the companies are only willing to pay the market value, which for most of the houses is less than $15,000 -- barely seed money for a place in a less toxic part of Texas City. "I would gladly get rid of [my house] if they would give me enough to get a little apartment across town someplace," says Joiner.

Though Mayor Chuck Doyle, a former Union Carbide employee, claims he's unaware that any residents near the plants would like to evacuate, most of the people in the area interviewed for this story say they'd leave if they could afford to. "Me and my family, I would get them out from under the plants," says Lynn Ellison, a lifelong resident of south Texas City who serves on the City Commission.

To do that, the residents would need the companies to pay a relocation premium when they purchased tracts for their greenbelts. Instead, though, industry seems content to wait the residents out -- in at least one case, against the advice of a consulting firm hired to recommend a greenbelt strategy -- and buy the land cheap after the owners die or find some tolerable housing alternative. "We've bought some of the properties when they've come available at the right price," says Marcy Boone of Union Carbide.

And while the city's own long-range plan urges that companies take a more aggressive approach toward creation of the greenbelt to "help mitigate human life dangers beyond the perimeter of the refinery in the event of harmful chemical releases, fires or explosions," the actions of city officials smack more of collusion with their powerful corporate neighbors than advocacy on behalf of the residents.

To speed the process, a number of people who live close to the plants have filed suit for damages in several actions against the major companies. But even if they win, the litigation could take years to resolve, and that leaves the residents, many of them elderly, feeling trapped.

"I'm hoping they buy us out so I can go back home [to Harlingen]," says Reynaldo Partida, who lives with his family a block north of Texas Avenue near the Sterling Chemical plant in a small place his parents bought years ago. "Until then, I'm stuck with that house."

Martha Darden was born and raised south of Tex-as Avenue and has lived within earshot of the refineries all her life. So have her relatives, though none of her immediate family survives. Her younger brother died of cancer at age 40, and her older brother died two years ago of lung disease after a lengthy illness.

Darden herself wears a wig to cover the bald spots that checker her skull. Her eyes water constantly, and she has chronic respiratory problems. "If I walk down there," she says, pointing down the street a short distance, "I can hardly breathe."

At the moment, she's visiting her cousin Nell Swan, who lives close to the Sterling plant. It's a reunion of sorts, though not a happy one: On May 8, 1994 -- Mother's Day -- Swan was hosting her annual holiday dinner with eight relatives and friends when the powerful smell of ammonia interrupted the festivities. As the group began to choke on the fumes, Swan called the police to find out what was happening. "They told me nothing was going on," Swan says. That story changed as hundreds of other calls began flooding the emergency switchboard.

The group fled to the Mainland Center Hospital, where they received treatment for ammonia exposure. "They put the oxygen on me," says Darden. A week after the incident, Swan's hair began to fall out. "It was some kind of terrible," she says. Since then, Swan has had only one more Mother's Day dinner. "Nobody don't want to come over no more," she says.

Eventually, about 5,500 residents, including Swan and Darden, sued Sterling for damages resulting from the release, which occurred after a plant operator turned the wrong dial in the acrylonitrile unit and caused at least 3,000 pounds of gas to vent into the air. The first of several cases was set for trial this week.

Sterling wants to limit the scope of this week's and subsequent trials to the Mother's Day incident: In pretrial motions, company lawyers asked Judge William Bell to exclude evidence of other releases or environmental hazards posed by any of the petrochemical plants that line a four-mile corridor west from Galveston Bay just across the La Marque line, including the Sterling facility. That's because the volume makes the Mother's Day blowout seem like a mere whiff of car exhaust. While the plaintiffs' experts peg the release at closer to 8,000 pounds of ammonia -- Sterling claims it was actually 3,000 pounds -- data compiled by the federal Environmental Protection Agency reveal that the plant released more than 19 million pounds of ammonia between 1986 and 1994, including more than 300,000 pounds into the air.

That total doesn't include the hundreds of thousands of pounds of benzene, ethylbenzene, propylene, hydrogen cyanide and other dangerous toxins that state and federal permits allowed Sterling to spew from its stacks during the same period. (Sterling attorney Frank Vandiver says the company will not discuss any issues that relate to pending litigation.)

Nor does that include the emissions from Marathon, Amoco, Union Carbide or the other plants in the corridor: millions of pounds of hazardous material that float over the city each year. While much of it disperses harmlessly in the atmosphere or drifts out to the bay, much of it doesn't. And the greatest concentrations are often closest to the plants.

The evidence of those emissions is not hard to find. The twigs on the trees around Nell Swan's house are black with soot that rubs off easily at the touch. Relatively new vehicles show advanced signs of corrosion, their paint stained and peeling. The brown and shriveled remnants of thriving gardens and lawns that died overnight for no apparent reason dot the neighborhoods.

Sterling also wants to avoid mention of the periodic disasters that have made Texas City famous, most notably the 1947 explosion that killed at least 581 people, the worst industrial calamity in U.S. history. More recent additions to the dubious achievement list include the 1978 Texas City Refining Company explosion and Marathon's hydrofluoric acid release in 1987, when 4,000 people had to be evacuated from the vicinity.

For those who have lived through the disasters, it's hard to escape a nagging sense of foreboding. Joe Coefield, who survived the 1947 explosion and lives a block away from a Marathon storage tank farm, remembers that grim day every time plant sirens blow or bad smells suddenly cause his airways to constrict. Just a couple of weeks ago, a smell from one of the plants similar to that of rotten eggs made him gag. "You can't help but think about it," Coefield says. "Them tanks cross your mind, too."

To quantify the hazards of living near the plants, lawyers representing the Sterling plaintiffs commissioned an "environmental site assessment," a formal document that would ordinarily attend any plan to develop a potentially sensitive area. The study, done by the firm Phase Engineering, examined a typical house near Sterling's plant. Noting that "environmental concerns due to releases, spill[s], explosions, fire, etc. exist and have historically existed," the report concluded that "the subject area exhibits a high degree of environmental risk exposure from off-site sources in the general area."

Sterling countered the Phase report by asking the judge to exclude it from the testimony on grounds that it makes reference to the 1947 explosion in Texas City -- any mention of which Sterling contends is "wholly irrelevant" to the litigation.

The cumulative effect of the negatives associated with living near the plants -- the disasters, property damage, sicknesses and foul odors -- has been to render the property around the plants essentially worthless for any but industrial use. According to Houston real estate appraiser and analyst William Forrest, who examined the Texas City market for the plaintiffs in the Sterling case, the houses south of Texas Avenue have little to attract anyone looking to invest. "The ones right around the [Sterling] plant within, say, three-quarters of a mile, have no value left to the properties," Forrest said in a deposition.

Forrest's assessment is backed by John Spear, an architect and real estate consultant who directs the Community Design Assistance Center in Houston, a non-profit agency that helps facilitate housing development in low-income neighborhoods. Because of the environmental concerns in south Texas City, says Spear, the area is ineligible for federal funding or other public assistance to help rebuild the deteriorating houses or build new ones. No bank would lend money in such a tainted zone, meaning that continued decay is its only possible fate. "You can't [get money] through the private sector," says Spear. "You can't do it through the public sector. The community has been irrevocably lost."

Mayor Chuck Doyle and others deny that funding is unavailable for redevelopment, but they're short of examples where money has been forthcoming. Nor can Doyle, who founded the Texas City-based Texas First Bank and serves as its president and CEO, recall any housing loans Texas First had provided in the area. "I don't know if we've even had a request," he says.

That leaves only one group with any interest in buying the houses close to the petrochemical plants -- the companies themselves, most of which have been slowly purchasing property and building greenbelts to shield the plants from their neighbors. But since they're only willing to pay market prices in an area where values are depressed to virtually zero, existing residents are left without options.

That's news to Doyle, who said in a deposition for the Sterling case that no one had ever complained to him about economic constraints. He even denied knowing that residents had environmental concerns at all. "I have never had anyone come to me and express a concern for their health, safety and welfare," he said. Those who live in the vicinity of the plants do so simply because they want to, he added. "They have a choice to live there if they wish."

Doyle calls it "the centerfold of my administration." More than an inch thick, the Texas City Goals 2000 Comprehen-sive Plan sets the city's direction for the foreseeable future. Published in 1992, the plan lays out nine broad objectives and 40 more specific goals, complete with strategies for accomplishing them. Among the primary objectives are "a new image projecting an improved city attractiveness" and "adequate, affordable housing for all income levels."

Peppered throughout Goals 2000 are references to a greenbelt that would stretch from Galveston Bay west to Highway 146, and from Texas Avenue south to the plant boundaries. The concept had actually been identified as early as 1982 in the city's land use plan. "Texas City has long recognized the need of an open space buffer zone between these industries and the other residential and commercial sectors of the city," Goals 2000 reads.

The comprehensive plan doesn't merely suggest that a greenbelt would be a nice idea. Rather, it proposes an official "greenbelt initiative" as a priority: "A more aggressive effort to purchase and remove the qualifying structures, consistent with the necessary legal requirements, should be pursued ... with all deliberate speed."

The city isn't alone in wanting to establish a greenbelt. The oil refineries and chemical plants that border the neighborhoods all have buffer programs, some more extensive than others. Amoco, for instance, has been buying property north of its fence line since 1992, and two years ago unveiled a sweeping greenbelt project to the city that included a detailed wildlife habitat design. Marathon, on the other hand, makes a few purchases a year but doesn't publicize its efforts.

But all the programs seem to have one element in common: They're moving slowly. Though the four largest plants bordering the community -- Sterling, Marathon, Amoco and Union Carbide -- have identified desired buffer boundaries, the companies are making no active effort to acquire properties. Instead, they wait for an owner interested in selling to call. Amoco, according to spokesman Brian Dinges, has a standing offer to buy property in its greenbelt area, but doesn't broadcast the terms to the residents. "How is our offer communicated? It is strictly by phone calls to Amoco from interested property owners," Dinges says.

That offer appears to be the same at the other plants. "We've pretty much gone with the appraised value," says Marathon spokesman Bob Sovine.

The appraised value doesn't amount to much, which is why the residents who want to leave won't, or can't, sell. "There are certainly some people that we've been unable to reach agreement with on the value of their property," acknowledges Sovine.

The companies seem willing to stall until the owners tire of waiting, or die, or move away, and then acquire the properties cheaply. A March 1994 internal Sterling memo discussing a particular parcel within its proposed greenbelt confirms the strategy: "Environmental Affairs still recommends addition of this property to the Greenbelt. Hopefully, we can pick this up for back taxes and little more."

That strategy may satisfy industry pressures to keep short-term costs as low as possible, but it could prove far more costly in the long run. With no other recourse, residents have taken to the courts. If they win, the cost to the companies will dwarf what it would have taken to pay a little more for the properties up front. Plant executives are aware of that possibility, but still have failed to act.

In January 1992, Carbide plant manager Foley Provenzano met with John Mitchell of Prudential Relocation Management, a firm specializing in helping companies manage relations with residential neighbors. By November, Prudential had prepared a feasibility plan for an aggressive buyout of 119 houses in a pair of subdivisions west of Carbide's fence line, similar to greenbelt buyouts the firm had managed for Dow Chemical in Louisiana, Conoco in Oklahoma and Hoechst Celanese in Florida.

The corporate wheels grind slowly, and a year later Mitchell pitched the plan again in a letter to Sterling vice president Charles Kline. "We remain convinced that taking such steps will materially serve to protect Union Carbide's long-range profitability, viability and public image," Mitchell wrote. Allowing that the project does not improve revenues, he gave another rationale for moving forward: "... Simply because it reduces a risk that Union Carbide has already identified. Our experience indicates that proactive, voluntary programs are far less expensive than reactive ones."

Carbide had indeed already identified the risk. In 1991, 197 residents, most in the proposed greenbelt area, filed a nuisance suit against the company claiming that high-pressure steam noise emitted for two months had caused physical and mental problems. Carbide settled the suit in 1993 for $400 million.

At least one Carbide official needed no further convincing. Responding to Prudential's plan, site services department head Jim Hockersmith drafted a strategic plan to develop the greenbelt in July 1994. "Of major concern is the lack of distance between the plant and the residential areas to the west and southwest, and for the traffic on heavily traveled state highway 146, which borders our entire western fence line," Hockersmith wrote. "These areas are vulnerable to possible [environmental] incidents."

Citing the $400 million settlement, Hockersmith noted other reasons to proceed with a buyout: ongoing noise and odor complaints from nearby residents, the fact that 80 of their homes would require either "blast absorbing" or "blast damage limiting" construction if built new due to their proximity to the plant and the need to maintain good relations with the community.

"Continued opportunistic property purchases will never result in the establishment of a satisfactory greenbelt," Hockersmith concluded. "Management of this recognized risk needs to be pursued as rapidly as possible."

But Hockersmith's proposal was rebuffed by upper management, which just didn't want to pay for the buyout. "I called John Mitchell and advised him that at present option 1 [opportunistic buys] was all that was available and that dollars were extremely tight," Hockersmith wrote plant manager Foley Provenzano late in 1994. "I suggested that we put the project temporarily on hold until the financial picture clears."

The risk increased with the discovery in early 1995 that chemicals from Carbide had migrated west of the plant and contaminated the groundwater, affecting four houses on 3rd Avenue just west of the Texas City line in La Marque. The company decided to purchase the four houses immediately -- rejecting a proposal by Prudential in favor of a cheaper plan to buy them through a local realtor. The plan involved offering the owners "fair market value," which apparently wasn't enough, because more than a year later no agreement had been reached.

As recently as March 1996, some at Carbide were still urging adoption of Prudential's plan. A steering committee formed to examine greenbelt issues recommended contracting with Prudential to buy 133 houses in three subdivisions as well as the four contaminated properties and some commercial acreage. "The steering committee feels a prompt introduction of a buyout proposal would likely be a deterrent to additional lawsuits," according to a letter to company vice president Dave Brucker.

But the buyout project is still apparently on hold, because Marcy Boone, who replaced Hockersmith after he retired, denies the existence of any such plan or Prudential's role in formulating it. "We didn't have anybody that told us that we needed to or should [establish a greenbelt]," Boone says.

Why Carbide, or Amoco, Sterling and Marathon, for that matter, are willing to risk hundreds of millions in damages from lawsuits when they could spend a small fraction of that to move the residents remains a mystery, especially given the continued record profits generated by the petrochemical industry. Carbide, for example, netted $1.5 billion over the past two years. "I don't know why the hell you wouldn't buy out these people," says James Nebout, a Texas City attorney who represents 165 clients in one of the Sterling lawsuits.

The answer may have to do with the current corporate obsession with stock prices and shareholder dividends that keeps decision-makers fixated on quarterly and annual reports. And it may be that despite the overall successes of the parent companies, the refineries aren't producing high enough profit margins to keep up with other divisions. In this climate, plant managers may be loath to spend an extra few million that may bust their tight budgets, even if it later costs the companies hugely.

Or it may be that the companies believe that their insurers will pick up the tab for any hefty judgments. In a 1996 federal filing, Sterling listed the ongoing ammonia lawsuits, among several others, and noted that of the $16 million in total costs to date, almost all was insured. Estimating the total possible additional loss from the lawsuits at up to almost $45 million, the company maintained "it is insured or indemnified for this additional reasonably possible loss, except for a portion which is not material."

But that's speculation, because Sterling and the other companies aren't talking. Instead, they offer platitudes of concern for those who live near the plants. "We are well aware of the importance of communicating with these near neighbors, and the community in general," wrote Marcy Boone in a letter outlining Union Carbide's impact on its surroundings, "and we strive to maintain good relationships with our fellow citizens."

Joe Coefield, whose front yard is shaded by a giant Marathon storage tank, wipes a rheumy eye and blows his nose. Ever since Sterling's 1994 ammonia release sent almost 2,000 residents, including Coefield, to the hospital, he's had persistent cold symptoms that won't respond to treatment. The connection, he believes, is clear. "I didn't go to no doctor," Coefield says, "but I just figured out what it was."

But Coefield, who recently turned 82, may not be eligible for damages from the accident. A few days after the ammonia release, Coefield read in the Texas City Sun that Stifflemire Insurance Company would be handling claims on behalf of Sterling, and that people affected by the fumes could stop by the Stifflemire office.

That was nothing unusual. Stifflemire, which represents several of the plants in Texas City, often paid out small amounts to settle minor incidents like property damage from fallout. "Every time something happens, they send you to Jerry Stifflemire," says attorney James Nebout, referring to the company owner. "He gives you 60, 80, 125 dollars."

In this case, Coefield was offered $250 for his trouble. "I signed some papers, and they told me I would get a check in the mail," he says. He left without a copy, and after a few days, the money arrived. But when Coefield later tried to join the lawsuits against Sterling, he found out that the release he signed let the company off the hook for any future damages, including for medical treatment. "They didn't tell me," he says of Stifflemire.

Coefield's was one of several hundred settlements, ranging from $50 to $350, paid by the insurance company. A number, like Coefield, say they neglected to read the fine print. Others, like Patsy Booty, say they didn't really understand the implications of the legalese. "We're sorry we signed it," says Booty, whose four relatives, including three children, lost their right to sue with a few strokes of the pen. "We didn't even know there was gonna be a lawsuit. You don't know too much about the law or something."

Jerry Stifflemire doesn't want to get into the details -- "I don't give interviews," he says -- but he does take a moment to scoff at claims that anyone was misled into taking the settlement money.

"They knew what they were signing," Stifflemire says, before suggesting further questions be directed to a Sterling manager.

Whether or not each person who went to Stifflemire got a fair shake is almost beside the point. In Texas City, if you're poor and fighting the petrochemical companies, the odds are against you no matter where you turn. Many real estate appraisers depend on the companies for their livelihood, and getting a local to declare a property stigmatized by the plants is a long shot. Without industry business, appraiser Rick Wilkenfeld admitted in a deposition for the Sterling case, "I'd be out of business." Wilkenfeld, not surprisingly, testified that he could see no adverse impact on property values from the plants.

Equally beholden are certain health care providers in town whose practices hinge on treating plant employees -- James Nebout says that the medical records of some of his clients who were treated for ammonia exposure have mysteriously disappeared, meaning they can't prove they ever received treatment after the Mother's Day release.

It's tough enough just to find a lawyer, which is why many of the cases currently in the courts are being handled by Houston firms. One exception is Nebout, whose firm also represents Local 4-449 of the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers union. "You can't have this town without those industries," says Nebout. "But those industries have just completely abused the system."

Where the sympathies of town officials lie is no secret, either. Mayor Chuck Doyle worked for Union Carbide for 13 years in industrial relations, and he and the other city commissioners routinely glad-hand the industry at commission meetings -- not to mention grant the companies generous tax abatements and other benefits. At the regularly scheduled meeting ten days after the ammonia incident, for instance, most of the commissioners sang Sterling's praises for its splendid record of community service. Never mind that city emergency coordinator Jeff Eller told the commissioners that no one from Sterling ever called back with information about the release after he'd asked someone at the plant to check on the problem. "Commissioner [Frank] Simpson commented that he felt Sterling is an excellent corporate citizen," according to the minutes of the meeting, "and feels that everyone that has truly suffered from injury will be cared for."

At least one commissioner, however, says that in order for that to happen, Sterling and the other companies need to do what the city's Goals 2000 plan calls for -- create the greenbelt "with all deliberate speed."

"Industry is gonna have to spend a buck," says Lynn Ellison, who represents the area south of Texas Avenue and still lives there himself. "It wouldn't take more than $10$15 million to buy out this whole area. Buy it out."

Ellison's figure may be shy of the actual mark, but the companies aren't bandying figures about, even though Union Carbide, at least, has calculated the costs. Regardless, given the plants' reluctance to move forward, and given the lack of coordination on the issue, Ellison isn't sure how to expedite such a buyout. "Maybe the city would have to initiate it," he suggests.

Instead, the city seems to be colluding with the plants to maintain the status quo. Though the land use plan denotes the area south of Texas Avenue as greenbelt, the city won't update the zoning ordinance or maps to show it, possibly because such a move could be legally construed as a "takings" and force the city to offer property owners compensation. And according to a city building official, the city maintains an informal policy of not granting any building permits south of Texas Avenue -- informal because an ordinance to that effect could open the door for owners to force compensation. "They're trying to discourage any housing down there," the official says.

Doyle vehemently denies that there is such a policy. Anyone who thinks differently, he adds, is misinformed.

On the other hand, Doyle doesn't know if any significant permits for home construction or renovation have been granted in the past several years. "I can't say whether they have or haven't," he says.

Texas City may have been more actively helping the companies save money. The city has set aside substantial sums for the past several years in federal Community Development Block Grant funds, including $100,000 in 1995, to demolish and clear dilapidated structures in the rundown sections of town. City housing authority chief George Fuller says none of that money has been spent to aid greenbelt development, perhaps because the use of federal funds would trigger the Uniform Relocation Act and mandate relocation funds for the remaining residents. Yet Fuller never sent the list of properties on which the funds were used that he promised the Press.

Anyway, it's a mistake to interpret the language in Goals 2000 as indicating a desire to swiftly establish the greenbelt, Doyle says. Such things take time, maybe as long as ten or 15 years to complete. "We never did expect this to be a real quick turnaround kind of thing," he says.

Shuffling papers in the ragged office suite on 6th Street, Selaine Jolly remembers her childhood, when the snow fell in Texas City. At least she and her playmates pretended that the white flakes that cascaded from the sky were snowflakes, even though they burned to the touch instead of chilled. "We would be outside playing in it," Jolly recalls, "like, oh, it's snowing!"

Jolly didn't start to fear the petrochemical plants that flamed and roared near her home until after she finished school at College of the Mainland. The evening in 1978 when the Texas City Refining Company blew up marked her change of attitude. "It was so close, I told my mom, 'The neighbor's house is on fire,' " says Jolly. "The flame and heat actually burned my skin."

In 1988, Jolly joined her friend Pearlie Johnson and began holding informal meetings in the community south of Texas Avenue to brainstorm about issues of concern -- unemployment, drugs, schools. The refineries were often part of the discussion, but "we weren't picking on the plants," she says.

Goodwill was almost entirely absent at one of those meetings, though. The day after the Mother's Day ammonia release by Sterling, Jolly and a large contingent of neighborhood residents gathered at the Sanders Community Center to discuss the accident. Also attending were several lawyers Jolly had invited.

That meeting evolved into a series of lawsuits handled by a number of different lawyers. To conserve resources, the lawyers opened a joint satellite office in Texas City and hired Jolly to be the community liaison. The office, located in a mostly abandoned retail zone in a once-thriving part of downtown, has a bare-bones feel that underscores the plaintiffs' tenuous financial condition.

The lawyers, of course, are working on contingency, meaning that they'll collect only if they win. It also means they must bear the tremendous up-front costs of trying the case, already a three-year process that could take years longer if the verdict is appealed.

In contrast, Sterling has plenty of financial muscle and has shown a willingness to flex it. Within hours of the ammonia release, the company hired Benchmark Communications to manage its PR strategy and coach company executives through media interviews. The company has retained the firm of Mills, Shirley, Eckel & Bassett, which handles insurance cases and defends personal injury suits. And, perhaps in case things go badly with a jury, Sterling has hired pricey Galveston appellate specialist George Vie, who's already lent his expertise to the company's pretrial defense.

Sterling's deep pockets give the company a tremendous advantage. "Their strategy is to try and draw you out as long as possible to get it to a financial standpoint that you can't afford to go further," says Nebout, whose 165 clients are waiting their turn.

To a great extent, the outcome of the first trial may depend on what evidence Judge William Bell allows the jury to hear, and what he excludes. That's been the primary battleground to date, with both sides suffering setbacks: Bell recently excluded low-income housing specialist John Spear from the witness list at Sterling's request, but the judge had quashed earlier motions to severely limit the scope of the trial. Many of the fights over the evidence will be won or lost during the trial.

Bell's rulings on the evidence might well prove the difference. The defense attorneys don't want the jurors to hear about other toxic releases by Sterling or any other plant, nor do they want them to know about the many environmental violations and fines the company has racked up over the years. Mention of serious long-term health problems from living next to the plant is irrelevant and should also be banned, they argue.

And Sterling desperately wants no mention of Allan Bolen, one of two plant operators on duty in the acrylonitrile unit when the incident occurred, and his history of substance abuse problems and treatment, or his lengthy absences from work before and after the ammonia release. The company also seeks to exclude testimony alleging that the peculiar design of the unit and lack of proper training meant that such an accident was inevitable.

And while Sterling doesn't want Phase Engineering's report entered into evidence at the trial, it apparently respects the firm's work enough that it recently asked Phase if it would be interested in working for Sterling on future projects.

Finally, in a move that may be strictly coincidental, Sterling executed a series of deft financial transactions in August 1996 that had the effect of reducing the company's paper value from $239.3 million to negative $272.4 million. Sterling may argue that this means the company can't afford to pay any damages if the ammonia suits are lost, though the current net worth does not reflect reality, according to accountant Irving Murmel, who analyzed Sterling's public financial records for the plaintiffs. By piecing together the available information, Murmel pegs the actual value of the company at about $600 million. "They have proven what their net worth is," Murmel states. "I'd say it's worth at least that."

The maneuver may have been legitimate, but Sterling is concerned enough about the matter to have asked Judge Bell to prohibit any testimony or evidence "that defendants fraudulently conveyed their assets to another entity because such evidence is not relevant to plaintiffs' alleged injuries."

In its defense, Sterling will likely attack the plaintiffs as trying to take advantage of an honest mistake, exaggerating their claims in order to extort cash from the company. "The way they defend these [suits], as always, is to say 'You represent a bunch of people who are habitual money-makers off us,' " says Nebout.

Selaine Jolly disagrees that the $50 or $100 that residents have collected from Sterling on occasion to clean chemicals off their cars or houses relates to the bigger issue of whether people should live near the plant in the first place. She wants to see Sterling cough up enough in damages to fix the problem once and for all. "I know everybody thinks, 'All they're after is money, they want something for nothing,' " Jolly says. "All I would really like is for my community to have the opportunity to leave."

The children racing across the lawn seem oblivious to the spherical monolith directly across the street from their public housing complex on 4th Avenue South. If the Marathon storage tank ever ruptured or exploded, they would be equally oblivious, because the fire would incinerate them in seconds.

That a public housing project -- as well as a city park, swimming pool and basketball courts -- sits across the street from a refinery angers John Spear, the architect and real estate consultant who was deposed for the lawsuits a-gainst Sterling. "This is the worst proximity [to a hazard] I've ever seen. It's un-conscionable in the absolute extreme."

Fifty years ago, such a location would have been nothing unusual. When the refineries were built, cars were scarce and environmental concerns virtually unknown, and many of the workers lived near the plant gates. Even after the 1947 disaster, residents rebuilt their houses right back up to the fence line.

But over the years the demographics of the area changed as the city expanded. Well-paid workers moved away from the plants to the north and west of town and were replaced by low-income African-Americans and Hispanics. As with many cities around the country, Texas City had a de facto segregation policy until the civil rights movement opened the doors, and for many years minorities could only buy homes south of Texas Avenue. Today, the area directly north of the plants is more than half black and Hispanic, according to census data, with almost 32 percent living below the poverty line. About half of the adult residents never finished high school.

That such a high concentration of poor and minority residents has ended up closest to the petrochemical plants is no accident. The same arrangement seems to attend many toxic zones around the country, including many of the Gulf Coast refining towns such as Pasadena and Corpus Christi. The concentration of hazardous facilities in low-income minority areas has been the subject of much debate the past two decades, even spawning a new phrase to describe it: environmental racism. "As many studies show, there is a disproportionate environmental hazard burden on minority communities in this country," says John Spear.

As in other communities, a number of Texas City residents trapped near the plants by economic circumstance are using the racial equity argument to force companies to either clean up their acts or get the people out. Often with the support of grassroots groups, the residents have filed suit seeking -- and sometimes winning -- millions in damages.

The companies recognize that this issue poses a threat. Arguing in 1994 that Union Carbide should proceed with a greenbelt buyout, manager Jim Hockersmith added the issue to the list of reasons outlined in his proposal to management. "Establishment of a greenbelt would ... lessen the possibility of 'environmental equity' issues (our neighbors are in predominantly black and Hispanic subdivisions)," Hockersmith wrote.

Addressing inequities isn't just the responsibility of Union Carbide or the other plants. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development has guidelines that would prevent any new projects from being built in environmentally sensitive areas, including methods to measure "acceptable separation distances" from explosive materials. "The site you choose should never raise an environmental justice concern," advises one HUD publication.

By any measure, the public housing project violates HUD's guidelines. Andrew Johnson, a HUD environmental expert who works out of the area office in Houston, has said the housing project flunked on the several occasions when his agency calculated the acceptable separation distances from the Marathon tank. Texas City's Goals 2000 plan states that "the city will have to determine the feasibility of relocating its public housing facilities and other facilities."

But neither the feds nor the city have moved to transfer the residents to safer apartments or raise the funds to build a new complex. Instead, the city housing authority has asked for, and won, two grants in the past five years to sink additional money into the project for repairs and renovations.

Asked why the agency would pour additional funds into a project that shouldn't be there, HUD area office head George Rodriguez says that the grants were technically allowable under the rules, even though the agency had the discretion to disapprove the request. The bigger problem, Rodriguez says, is that federal funds for public housing have been slashed in recent years, and the funds don't exist to move the residents elsewhere. Nor will that change anytime soon. "We're sorry to say this is gonna be a very long, cumbersome situation here," Rodriguez says.

That leaves the public housing residents in the same straits as the other residents south of Texas Avenue. And despite the insistence by the companies that life near the plants is perfectly safe, statistics say otherwise. State and federal environmental records show that the Texas City plants have accumulated hundreds of incidents, violations, complaints and fines in the past decade.

For its ammonia release, OSHA initially tagged Sterling with five serious violations and a $25,000 fine before negotiating a milder reprimand. The company's list of incidents includes a release of 193 pounds of hydrogen cyanide the week before the Mother's Day ammonia incident, which earned the company an EPA fine, and an 11,000-pound propane release three months later.

Amoco announced in 1988 that 750,000 barrels of hydrocarbons, including more than 50,000 barrels of benzene, a known carcinogen, had pooled underneath the plant from years of leaks and spills, though plant officials claim that not a drop has seeped under the fence into the neighborhoods. The company doesn't dispute 34 state environmental rules violations from 1990 through 1994, however.

Union Carbide has been cited and fined more than $230,000 by the EPA for various violations seven times since 1991, has polluted the groundwater near its plant and shelled out $400 million in 1993 to settle a pollution suit. State records show 469 incidents at the Carbide plant from 1990 through 1992, including several releases of more than 100,000 pounds.

Those figures don't include the millions of permitted pounds of toxic chemicals belched into the air by the Texas City plants every year.

Still, says Union Carbide's Marcy Boone, the numbers are nothing to worry about, at least not enough to prod the company to buy out the neighborhoods. "We have not had any incidents or potential incidents that would indicate there is an urgency to do that type of project," Boone says.

George Fuller, who heads the city housing authority, agrees. Without some compelling evidence, there's no reason for the authority to hastily move residents elsewhere. "We have no evidence that they're in any danger of anything," Fuller says. "Can you show me some? I don't have any."

On February 12, a gasket failed in the Alky 3 unit at the Amoco refinery, located a short distance from the northern fence line. A cloud of hydrofluoric acid was released into the air -- the same highly corrosive substance that injured 1,000 in the 1987 Marathon release. According to workers who were on the scene, the wind was initially blowing toward town but shifted suddenly and pushed the acid out toward Galveston Bay. Rain kept the material low to the ground, limiting the risk to the workers. Still, two were injured and had to be hospitalized.

Amoco says the release was contained and never posed any threat to the community. But the workers dispute that claim, says OCAW local secretary-treasurer Sonny Sanders. Had the wind not shifted or had it not been raining, Sanders says, the toll could easily have matched or exceeded that of 1987.

"We were lucky," he explains.


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