It was the day after Thanksgiving, and Tamathia Hough and her sister were trading anxious questions about their little brother. After the terrorist attacks he'd been called to active duty by the army, and they hadn't heard anything from him for weeks. Hough tapped out her words in brisk flourishes and waited for the replies, in this latest round of a running Internet chat they started when their phone bills began to get ridiculous.
A blast rang out, and the windows of her Pasadena apartment rattled. Too strong to be a car backfiring, she thought. Probably a flare firing off at the old refinery down the road. She continued talking with her sister online.
Her son, Ricky, and a friend picked themselves up from their video game and scampered outside to see what was going on.
"Mom, Mom, the plant's on fire! The plant's on fire!" the redhead howled upon his return.
Hough shot out the door to find her neighborhood of frame houses and hard-luck apartments converted "into a Godzilla movie," as one homeowner would later put it. Panic-stricken people piled into their cars with none of their possessions and raced away for their lives. Some jumped on bikes and pedaled frantically toward State Highway 225. Others just ran.
Hough had a different instinct. The 34-year-old woman hightailed it toward Crown Central Petroleum to have a look. Sure enough, flames engulfed the plant, sending columns of thick black smoke into the air. She approached a group of patrol cars on Richey Street, presumably there to divert traffic away from the refinery and the Washburn Tunnel beside it. She asked the officers what chemicals were burning and if she should evacuate.
Whatever was coming out of the plant probably wouldn't hurt her, said one. As for what to do, that was up to her.
She was back on her porch on a tense phone call with her husband when a second explosion erupted "like an atomic bomb." It nearly knocked Hough off her feet as flames surged upward, turning the night orange and spreading a wave of heat over the area.
Her husband, a tugboat deckhand, was stuck on the water.
"He was hollering for me to get out," Hough recalls. "How was I supposed to get out when our car was broken down and I had nowhere to go? Everybody left us."
Meanwhile, Ricky had grown hysterical, certain the worst was still to come. The 11-year-old wanted to flee to his "secret clubhouse" on Vince Bayou.
A looming fixture on the landscape for more than 80 years, Crown has been an engine of economic growth for the Pasadena area. It also has plagued its neighbors with sporadic explosions, spills and a steady stream of pungent sulfur compounds that can make breathing a bitter chore. Many view the spewing, sputtering refinery the way others might look upon a grumbling volcano: They're never quite sure when it's going to blow.
The same month as the Thanksgiving explosions, the company had settled a groundbreaking clean-air suit with environmentalists and residents, an agreement that included the largest air pollution penalty ever assessed by the state. A broad coalition of fed-up people challenged the powerful industry and goaded regulators into protecting public health.
Crown was supposed to have changed. But a recent rash of mishaps has made some wonder if they can ever make this company run safely. The refinery's dismal record raises questions about the uneasy coexistence of private homes and heavy industry, a crucial dilemma for an area that marches to the beat of free enterprise yet today struggles with some of the nation's worst pollution, says Rice University sociologist Stephen Klineberg.
"The idea that it's okay to reduce my profits and add to my cost of doing business for some liberal collective interest -- that's as far away from the old [Houston-area mentality] as you can get," Klineberg says. "Now the business community doesn't quite control it anymore They've got to deal with minority communities; they've got to deal with neighborhoods. Other people are at the table."
At a safer distance from the unfolding chaos on November 23, public safety officials also felt a sense of helpless frustration. They had fielded calls from alarmed residents but had heard nothing from Crown. That silence made it impossible to determine what emergency protocols to employ. Should they sound sirens? Post messages on radio and television? What would they say? Some 20 minutes passed before the company reported that it had blown up.
"That's a long time for people in a state of panic not knowing what to do," says Michael Massey, assistant for public safety to Pasadena Mayor John Manlove.
Massey, by his own admission, was unaware that Crown sits on city property and not in a deannexed industrial zone like other companies. Knowing this would in theory have given the fire department and other city personnel more options to respond, Massey says, but the reality is that Crown, like other refineries, has its own emergency response teams, and the city provides backup only as needed.
Jack Jones, the plant's environmental manager, finally called from his home at 8:20 p.m. to alert officials that a liquefied petroleum gas unit had exploded. Beyond that, he had "very little information," a Harris County Pollution Control notification record says.
Tamathia Hough and son Ricky endured another half-hour of waiting before a friend arrived and took them to Houston for the night. Crown would have one more explosion before the volatile fuel feeding the blaze was spent around 3 a.m. One person, a Crown emergency worker, received minor burns, according to company officials.
Randy Trembly, the Crown executive vice president who heads the refinery, says that the irony of the event is that it happened during a maintenance procedure intended to minimize emissions. Just that day Crown had notified the county that it was looking for the cause of a smoking flare. The expected impact of that upkeep, according to the report, was "none."
"It's so heartbreaking," Trembly says. "We were trying to be environmentally proactive."
It would be several weeks before an investigation would disclose the blunders that caused Crown's latest disaster.
Crown Oil & Refining Company opened shop along the Houston Ship Channel at a time when oil was fast becoming the region's defining industry. The year was 1920, and Pasadena was a farming community dominated by a handful of founding families. The new plant sat amid the vast fields of strawberries that had been the community's lifeblood up till then.
The company played a dominant role in the community from the beginning. Crown officials formed a crucial voting bloc during Pasadena's successful bid to incorporate in 1928. During the Great Depression, Crown and six other companies, including Phillips Petroleum, virtually kept the school district afloat. By attracting workers to the area, these businesses spawned population growth and created real estate markets.
"We appreciated and welcomed all the development, and of course it helped all of Houston," says 79-year-old Clyde Pomeroy, a retired oilman whose family came to Pasadena in the early 1900s and prospered drilling water wells. As a young man, Pomeroy worked at Crown, manufacturing high-octane fuel for World War II aircraft.
Today Crown is an image of boilers, reactors, towers and tall, steaming stacks along a dreary stretch of Red Bluff Road. The facility covers 174 acres amid some of the most heavily industrialized real estate in the world.
Refining crude into fuels like gas, diesel and heating oil is a messy undertaking, even if Crown's production capacity -- approximately 100,000 barrels a day -- is modest compared to giants like Exxon Mobil's Baytown complex, with its half-million-barrel output. Crude contains a variety of sulfuric materials that must be removed. How to deal with the reeking, unhealthy by-products has long been a vexing question for the industry.
Some 18 toxic substances are used or generated in Crown's round-the-clock refining processes, including hydrogen fluoride, a chemical corrosive enough to dissolve glass. Tons of emissions, some damaging to health in high enough quantities, get released into the air.
Long before there was an Environmental Protection Agency, a Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission or a Harris County Pollution Control, there was the conscience of a refinery's operators to decide how much of what got dumped when and where. Such choices pitted the interest in keeping the peace with the neighbors against the imperatives of a company's bottom line.
Bob Cunningham, senior vice president of Dallas-based energy consultants Turner, Mason & Co., was the engineer in charge of a Mississippi refinery in the 1960s. He says his crews used to drop fish into the canals flowing from the plant to make sure they could survive. If the fish went belly up, they knew something was "awry" and made adjustments to their operations.
"We were committed to being a good corporate citizen and having the plant be an asset to the community," says the 66-year-old Rice graduate.
Longtime Pasadena dwellers like Pomeroy recall plenty of fierce smells from the paper mills and petrochemical plants. But that was the price of development, he says, even if it ultimately cost the Houston area the quality of its air.
"There was never any resentment," he says. "We never complained."
Like a generation of smokers that blithely puffed away before learning the downside of the habit, people in high-pollution areas gradually came to learn that inhaling sulfur dioxide, particulate matter and other industrial emissions on a regular basis wasn't all that healthy. The change in attitude was not sudden, says Cunningham, but rather evolved out of the 1960s and 1970s, when most of the landmark clean air and water legislation was passed, and agencies like the EPA came into being.
As regulations evolved, plants found themselves being scrutinized in ways that were unimaginable in the freewheeling days of yore. There were inspections and tedious reports. Companies had to maintain mountains of monitoring data. Sometimes they were forced to produce cleaner fuels and to invest in efficient technology. An ornery old-timer like Crown flailed like a captive crocodile under the regimen. More often than not, it found ways to slip through holes in the regulatory net.
"Recurring emissions and recurring plant malfunctions clearly indicate the need for adequate backup equipment, better training and a corporate commitment that apparently does not exist," wrote Harris County Pollution Control manager Darhl Ferraro in 1999. "We know of no other refinery with such an egregious history of problems as Crown."
Amid the construction companies, shuttered storefronts, gun center and other colorless buildings in old Pasadena stands the brick courthouse annex that is home to Harris County Pollution Control. The location here in the provinces gives the agency's 50-member staff a leg up in responding to complaints about the Ship Channel industries. Investigators need only step out onto their rooftop and peer northward, past Little Vince Bayou, a railroad spur and a thicket of power lines to find Crown Central Petroleum, about a half-mile away.
Since 1990, pollution control has issued 45 violation notices to Crown for a variety of infractions, from nuisance odors to coke and oil spills in nearby waterways. Only once, however, did it refer a case to the county or district attorney. And that case -- a predawn blizzard of alumina silica catalyst that covered downwind yards, homes and vehicles with 20 tons of the sandlike material -- was too dramatic let pass. (The office of then-D.A. Johnny Holmes deemed it a weak criminal case and did not pursue litigation, says Jennifer Wheeler, pollution control's enforcement coordinator.)
Rather than come down too hard on polluters, the agency prefers to let companies take corrective action on their own, says director Rob Barrett.
"One of the things we try to do here is not get crosswise with companies," Barrett says. "We try to keep good relations to maximize what good we can do."
Pollution control is the first tier of a regulatory system that includes the TNRCC and, to a lesser extent, the EPA, which tends to delegate enforcement of federal laws to the states. A shortage of inspectors, combined with the reluctance of politicians to give the agencies any real bite, has made the Houston area a haven for polluters, says Neil Carman, the clean air director for the Sierra Club in Texas.
"The agencies don't have enough manpower," Carman says. "But you can't totally blame the agencies."
For years, regulators and Crown have been locked in a cat-and-mouse game rigged in industry's favor. Texas allows facilities to exceed pollution limits if an emission is deemed unplanned and not preventable -- an "upset," in bureaucratic parlance. While the term is meant to apply to events such as explosions, tank ruptures and other unforeseen disruptions, Crown has blamed tons of excess emissions on purportedly unavoidable breakdowns in operations.
"Of course you're going to say it's an upset. Why? Because you don't have to meet any emissions limit," says Paul Newman, an environmental coordinator with pollution control.
Old facilities such as Crown's Pasadena refinery benefit from another provision in the law favorable to polluters. Plants in existence before the Texas Clean Air Act of 1971 were exempted from a permit requirement mandating that facilities use the best available controls to cut pollution. Only if these grandfathered facilities added significant new sources of emissions would they need permits.
About 40 percent of the 3,210 tons of five major pollutants emitted by Crown in 1999 were from grandfathered sources, according to the TNRCC.
"The grandfathered facilities have gotten a huge, huge break, and it's one of the reasons why Houston continues to have massive pollution problems," Carman says.
Officials at Crown, which got slapped with a $455,825 fine in 1991 for increasing pollution without seeking a permit or an exemption, contend that its emissions pale in comparison to a plant like Exxon Mobil's Baytown refinery, with its more than 17,000 tons of total emissions.
"If Crown didn't exist, it wouldn't change the Houston pollution issue one little bit," says spokesman Bruce Hicks.
By the early 1990s the majority of Crown's units were under permits, placing limits on emissions. Crown began to rack up an astounding record of violations, particularly for sulfur dioxide, a "damaging" pollutant that impairs breathing, according to the American Lung Association. Despite thousands of hours of violations of levels established by the EPA to protect the public, Crown officials insist their plant's pollution has had no serious health consequences.
"Although we've had violations of permit standards, we do not have a situation where [regulators] are determining levels of substances that even come close to meeting the standards that endanger health," Trembly says.
Those residing near Crown have learned to live with the smell of sulfur dioxide wafting from the refinery, a distinct burned-match odor that leads some to tag their hometown "Stinkadena." Individuals like Javier Castillo believe their health has been affected. Sitting in the Mexican restaurant he owns on Pasadena Boulevard following the lunch-hour mayhem, the friendly 38-year-old says he is plagued by allergies that disappear whenever he leaves town for an extended period. His two-year-old has asthma.
"When you go to the bathroom it smells bad, but you don't get sick from that," he says. "But if you live in the restroom all day long "
Crown's many years of spewing noxious stuff onto the community had earned it a buildup of ill will. The smoldering frustration among residents needed only a spark to make it explode.
When Rick Abraham popped up in Pasadena in early 1997, Crown Central Petroleum officials had little idea that the activist would hound them for years and force them to change. The 52-year-old, who fought for desegregation in the Mississippi of his youth, doesn't recall the exact date he learned of the troubles in Pasadena. It was around the time his nonprofit Texans United was winding down a clean-water case against Exxon Mobil.
Abraham pored over Crown's data and discovered more than 10,000 hours of Clean Air Act violations for sulfur dioxide and the fuel gas standard for hydrogen sulfide (which becomes sulfur dioxide in combustion processes). Looking to meet with the families living near Crown, he posted English- and Spanish-language flyers in the neighborhood asking, "Are you sick and tired of breathing POLLUTED and BAD SMELLING AIR?"
The presence of 40 or so people in the cafeteria-sized meeting room at the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers International union hall provided an answer. At Abraham's request, Crown sent a representative who caused a stir by bringing a cameraman to videotape the proceedings. Residents wanted to talk, not perform.
The distrust was mutual. Company officials believed that Abraham wasn't the environmentalist he said he was but rather a shill for the union, which was in the midst of a nasty labor dispute with Crown. The company had locked out 252 unionized employees 15 months earlier, accusing them of acts of "sabotage" in the plant amid stalled contract talks. The AFL-CIO retaliated by putting the company on its boycott list. Days before meeting the Pasadena residents, Abraham had confronted Crown's chairman at a shareholders' meeting in Maryland. The fact that he now was holding his gathering at the Local 4-227 hall only confirmed Crown's fears.
"Did you know that Texans United was paid by the union to create environmental issues during the labor campaign?" asks spokesman Hicks.
Abraham freely admits that he received a contribution from the union but says his crusade against the company began independently of the labor dispute. He wanted to see union members return to work to reverse what he saw as worsening pollution under inexperienced replacement workers.
"We were natural allies," he says.
In May 1997, Texans United, the Sierra Club, the Natural Resources Defense Council and a handful of Pasadena residents served Crown with a notice of intent to sue for violations of the Clean Air Act. The coalition was represented by the Washington, D.C.-based Trial Lawyers for Public Justice.
Things started heating up for Crown on a variety of fronts. In June, scores of Pasadena residents sued the company, alleging that its operations had caused ill health, severe emotional distress and reduction in property values. The company also got hit with a federal discrimination suit by female and African-American employees from its Pasadena and Tyler refineries.
The suit contemplated by Abraham and his coalition was made possible under the federal Clean Air Act, which gives citizens legal recourse if they find that regulators are failing to uphold the law. In a move that environmentalists suspected was designed to preempt their suit, the TNRCC in July notified Crown that it would begin an enforcement action if the company did not address violations uncovered during an inspection five months earlier.
"Crown basically begged the TNRCC to slap them in the face and get an enforcement action going. Maybe they thought they could get a better deal," Carman says. TNRCC lawyer Lisa Dyar says talks with Crown had commenced before the environmentalists threatened the company with litigation.
The intervention of the TNRCC did indeed derail the lawsuit filed in the court of U.S. District Judge Vanessa Gilmore. On August 3, 1998, Gilmore dismissed the suit, ruling that it would be "duplicative and potentially disruptive" because the TNRCC was pursuing action against the company.
Abraham groused about a "sweetheart deal."
The TNRCC wasn't winning much praise from its colleagues in the regulatory community. In July 1998, the agency and Crown agreed on a $677,000 fine and actions to get the plant into compliance. Abraham, who estimated that Crown had gained some $14 million in economic benefit by polluting and not upgrading equipment, prodded the EPA to intervene.
"Every day that EPA delays taking action against Crown means that more Pasadena residents are exposed to unhealthful levels of sulfur dioxide," he wrote in a July 13, 1998, letter to the agency's regional administrator, Gregg Cooke.
Cooke passed on concerns of his own to the TNRCC's general counsel.
"The Agreed Order fails to reflect the economic benefit that Crown has gained through its years of noncompliance," Cooke wrote on July 23. "Because Crown Central has repeatedly demonstrated its disregard for state enforcement action, only penalties of sufficient size will ensure Crown Central's full compliance in the future."
Cooke believed a joint federal-state legal action against Crown was the best way to get the company into compliance and "bolster public confidence in both EPA and TNRCC's ability to work together to effectively address an important problem." The TNRCC preferred administrative action. The agency took heed of the criticism and stepped up the penalty to $1,055,425, the largest fine for air pollution in Texas. In addition to the fine, Crown was ordered to hire two independent consulting firms to study the troubled refinery and recommend pollution-cutting measures.
Hicks, the Crown spokesman, watched these developments in horror. He says that a "smear campaign" by the union was driving all of the actions of the various groups and agencies.
"No question about it," he says. "A corporate campaign is essentially a public smear campaign designed to create so much grief for the company that it says, 'Enough is enough. Okay, we give. We're not going to fight you anymore Leave us the fuck alone.' "
In April 2000, the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed Judge Gilmore's decision to dismiss the environmental lawsuit. The conservative court found that the administrative action by the TNRCC did not preclude Texans United from seeking relief and penalties.
Abraham felt duly vindicated, and dug in for a courtroom fight.
"We were very, very pleased," he says. "It showed what real citizen power is all about."
By last year Crown seemed eager to put out the fires threatening investor confidence. In January the company signed a contract with its workers, ending a 59-month lockout. The next month Crown agreed to settle with Texans United and the other plaintiffs. The $1.6 million settlement included the $1.06 million already assessed by the state.
The agreement, approved by Judge Gilmore in November, included the provision that Crown give $100,000 to Harris County Pollution Control to buy new monitoring equipment. Part of that money will go to local residents to use bucketlike devices to keep tabs on Crown and other plants.
Pollution control, which played an active role in negotiations to get Crown to clean up, created a special link on its Web site devoted to Crown's upsets. The move temporarily placed the refinery under an even brighter spotlight. But when the company complained about being singled out, pollution control backed down and removed the information.
Executive Vice President Trembly thinks Crown's record has been distorted. "But rather than try to dwell on that and prove that, I really want to emphasize the progress we've made," he says.
They could have simply burned the liquefied petroleum gas in a flare, and nobody would have been any the wiser or worse off, says spokesman Bruce Hicks. But in their redoubled effort to be "ultraconservative on any environmental question," the Crown people decided to collect the fuel and store it.
Emptying the tank of the LPG, a mixture of butane and propane, on November 23 was a piece of scheduled maintenance. The procedure entailed pumping water into the tank to flush the volatile fuel into a holding vessel. Four contract workers were given the straightforward task of connecting the pump.
The company admits that the connection to the tank "failed" during the pumping, allowing the highly pressurized gas to seep out. The gas found a source of ignition, and the first of the night's three explosions jolted the plant.
"It's a mechanical device, and it failed," Hicks says. "Why it failed will be determined by the OSHA investigation."
However, an internal investigation report obtained by the Houston Press shows that the company knows more about what happened. Based on 20 witness accounts and assorted data, the investigation reached a stark conclusion: The contractors got the pump connections backward. Specifically, they attached the pump's larger suction hose to the tank and the smaller hose to the water source, when it should have been the other way around. The equipment was left unwatched for prolonged stretches of time.
A refinery worker who declined to be named says the reliance on inexperienced contractors endangers everyone in the plant and beyond.
"If there had been experienced people out there, it never would have happened," the worker says.
Less than two weeks after the November disaster, another incident shook Crown, this one lacking the spectacular pyrotechnics, but providing personnel with a good chill nonetheless. A worker opened a valve and accidentally released hydrogen fluoride, a supercorrosive chemical used to make cleaner fuel. It's the same stuff that sent more than 1,000 people to the hospital and forced the evacuation of several thousand more after a chemical tank ruptured in Texas City in 1987.
"It's not a nice chemical to have around," says Maria Morandi, a professor of environmental sciences at the University of Texas-Houston Health Science Center. "It dissolves glass. It's that corrosive."
Six workers were taken to the hospital "as a precaution," according to Trembly. They were released the same day.
No longer a harbinger of prosperity or a leading voice in civic affairs, Crown is starting to make some Pasadena officials nervous.
"I have a genuine concern about it," says Mayor Manlove. "We have other facilities here that deal with chemicals every bit as volatile that aren't having these incidents."
The first-term mayor, an adman by trade, worries that repeat industrial accidents tarnish the city's reputation. Fond of pointing out that there is a lot more to Pasadena than refineries, Manlove chafes against the perception that the city of more than 125,000 people is an industrial wasteland.
"I look at things from a marketing perspective, and I see how Pasadena gets portrayed repeatedly," he says with evident frustration.
Crown still has boosters in the town, reflecting its long ties to the area and substantial impact on the economy. The refinery has roughly 280 salaried and hourly employees and 50 contract workers. In 2001, Crown paid nearly $165,000 in taxes and fees to the city.
"Pasadena, as you know it now, is here because of those chemical plants," says Bill McCoy, president of the chamber of commerce. "[T]hose companies can close, and they can go overseas."
Like McCoy, Crown's Trembly employs a which-came-first logic to silence critics.
"We've been here since 1917," he says. "So we've been here before the other refineries were here. We've been here before a lot of the neighbors you're talking about were here To the extent that they elected to be neighbors when they came here, you can be sure that since they came here our emissions have gotten better."
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.
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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Somehow the Houghs slept through the latest blast. By then they had moved into a new apartment less than a mile from Crown, enabling Ricky to go to the same school with minimal disruption to his routine. Tamathia Hough has developed a fatalistic perspective on their neighbor.
"If you're going to die, you're going to die," she says. She wishes the world could return to the days of horses and wagons. But since that won't happen anytime soon, she says, people ought to clean up their own messes and not fixate on refineries like Crown.
"The way I feel about plants is they're always going to be there, so people have to deal with it," she says.
"Until we run out of fossil fuels," chimes in Ricky.