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.

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Bob Burtman