This story was awarded a 2014 James Aronson Award for Social Justice Journalism. Judges honored it for exposing "how the oil industry wreaks havoc on the environment and health of a predominantly poor, African American community."
If you splinter off the interstate from Houston into the inky dark of the sloughs and bayous surrounding Texas State Highway 73, you will eventually emerge on the outskirts of Port Arthur and into the otherworldly light of one of the world’s largest oil refinery complexes. To the north and east is the 3,600-acre Motiva plant, a joint project of Shell Oil and Saudi Aramco; to the west is a 4,000-acre plant owned by Texas-based Valero. Together the two facilities refine more than 900,000 barrels of crude per day. Shrouded in billows of smoke and bathed in the radiance of round-the-clock floodlights and the molten glow of gas flares, their towers seem to rise on clouds of fire, suggesting a floating megalopolis that sprawls in all directions toward more refineries and petrochemical plants, toward the lighted cranes and petroleum coke conveyers that line the shipping channel, and away to hazardous waste incinerators and dump sites in the distance.
On one side of Terminal Road, the long, angling track that borders these facilities, is a chain-link fence and a berm made of buried pipelines that occasionally sprout from the hillside into aboveground shutoff valves and standpipes. Overhead, cameras placed atop a straight seam of street lamps provide a constant feed to guards in their nearby trucks, ever alert for signs of vandalism or trespass. On the other side of the road is West Port Arthur: an overwhelmingly African American community of churches, shotgun shacks, and several complexes of low-slung, barracks-like brick row houses—public (or public-assisted) housing meant for those who can’t afford to live anywhere else.
The oldest and closest of these complexes is Carver Terrace. In 1952, Port Arthur’s white town fathers took public housing dollars from Washington and erected these apartments directly on the refineries’ fence. They followed up soon thereafter by building two more projects. Within five years, roughly a third of West Port Arthur’s 1,500 households were in public housing, and there were only seven white families in the whole community. To this day, it remains roughly 95 percent African American. And as West Port Arthur’s enormous refineries have spewed forth benzene, carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, and other pollutants—permitted or unpermitted—for more than six decades, the effects of these emissions, then, have been experienced disproportionately by African Americans.
Some local officials excuse the stench given off by those emissions as the smell of money, but the residents of Carver Terrace reap no economic rewards from the refineries. While the oil and gas industry accounted for almost 7 percent of new jobs created nationwide between 2005 and 2011, Port Arthur’s unemployment rate nearly doubled over that same span. Though it sits barely a hundred yards from some of the most profitable oil and gas complexes in the world, Carver Terrace is utterly cut off from any of the benefits they might yield. Residents of West Port Arthur—those who can find work—earn half what the average Texan makes. In the wee hours, when a shift ends at the refineries, taillights race up the highway toward Winnie or Nederland or other predominantly white suburbs, taking with them whatever prosperity these facilities confer locally.
But even worse than the economic inequity is the documented health effect on West Port Arthur residents, who have been regularly and repeatedly subjected to major emissions events—what the refining industry euphemistically terms “upsets.” I was drawn to Port Arthur, in part, by a video posted to YouTube by Hilton Kelley, a local environmental and community activist. It shows no fewer than eight enormous towers spewing huge flags of orange fire and thick, black smoke into the sky over West Port Arthur, the result of a brief outage at a sub-station owned by Entergy Texas, a local power provider. Without the benefit of an independent power grid or a sufficient backup system, the coking units at various refineries had powered down and filled with dangerous gas; to restart after a blackout event like that, these refineries had to “flare off” huge quantities of toxic emissions. As the refineries came back online, flaring for more than an hour, the sky turned murky, then dark. It looked like nightfall. But near the end of the video—which otherwise records only the calls of mourning doves and other songbirds—Kelley can be heard stating calmly: “April the 14th, 2013. Time now about 10:30 a.m.”
When I contacted him about coming to Port Arthur, Kelley told me that the event wasn’t unusual. Indeed, in the weeks before I visited in late June, a steady stream of incidents made the local news: a reserve oil tank was struck by lightning and the resulting fire spread, causing explosions and dotting the horizon with black plumes; a spill of fuel oil at the Motiva refinery caused an emissions release; a pair of unspecified events at Valero’s incinerators led to what the company called “excess carbon monoxide emissions.” (In mid-July, both Motiva and Valero announced partial shutdowns to address the problems.)
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Toxics Release Inventory places Jefferson County among the very worst in the nation for air releases of chemicals known to cause cancer, birth defects, and reproductive disorders. In a state that regularly records in excess of 2,500 toxic emissions events per year, Port Arthur is near the top of the list of offending cities. Data collected by the Texas Cancer Registry indicates that cancer rates among African Americans in Jefferson County are roughly 15 percent higher than they are for the average Texan. Shockingly, the mortality rate from cancer is more than 40 percent higher. And cancer is only part of the story. A study by the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston found that residents of Port Arthur were four times more likely than people just 100 miles upwind to report suffering from heart and respiratory conditions; nervous system and skin disorders; headaches and muscle aches; and ear, nose, and throat ailments.
The reason is simple: this is where many Americans get their oil and gas. Yet despite Port Arthur’s importance to our fuel-dependent way of life, few people have ever heard of it. Of those who have, many know the city as little more than a name that gets repeated in countless articles about the Keystone XL pipeline. Should the final phase of the project be approved, Port Arthur will be the completed pipeline system’s terminus. The city’s refineries stand at the ready to turn 830,000 barrels per day of diluted, chemically treated bitumen into heavy diesel and petroleum coke—a dirtier alternative to coal.
Jefferson County, Texas, is among the very worst in the nation for air releases of chemicals known to cause cancer, birth defects, and reproductive disorders.
Kelley has become a prominent figure in the anti-pipeline movement. He spoke at last February’s Forward on Climate Rally in Washington, D.C., and addressed the International Forum for a Sustainable Development at UNESCO headquarters in Paris in June. But he has also passionately urged politicians and activists to visit Port Arthur so they might see for themselves how this sliver of the Gulf Coast is suffering doubly as its legacy of pollution and toxic emissions combines with the effects of climate change, such as rising sea levels and increasingly powerful hurricanes.
According to Robert Bullard, a man considered by many to be the father of the environmental justice movement (and currently the dean of the Barbara Jordan–Mickey Leland School of Public Affairs at Texas Southern University, in Houston), the heavy concentration of African Americans in the shadow of the city’s refineries may be especially egregious, but it is hardly unique. In Texas, where 12 percent of the population is African American, people of color make up more than 66 percent of residents near the state’s most hazardous waste sites. When the focus is widened to consider the whole of the EPA’s Region 6—an area that includes Texas and all contiguous states—the numbers remain virtually the same.
In March of this year, however, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) finally approved the Port Arthur Housing Authority’s plan to level Carver Terrace and relocate residents to a new complex to be built on the northern side of town, farther from the refineries. But after years of battling city hall for better housing, many of these residents now wonder if moving a mile or two away will be enough to restore their health. When it comes down to it, all of Port Arthur is a “fence-line community,” the term environmental justice advocates use to describe neighborhoods adjacent to hazardous facilities. Pressed up against the Louisiana state line, the city is downwind of nearly every coastal refinery in Texas, the last in a chain of cities making up a Beaumont-Orange-Port Arthur metropolitan area so crowded with industry that, from the air, it appears to burn yellow.
How far, the residents of Carver Terrace want to know, would they have to go before they could honestly feel as if they had escaped to something like safety?
“I was born out here at 1202 E,” Hilton Kelley said, pointing to one building among the rows and rows of identical structures at Carver Terrace. “I was born by a midwife. I mean, literally, born out here.” The sun was blistering, but Kelley guided me around with the patience of a docent. Along the way, he paused to make sure that residents were making their arrangements for moving out, now that Carver Terrace’s demolition appeared imminent.
“Yes, yes,” said Erma Lee Smith. She assured Kelley that she was making arrangements, but she also admitted to being worried about a city council meeting scheduled for that evening. City council members would be voting on a tax credit requested by one of the contractors working on the new public housing complex. Kelley ducked into the shade of Smith’s stoop to explain to her that the vote was just a formality, a necessary and near-final step in the lengthy process that would lead to relocation. Port Arthur had already secured $20.5 million from HUD and other sources, he said. There was simply no way the city would ever risk losing that kind of cash infusion.
Smith was visibly relieved. The 80-year-old has been at Carver Terrace since 1978, living for much of that time in a building at the northwestern corner of the complex barely 20 yards from the berm on the other side of Terminal Road. She smelled gas emissions on a regular basis, she said, and spoke of one recent explosion that was close enough to rattle her windows. Every time something happened, she told me, she had trouble catching her breath. For all of the years she has lived at Carver Terrace, she has depended day and night on a respirator—what she calls her “breathing machine”—to inhale Albuterol, which eases the coughing and tightness in her chest that comes from her severe bronchitis. One of her daughters uses the same treatment, she said; another daughter and a son both have asthma. “You take a good whiff, you can smell the petroleum,” Kelley told me later. “It smells like tar all the time. When I first started coming around here and met Miss Erma Lee, I was like, ‘Dang, everybody out here has to use respiratory medication.’”
Kelley was raised in and around Carver Terrace. He managed to escape its gravity for nearly two decades, after joining the Navy and later moving to Oakland, California, where he started and ran a home maintenance and repair business. But when he returned to Port Arthur in 2000 for a Mardi Gras celebration, he was shocked by the deteriorated state of his hometown. Within a year he had moved back and founded an organization he named the Community In-Power & Development Association (CIDA). He resolved to take the fight directly to the powers that be, training citizens to measure levels of toxicity in the air, filing lawsuits against illegal polluters, and crashing shareholder meetings to protest corporate indifference.
Kelley has scored some major victories. In 2003 he succeeded in getting the Texas Commission on Environmental Equality to block a permit for a project at Premcor (the predecessor to Valero), which would have added 525 tons of emissions into the air. He drew national attention to a massive unpermitted release—more than 125 tons of toxic chemicals—from the Motiva plant in that same year, forcing the commission to take action. And in 2008 he persuaded the EPA not to grant the hazardous-waste-management company Veolia a special permit to incinerate 20,000 tons of liquid PCBs imported from its sister company in Monterey, Mexico. In honor of his efforts, Kelley was awarded the Goldman Environmental Prize in 2011 and even met with President Obama at the White House.
But Kelley has also encountered fierce opposition. At one 2003 meeting between CIDA and Premcor executives in the Beaumont offices of U.S. Representative Nick Lampson, a Democrat, the congressman floated the idea of organizing a town hall gathering so corporate leaders might better hear the concerns of the people living in and around Carver Terrace. According to Kelley, the Premcor plant manager in attendance agreed—but not before saying that he didn’t want “to go into a situation where people are going to be acting like a bunch of monkeys.” In 2007 Kelley led a citizens’ lawsuit claiming that the Veolia plant, which had incinerated nearly two million gallons of VX hydrolysate (a toxic by-product created when weapons-grade nerve gas is neutralized), had no measures in place to determine if the agent had been emitted into the air. Port Arthur’s then-mayor, Oscar Ortiz, told one local newspaper that Kelley was “full of crap” and told another that Kelley was “a clown and a loser just trying to get attention for himself.”
The biggest knock on Kelley may be that bad things have kept happening in Port Arthur, whether he was talking about them or not. In 2007, four years after the major toxic-chemicals release at the Motiva plant, Carver Terrace was overwhelmed by an emissions event at the Valero facility that sent dozens of people to the hospital. Three years later, the Exxon-chartered oil tanker Eagle Otome collided with a barge, spilling 462,000 gallons of crude oil into the nearby Sabine-Neches Canal and forcing the evacuation of 136 Port Arthur residents.
But it’s not the highly publicized releases that are the greatest problem; it’s the steady, routine release of toxic chemicals that never makes the papers. An investigation conducted last year by the Environmental Integrity Project found that levels of benzene and other volatile organic compounds released from Port Arthur’s refinery stacks were actually 10 times higher than were being reported. Nonetheless, for thousands of people who grew up in the housing complexes of West Port Arthur, the place still exerts the powerful pull of home. “I can see my great-grandmother, with her flowered dress on and her parasol, walking down this middle aisle right here,” Kelley said to me as he gestured toward the long sidewalk that runs through Carver Terrace. “In a way, I’m going to really hate to see it go, because a lot of my history is here. But it should have been gone years ago. And my history is all over this town now.”
* * *
The state of Texas first became an oil powerhouse with the eruption of the Lucas gusher at the Spindletop oil field in Beaumont in 1901. Two speculators, the Gulf Refining Company and the Guffey Petroleum Company, built their refineries on the coast. (Later the two companies would merge into a single entity known as Gulf Oil.) Around the same time, the Texas Fuel Company—later known as Texaco—built its own refinery next door. Port Arthur, which had been founded a few years before as a shipping port and rail-line terminus, suddenly became the center of the American oil boom, and for decades much of the nation’s crude wound up in Gulf Coast refineries.
In the years right after World War II, the town was flooded with African American roustabouts and roughnecks drawn from all over Louisiana and East Texas. Downtown Port Arthur and the neighboring communities of West Port Arthur and Port Acres hummed with barbecue pits and seafood boils, brothels and gambling parlors, nightclubs and juke joints. By day a Louisiana transplant named Clifton Chenier drove a truck at the Gulf refinery, but at night he was the King of Zydeco at the Blue Moon Club. Touring blues acts like Big Joe Turner could sell out Bluchie’s Paradise for a week solid. Black-owned nightclubs stretched along West Gulfway and up and down Houston Avenue, many boasting 24-hour bar service.
In late 1953 a labor strike against city merchants was portrayed by anti-labor interests as a joint effort by Communists and African Americans to take over the city. One propaganda pamphlet, distributed statewide, pictured white women together on the picket lines with black men, its caption warning: “They drink from the same bottles and smoke the same cigarets.” The following year the U.S. Supreme Court handed down its ruling in Brown v. Board of Education, forcing the integration of public schools and signaling the end of formal segregation across the South. The result of these back-to-back events was slow but steady white flight from Port Arthur to the neighboring suburbs.
Then, in the late 1960s, the oil boom began to wane. The city, already struggling mightily, couldn’t withstand the damage. Everyone who could move out of Port Arthur did—and fast. They left behind a ghost town, abandoned and boarded up, hurricane-lashed and rotting from the inside. The once-grand Sabine Hotel, built in the 1920s and for many years the city’s tallest building, is today a 10-story brick skeleton, most of its windows blown out and its ground floor enclosed by a plywood barricade promising (as it has for years, I’m told) that “Port Arthur’s Redevelopment Begins Here.” The doors to Port Arthur Savings, with its soaring marble columns and brass handrails, are chained. The old Federal Building is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, but its tall, arched windows are boarded all the way to their keystones. The stucco facade of the World Trade Building is peeling off like old wallpaper—and where slabs of concrete and rebar have crashed onto the street, the police have merely cordoned off the area with yellow tape. The city has looked this way for so long now that few seem to notice.
When residents from Port Arthur’s public housing complexes, including Erma Lee Smith, arrived at the city council chambers on the evening of June 25, along with executives from the Port Arthur Housing Authority, many of them wore yellow T-shirts emblazoned with the slogan “Vote Yes for Better Housing.” They filled the front rows, expectantly awaiting the vote Hilton Kelley had said would mark one of the last bureaucratic hurdles in the path of their deliverance from Carver Terrace.
They were in for a surprise. As soon as the tax-credit issue arose, Councilmember Raymond Scott Jr., representing the district where the new public housing complex is to be erected, voiced his objection. Twenty-six percent of his constituents who lived near the proposed site, he said, had signed a petition in opposition. His own opposition, he suggested, stemmed from the fact that the housing project’s developer had asked the city for a $15,000 tax credit.
Never mind that the city of Port Arthur already has at least 23 different industrial tax agreements with local refineries and chemical plants. Never mind that, by almost any accounting, the city has delayed or set aside the collection of tens of millions of dollars in tax revenue from the petroleum industry. Motiva, to cite just one example, began work on a $3.5 billion expansion of its facilities in 2007, but didn’t pay additional taxes on the expansion until 2010. According to Kelley, that abatement cost Port Arthur schools $3.6 million per year. In return, Motiva donated to each school in the district $1,000—a negligible sum, Kelley notes, but enough to buy executives photo ops with local schoolchildren. (“There are always pictures in the news with a little child pointing to a test tube,” Kelley said at the time. “The refinery guy is standing over him with a smile, like he sponsored this whole project.”) Never mind that Councilman Scott’s father was once the head of the local chapter of the NAACP, or that Rev. Raymond Scott Avenue runs near Carver Terrace and the old Lincoln High School—the last high school in West Port Arthur, now shuttered for lack of funds.
Never mind any of that. The councilman declared that “this city cannot afford to continue giving tax credits,” and because of his objection, the resolution was—for the moment, at least—tabled. No near-final hurdles would be cleared that night. The people in the yellow T-shirts stormed out of the chambers.
Outside, Erma Lee Smith was in no mood to talk. She clung to the handrail at the foot of the steps and climbed into a transport van as soon as it arrived. But Kelley was openly furious. A Port Arthur city councilman (and an African American one, at that), someone whose sympathies with the residents of Carver Terrace should have been beyond doubt, had just publicly made the argument that denying a $15,000 tax credit was more important than ensuring public health. It is one thing to be mistreated by the oil industry and its powerful allies. It’s quite another thing, Kelley said sadly, when “we do it to our own damn selves.”
“People look at us as expendable,” he continued. “They say, ‘Statistically speaking, only a small minority of people are going to be impacted.’ But the people they’re talking about are Port Arthurians. My town is not expendable. We’re living, breathing human beings who deserve a better quality of life than what we’re getting.”
* * *
The next day, and the day after that, and then the day after that, Erma Lee Smith refused to talk to me. She wouldn’t come to the phone when her granddaughter told her I was on the line, and she either wasn’t home or wouldn’t answer the door when I knocked. I tried for days, but apparently she was done talking.
And the embarrassing truth is this: when I stood at Miss Erma Lee’s front door and no one stirred inside, when no one even lifted a slat to peer out from behind the blinds, as much as I felt disappointed and frustrated, I also felt something else.
I felt relieved that I wouldn’t have to face her.
For the past two years, I have covered the struggles of ordinary Americans as they face off against the well-financed leviathan of the oil industry. I’ve spent days and weeks with people living along Michigan’s Kalamazoo River, people whose homes were filled with benzene fumes after an Enbridge-operated diluted-bitumen pipeline ruptured in 2010 (see "The Whistleblower"). I have gone on fruitless voyages in search of lost populations of whales devastated by the Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska. And I have spent more time than I could ever quantify with people fighting the construction of TransCanada’s Keystone XL pipeline through the Ogallala Aquifer in Nebraska, the state where I live.
But Port Arthur represents an even bigger challenge for a journalist. When you’re used to presenting versions of the classic David-versus-Goliath tale, what do you do when the Davids have become so dispirited that they’ve all but given up the fight? Today, Carver Terrace specifically—and Port Arthur more generally—are so far gone, so forsaken, that there’s almost no need for industry officials to deceive, or to issue craftily worded denials, or to vow halfheartedly to reduce their refineries’ environmental impact. The industry abides by the letter of the law, dutifully documenting thousands of emissions events, knowing that, in the end, practically no one cares.
Refinery spokespeople acknowledge that their facilities are emitting toxic chemicals. But they follow up that acknowledgment with a question: are we, as automobile drivers, willing to help offset the industry costs associated with increasing safety and reducing emissions every time we go to the pump?
We—collectively—have admitted that we’re not. So these same spokespeople don’t even bother contesting the findings of this cancer researcher or challenging the EPA’s warnings about that contamination. Their companies factor nominal fines into their operating costs and go about their business. And should any reporters come sniffing around, their hired security guards will be on the scene in minutes to take names and threaten to file reports with the Department of Homeland Security. They know better than anyone that people like me just show up for a few days, take their notes and their photographs, and then go home.
Near sundown on the last night of my stay, Kelley accompanied me out to Carver Terrace one last time. In the days that followed—despite the unfolding of more city council drama—the disputed tax credits would be approved for the new housing complex and the effort to bulldoze Carver Terrace and relocate its residents would be back on track. But on that evening, with the possibility that the order for demolition might be delayed yet again, Kelley was circumspect.
He pulled off to the side of Terminal Road, just north of Carver Terrace. He was dressed in a black pinstripe suit and patent leather shoes, but he nevertheless felt compelled to climb the height of the berm that stretches away toward the Motiva plant. He stepped up into the knee-high grass and pointed to the gas flare towering over the Valero plant to the west.
“Do you see that?” he asked. “That’s an emissions event right there.” Some kind of contaminant was burning up and drifting over the whole neighborhood. Before I could even respond, we were assaulted by a cloud of noxious air, heavy with the stench of rotten eggs.
“That’s sulfur dioxide,” he said. The chemical is toxic, but Kelley laughed at my pinched expression. “My brother and me used to make a joke of it, you know? Driving by the plant with our windows rolled down when there was a sudden release. We’d turn to each other—‘Aw, man, did you do that?’” He laughed again, then gave a half-glance back over his shoulder at Carver Terrace. A crowd of boys, most with no shirts, were dribbling and passing on the basketball court outside the project.
"My town is not expendable. We’re living, breathing human beings who deserve a better quality of life than what we’re getting.”
And all I wanted was to turn away, to be gone from there. To go home. But now that I’m back in Nebraska, I can’t stop wondering if I’ll ever really be home from Port Arthur—or if, instead, its gravity is somehow pulling all of us in. From the Gulf of Alaska to the Gulf of Mexico, the whole country has been stitched together by pipelines filled with toxic materials extracted from offshore platforms in Prudhoe Bay, from the tar sands of Alberta, from the fracking fields of North Dakota. Drilled, and spilled, and shipped overseas.
The endangered Alaskan coast is Port Arthur now. So is the benzene-laced Kalamazoo River. So is Mayflower, Arkansas, where an ExxonMobil pipeline burst earlier this year and dumped as much as 7,000 barrels of heavy crude onto the lanes and front lawns of a quiet suburban community. The Louisiana shoreline, striated with spilled oil and the dispersant chemicals used to dissolve it, and the river valleys and open plains overlying the Marcellus and Bakken shale formations where fracking rigs have appeared by the thousands: they’re Port Arthur, too. And soon, I fear, the Nebraska Sandhills near my home will be Port Arthur as well.
I understand why Erma Lee Smith has grown tired of talking. What good does it ever do? But at the same time, how can we turn away from her when Big Oil is closing in on all sides? I honestly don’t know how we even begin to fix a problem as big as Port Arthur. But at night, as I recall the burning skies over East Texas, I recall, too, the image of Hilton Kelley as he stepped higher onto the berm along Terminal Road, watching the fire from the Valero flare burn orange, heaving and darkening, watching it until it faded and was once again nothing more than ripples in the invisible air.
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