Life on Refinery Row

As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, I am currently writing a book about social justice issues in South Texas. Earth Island Journal just published a chapter of it concerning Dona Park, a community on the outskirts of Corpus Christi that has long suffered the effects of living in close quarters to the city’s petrochemical industry. Here is a taste (with photos by Carrie Robertson of Third Coast Photo):

For three generations the Foster family has worked for the petrochemical refineries of Corpus Christi, Texas. They’ve lived there too, smack in the middle of Refinery Row—a 15-mile stretch of industrial development that is one of the thickest concentrations of refineries in the nation. Citgo, Valero, and Flint Hills Resources (formerly known as Koch) run two sites apiece, with a gas processing unit, tank farms, and a slew of chemical manufacturers shuffled in between. For three quarters of a century, this futuristic forest of pipe and steel has not only been the landscape of the Fosters’ lives but the source of their livelihood as well, paying off their houses, feeding and clothing their children, financing vacations now and then.

But Jeannine Foster, the family matriarch, worries about the pitfalls of this seemingly symbiotic relationship. Her father and brother were badly injured during the Coastal States explosion in the early sixties, when her father lost much of his hearing and her brother suffered burns on a third of his body, including his face. All three of her children had birth defects, including Hirschsprung disease (a congenital disorder of the colon) and kidney reflux. The family must also contend with their industrial neighbors’ noxious odors, blinding lights, and warning whistles that rattle the dishes in their cupboards. “When the whistle blows, you look to see which direction the sock is blowing, and run in the opposite direction,” Jeannine says.

For decades, a sprawling ASARCO/Encyle plant was the anchor of this industrial ecosystem. Jeannine needed only to step out her front door to see the plant, located two blocks away. Its smokestack — 315 feet of brick and mortar striped red and white like a barber pole — was visible from her kitchen window. The ASARCO plant began as a high-grade zinc smelting facility in 1941 and, in its heyday, employed nearly 800 workers who oversaw the production of some 100,000 tons of zinc a year. The plant closed for 15 months in 1982, briefly reopened, then closed again in 1985—only to be bought by a subsidiary called Encycle, which turned the 110-acre site into an industrial waste recycling plant that processed cyanide, lead, and cadmium, among other hazardous materials. Due in part to a disastrous whistleblower report accusing Encycle of myriad illegal practices, the site was shuttered for good in 2002.

Similar scenarios played out in communities across the nation, with ASARCO racking up billions of dollars in environmental damages. The company filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 2005, and some 90 communities in 21 states now share a $1.79 billion settlement to clean up their neighborhoods and compensate former workers. That sum might sound impressive, but it represents less than one percent of what claimants requested. And it has grown exceedingly difficult for those claimants and other affected citizens to request records and remediation from ASARCO, as Mexican steel giant Grupo México bought the company in 1999.

In December 2010, a US Bankruptcy Court and the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) ordered the Corpus Christi plant razed. In April 2011, demolition crews rolled in.

Yet only 600 feet from the plant sits Dona Park, a residential neighborhood of some 300 homes, including the one owned by the Foster family. For decades, these residents have endured gas explosions shattering their windows. Fine black grit coating their cars. Oil slicking their swimming pools. Their yards have been tested repeatedly for heavy metals like arsenic, cadmium, and lead. They’ve been instructed by the Texas Department of Health and Human Services to abandon their tomato and cucumber plants and to let their tangerines rot on their trees.

Yet the demolition seemed to pose an even greater threat. The US Environmental Protection Agency documented evidence of asbestos throughout the ASARCO/Encycle site, including in the floor coverings, the pipe wraps, the floor tiles, the thermal system insulation, the roofs, even the skin of the smokestack. More worrisome was the 1994 whistleblower report made public on the EPA’s website in late 2010 after former ASARCO workers in El Paso filed an Freedom of Information Act request. In it, former Encycle operations manager David Cahill accused higher-ups of instructing workers to dump unrecycled hazardous waste into tanks certified as recycled. He also accused the firm of keeping thousands of hazardous storage units beyond the permitted number (500) and then hiding them during inspections (when they sometimes leaked). Cahill called the site an “OSHA regulation nightmare,” noting that Encycle accepted waste from the former Army chemical warfare depot at the Rocky Mountain Arsenal, which is included on the government’s Superfund list of the most polluted sites in the nation.

As a protection measure, demolition crews agreed to erect 10-foot tarps around the site and to cease working whenever northerly winds — that is, wind blowing from the plant toward the neighborhood — exceed 15 mph. (While Corpus winds fluctuate between 10 to 15 mph throughout the year, northerners blow infrequently.) An engineer was charged with overseeing an air monitoring system across the street from the plant to screen for heavy metals. But what everyone in Dona Park wanted to know, and what no one could really tell them, is whether the precautions would be enough.

Such is the irony of the deindustrialization era: dismantling polluting plants might seem like a environmentalist victory, but the demolition itself can be risky for communities caught in the crosswinds. Moreover, new industrial plants tend to be erected in the ruins of the old one. As Dr. Robert Bullard, the dean of the School of Public Affairs at Texas Southern University who is widely known as the father of the environmental justice movement, tells me, “When you have a highly concentrated chemical corridor like Dona Park, you attract similar types of industry—not the headquarters of Starbucks. There is no industry regulation saying this community has had more than its fair share.” Indeed, Valero is one of the potential buyers for the site, post-demolition and remediation.

Moving might seem the obvious solution to an outsider, but not to the people who live here. Housing in Dona Park costs a fraction of what it does in Corpus Christi proper, allowing lower-income families to rent and even own multiple-room homes with garages and yards. There is hardly any traffic, so children can play basketball in the middle of the street. Dona Park is a community that hosts reunions every May; that throws backyard barbecues and Halloween block parties where the whole neighborhood is invited; that boasts a thriving stoop culture. Many families have lived here for decades. They have history here. Roots.

And so, they wrestle with the dilemma faced by fenceline communities around the globe: should they stay or should they go?


For the complete essay, click here.