Texas communities that have long experienced health problems from nearby oil refineries and chemical plants are now facing the fossil fuel industry’s longer-term impacts: storms made more severe by climate change and the painful recovery process that follows their landfall — a recovery made far worse by industrial contamination.
A number of low-income communities that sit on the fence-lines of the Gulf Coast petrochemical industry have been hit particularly hard by Hurricane Harvey. On Thursday morning, Hilton Kelley stood at a makeshift first responders headquarters in Port Arthur, Texas, directing out-of-state rescue professionals to parts of his neighborhood where he knew people were probably still trapped. A curfew put in place from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. was just ending and the streets were eery and barren, with a few alarms going off in nearby buildings. Kelley’s home had filled with a foot and a half of water, and his wife and granddaughter had taken shelter at his soul food restaurant, Kelley’s Kitchen.
“What I saw is really not uncommon to us here that live on the fence-line of these facilities — what I saw was some major flaring at the Motiva refinery and the Flint Hills chemical plant, with black smoke coming off the tips of the flare,” Kelley said. The pungent odor irritated the sinuses and made his eyes squint.
Residents of the mostly black community in Port Arthur have an outsized cancer mortality rate, and Kelley has fought for years to convince area plants like the Motiva refinery — the largest in the U.S. — to reduce carcinogenic emissions.
“We’re more vulnerable now, because many people have been displaced,” he said. “You have some people that are still stuck in their homes having to weather the storm in these damp houses, and that’s eventually going to start developing mold. Due to the stress level, your immune system is weakened.”
The neighboring city of Beaumont is another community that has fought for protections against the emissions of industry. As The Intercept has reported, residents of Beaumont’s Charlton-Pollard community waited 17 years for an answer from the Environmental Protection Agency to a complaint about the nearby Exxon Mobil plant’s expansion. The Beaumont Exxon Mobil plant was damaged in the storm, releasing sulphur dioxide into the air.
During the past week there have been at least 74 excess air pollution release events reported to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, totaling more than 1 million pounds of emissions above legal levels, according to reporting by the New Republic.
As the floods begin to recede in the Houston suburb of Pasadena, Patricia Gonzales, a resident and community organizer, was headed out in her car Wednesday morning to begin checking on people and assessing their needs. The city’s Bayshore Medical Center evacuated nearly 200 patients over the weekend and by Monday, Dobie High School was so overwhelmed by storm refugees that new shelters had been forced to open.
Also on Monday, a “shelter in place” order was issued for the nearby town of La Porte, as a pipeline leaked anhydrous hydrogen chloride. Many Pasadena residents took heed of the warning, since the town is next door. “Here you are, you’re in a flood zone area,” Gonzales said, “And yet they’re telling them you have to shelter in place — close your window, shut your AC off.” Not far away, in the community of Baytown, the roof caved in at the second largest oil refinery in the U.S., run by Exxon Mobil, releasing an excess of volatile organic chemicals.
And in Crosby, residents were evacuated Wednesday after a chemical company called Arkema Inc. warned there was no way to stop its flooded plant from exploding, since refrigeration had failed, destabilizing the organic peroxide products the company produces. Overnight, explosions were reported at the plant, accompanied by black plumes of smoke, and 15 sheriffs deputies visited the hospital after breathing in fumes.
Compounding the impact of the nearby plants, which have been blamed for periodic nosebleeds and a burning sensation in the back of neighbors’ throats, many Pasadena residents are also immigrants, some lacking legal status. Although political leaders, like Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner, sought to assure residents they’d be safe from immigration questions as they sought shelter, Customs and Border Protection did not close immigration checkpoints on roads outside the city. Portions of a statewide plan to enforce penalties on so-called sanctuary cities that was set to go into effect Friday were temporarily halted by a federal court Wednesday, while a lawsuit travels through court. But the part of the law allowing law enforcement to question the immigration status of those arrested or detained was not halted, and Texas plans to appeal.
Health disparities have always been sharp between wealthier Houston communities, far away from industry, and lower-income neighborhoods living next to plants. Last October, the Union of Concerned Scientists and Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services teamed up to do a comparison study of four Houston communities: two communities of color that sit at the edge of the city’s petrochemical industry, Harrisburg/Manchester and Galena Park, and two predominately white communities further away from industry, Bellaire and White Oaks/Eldridge. Among the study’s conclusions: the lower-income fence-line communities faced cancer risks and a respiratory hazard index that were at least 24 percent higher than the wealthier communities.
As recovery begins, disparities among the communities are likely to become more clear.
In Manchester, which sits next to a massive Valero oil refinery, Yudith Nieto, a community organizer who grew up in the neighborhood, worries that some of the area’s most serious hurricane impacts will stay buried in the soil. Her family members’ homes did not flood, but runoff pooled in deep ditches nearby. “All that water contains a toxic soup of chemicals steaming there in the heat and surrounding people’s homes and going into the soil and staying in people’s yards,” she said. “The city has to consider and reconsider how they prepare for these types of disasters and include a chemical security aspect to it.”
Nieto is involved in efforts to reduce environmental harm in the neighborhood. She said that organizers have faced intimidation in the past by Valero security as they’ve attempted to document potential industrial hazards around the community. Meanwhile, the mostly Latino neighborhood is close to Houston’s port, and immigration officers are known to pass through the area. “If you only have one person speaking out for the community and asking for help, and the whole rest of the community is afraid speak out or ask for help, you can’t get those resources to those communities most impacted,” Nieto said.
In Pasadena, Gonzales has frequently found herself in a position to be that person, translating for people that lack the resources or English-language abilities needed to press their issues. Her main goal in the coming weeks will be to make sure her community’s needs don’t go unnoticed.
Nieto was away from home during the hurricane, but now she’s preparing to collect donations and return. She said she’s hopeful that Houston’s recovery won’t reflect the kind of opportunism and racial and economic disparities that followed Katrina. Black residents were less likely to return to the city than white residents, and the public school system was transformed into an all-charter school system.
Nieto said that since Katrina there have been efforts across the Gulf region to organize for climate change-driven catastrophes like this, with groups like Another Gulf is Possible. “We are leaning on each other to recover,” she said, “making sure we are not capitalizing on people’s suffering and people’s destruction.”
During Hurricane Ike, Kelley recalls assisting newly homeless neighbors with hotel rooms. He was never reimbursed, and he worries that, once again, the Federal Emergency Management Agency may not come through for everyone.
“My wife — this is the first time she’s been this quiet in years,” Kelley said. “I took photos of her shoes and dresses just floating in the water, and it hurt me to see that ruined, and to have to show her those photos, and to have to tell her our house is basically gone.”