Sept. 1, 2006 – In Corpus Christi, Texas, the oil industryâ€™s presence fills the atmosphere. The oddly sweet scent of petrochemicals floats in the breeze, residents say. One area is nicknamed the "Olive Garden," for the wafting chemical concoction that hints at Italian fare. Occasionally, a corpse-like stench hangs overhead, in a sensory assault that stokes the outrage of community activists.
"Sometimes it just blows you away and all your senses," said resident Suzie Canales, describing the area locally known as "Refinery Row," which she monitors with the local grassroots group Citizens for Environmental Justice. "You get used to it," she said. "Weâ€™re perpetual sniffers, if you will."
Last month, one notorious Refinery Row resident, Citgo Petroleum, was hit with a federal indictment for unauthorized releases of the carcinogenic petrochemical benzene and the endangerment of local migratory birds. The criminal charges, brought by the Department of Justice, are an unusually severe action, but activists are hardly celebrating. Those who have long struggled against the oil industryâ€™s domination of Corpus Christi â€“ and other refinery towns across the country â€“ say Citgoâ€™s unacknowledged human victims betray a grim legacy of environmental racism.
Pointing to other polluting facilities owned by industry giants Valero and Koch Industries, Canales argued that while many Corpus Christi refineries routinely ignore the stateâ€™s environmental guidelines, state regulators have steadfastly avoided their obligation to protect public health.
Community activists say that while many refineries are polluting excessively, regulators have steadfastly avoided their obligation to protect public health.
Canales said that because the neighborhoods impacted by Refinery Rowâ€™s pollution are disproportionately black and Latino, as well as low-income, "nobodyâ€™s talking about it."
"Thatâ€™s why it takes a bird dying to get the Department of Justice to do something," she continued, "when all the while we have been, for years, at the top of our lungs, advocating that something needs to be done."
From 2002 to 2004, monitoring stations in the city run by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) posted some of the stateâ€™s highest levels of benzene, often exceeding the stateâ€™s own long-term exposure guidelines. But under state law, those guidelines are not legally enforceable standards. Instead, enforcement is generally dictated case-by-case. based on emission levels negotiated between the corporation and the Commission during the permitting process.
Neil Carman, clean air program director with the Texas chapter of the environmental group Sierra Club, and a former 12-year employee of the TCEQ, views the Citgo charges as "an indictment of the agency in not doing its job." He recalled that when he worked on the TCEQâ€™s regulatory staff, "There was just kind of a tendency to be easy or soft on companiesâ€¦ and not to put too much pressure on them." Carman added that there was a fear that regulation "might drive businesses and refineries away."
To critics, polluting facilities have preyed upon the disproportionately poor and black neighborhoods of Port Arthur.
Across Texas and around the country, so-called "fence-line" communities â€“ those at the perimeter of refinery facilities â€“ struggle with foul air. In Port Arthur, Texas, Hilton Kelley, founder of the grassroots advocacy group Community In-Power Development Association, said the disproportionately poor and black neighborhoods of his town are similarly preyed upon by industries and the state officials who welcome them.
"Companies will receive the least resistance to their presence from low-income areas simply because many people do not have the time to get out and protest," Kelley said. "They donâ€™t have time to get out and write their congressman and wait for letters to come back. Theyâ€™re too busy working two or three mediocre jobs to make ends meet, living check-to-check."
After years of breathing pollutants from a local facility owned by Motiva, part of Shell Oil, Port Arthur residents are now facing a pending expansion that would make the refinery the countryâ€™s largest.
The industry, for its part, has bucked at the Justice Departmentâ€™s incursion on the fence-line. In a press statement, Citgo argued that "none of these issues warrants criminal prosecution." Citgo said that "at most," the charges stemmed from "a good faith dispute over the interpretation of highly complex and vague environmental regulations."
The TCEQ has actually moved toward letting companies interpret environmental regulations themselves with what it calls "voluntary environmental self audits." Under this system, according to the stateâ€™s annual enforcement report, polluters agree to monitor their own activity and self-report violations, and subsequently "may not be subject to civil and administrative penalties." Through its own investigations, the agency issued over 11,000 preliminary "notices of violations" to facilities in fiscal year 2005, while undertaking only 1,159 administrative-penalty actions.
Corporations have offered to â€œbuy outâ€ neighboring properties, providing residents an opportunity to leave town, while shielding polluters from future lawsuits.
"Theyâ€™ve pretty much gone to a voluntary system down there," said Denny Larson, head of the national advocacy coalition Refinery Reform Campaign. "They see some bad stuff and then they talk to the companies, try to convince them to voluntarily do something about it. Thatâ€™s about as good as it gets."
For many community activists, the public debate over "environmental justice" â€“ environmental-policy principles rooted in civil-rights law â€“ is also a personal one. Canales founded her group after investigating a suspected link between her sisterâ€™s death from breast cancer and local refinery pollution. Recently, two of Canalesâ€™s grandsons were born with holes in their hearts.
Though researchers have not yet pinpointed definitive causal links between refinery pollution and local health trends, recent studies seem to affirm some of the anecdotal evidence. A 2005 University of Texas study that included 102 Port Arthur residents found that approximately 85 percent reported ear, nose and throat ailments, and 75 percent reported respiratory problems. A state-sponsored study published in July that investigated Nueces County, where Corpus Christi is located, revealed that local babies were about 85 percent more likely to be born with birth defects, including heart abnormalities, compared to the rest of the state.
Activists say that despite evidence that refineries are corroding public health, the industry has devised ways of ducking scrutiny and, as some environmentalists put it, buying the silence of polluted communities.
So-called "supplemental environmental projects" (SEPs), for example, have drawn criticism as a ploy to paper over the industryâ€™s environmental harms. Sponsored by violators as part of their financial penalties, SEPs are intended to benefit the affected communities through public-health or environmental-improvement initiatives.
But in a recent report, refinery-reform advocates and the government and industry watchdog Public Citizen argued that SEPs in Texas serve mainly as public-relations gestures. Recent citations for pollution violations by Citgo, for instance, have resulted in a program to monitor car pollution and a donation to a local bird refuge â€“ projects environmentalists have blasted as patently irrelevant to the people exposed to toxic refinery emissions.
"Theyâ€™re good advertising. Itâ€™s nice when a refinery cares about birds," Larson said. But while SEPs have the potential to improve community well-being, he argued, Texas regulators are "ignoring both the letter of the law of the SEPs, as well as the very real need that there is in those fence-line neighborhoods to do something positive."
In recent years, legal challenges from Texas residents have led several corporations, including Citgo, Exxon and Valero, to offer to "buy out" neighboring properties, providing residents with financial compensation and an opportunity to leave town, while shielding polluters from future lawsuits.
Kelley said that in Port Arthur, where entire neighborhoods have been emptied through buyouts, oil companies have "monopolized this whole community." The industry not only dominates the local economy, he said, but has also managed to blunt potential opposition by offering token handouts, such as donations to churches and small scholarships.
"Nothing on the scale at which they should be donating," he said. "You know, $1,000 here, $3,000 there." The corporate players, in his view, are trying to dole out "just enough to sort of keep poor people smiling and happy about receiving something."
But Kelley noted that more residents are refusing to settle: his organization is growing steadily and encouraging residents to look past the fence-line and push for economic and political self-reliance. "People are sick and tired," he said, "and theyâ€™re challenging the local power structure and local industry to clean up their act."