• picture
  • picture
  • picture
  • picture
Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Living on the Fence Line, Texas-style

Air Date: Week of

Part One: When a man returns to his hometown on the Texas Gulf Coast, he's shocked at how dirty the air seems and begins organizing. Port Arthur is home to six of the 500 refineries and industrial plants on Texas's upper Gulf Coast. Deepa Donde reports.
Part Two: Producer Deepa Donde's report on efforts to clean up the air in Port Arthur Texas continues as she visits long-time residents who fear the air may be hurting their health.


CURWOOD: One of the places where Margie Richard plied her organizing skills is the community of Port Arthur, Texas. People up and down the Texas-Louisiana Gulf Coast face some of the same challenges as Norco when it comes to having industrial neighbors. The region has the largest concentration of petrochemical plants and oil refineries in the nation. Some five hundred of these facilities run from Houston along the upper Gulf Coast. And unplanned releases of hazardous chemicals are frequent. These accidents have become a way of life for people who live near these plants, or as they call it, live on the fence-line. And, like Margie Richard, some folks are speaking out about it. Producer Deepa Donde reports from Port Arthur, Texas.


DONDE: Port Arthur, population 58,000, is at the far tip of the Texas coastal marshland, about 90 miles east of Houston. As you approach, signs for Spindletop, the first American oil gusher, and Janis Joplin’s hometown museum pop up on your left.

Nearer still, plumes of white smoke rise from the treetops – the green wall between the highway and the Gulf Coast refineries. The plants seem hidden, but they have been here since the oil boom at the turn of the 20th century. And so have generations of Port Arthur residents.

KELLEY: See the housing projects over there? That’s where I was born, right there. And my grandmother used to walk from there all the way down what we call Dunt Road.

DONDE: Hilton Kelley recently came back to Port Arthur from Hollywood. He had plenty of work there, in film and television, and his Screen Actors Guild card is still current. Kelley says he always knew he wanted to inspire kids with his success. But when he did come back, what struck him was the air.

KELLEY: I grew up looking at an orange sky. I thought it was normal until I moved away, went to California and found out that hey, at night the sky didn’t have to be a bright glowing orange. You didn’t have to smell sulfur all day long.

DONDE: In a freshly pressed shirt and khaki linen shorts, Hilton Kelley stands before a barbed wire fence. It divides some thirty houses from a tank farm, dozens of smokestacks, and a maze of piping.

KELLEY: You can see the refineries right there, bordering this community.

DONDE: At first, you smell something like burnt matches, but then it sharpens. A rotten eggy odor lingers in the heat. Most folks here have gotten used to the smell, including Kelley. That is, until he had a conversation with an elderly pastor.

KELLEY: He brought it to my attention by saying, “Son, I understand that you want to start a community center. But do you understand how polluted this area really is?” And so he started to give me a breakdown as to really what this town was facing.

DONDE: For the past three years now, Kelley has been trying to persuade residents to organize and demand cleaner air. But he’s found it slow-going.


KELLEY: They don’t understand how these chemicals coming out of these plants – when they talk about so much was released in the upset, they don’t equate that with “Wow, I’m breathing this stuff in. And this is why I’m coughing so much, or this is why my eyes are constantly watering all day.”

DONDE: He points to the day’s paper.

KELLEY: Two nights ago, they just had a pipeline explosion. I heard it and everything – boom! – it was so loud. See how orange the sky is right here? Here it is, front page. “Cause of explosion still under investigation. Natural gas pipeline ruptures.”

DONDE: And two days later, the details are still sketchy.

NEWSCASTER: Good morning everyone, I’m Andrea Bishop. Officials are still trying to figure out what caused that pipeline to leak and explode Tuesday night in Nederland. They believe….(fades under)

DONDE: From June 2002 to June of 2003, there were three hundred and forty upsets, or accidents, in the Port Arthur area. Among these were 56 more serious chemical spills, fires, and explosions, releasing millions of pounds of toxic chemicals such as benzene, tuolene, and xylene.

Frustration over numbers like this have lead Hilton Kelley to seek support from experts, people like Neil Carman, who was an investigator for 12 years at the Texas agency that monitors air quality. What he saw made him angry, so he quit. And now, Carman leads the Lone Star Sierra Club.

CARMAN: Port Arthur is a particularly egregious situation because there are so many poor people of color who are living along the fence line of these large industrial plants, the refineries and the chemical plants. I have been down there on a series of trips over the last 10 to 12 years and it’s been a very frustrating situation.

(Photo: Deepa Donde)

DONDE: Of the six plants in Port Arthur, only Motiva agreed to speak to us. The Motiva refinery is co-owned by Shell and Saudi Arabian Oil. Tracey McMinn is an advisor on government affairs for Shell Oil. She says Motiva has reduced emissions by ten percent. It has also invested $70 million dollars in improvements to the facility, following a consent decree with the federal government. Despite Motiva’s improvements and investments, a few months ago the plant had an upset.

MCMINN: We had an incident. We had a power failure is what happened. And what happens when you have a power failure is that you have to shut down whatever parts of the facility are affected.

DONDE: Losing power meant losing the steam that dilutes hazardous gases. So the plant had to release undiluted gases to avoid a buildup and explosion.

MCMINN: The wind direction took that smoke over into what’s called the El Vista neighborhood which is one of our neighboring communities over here.

DONDE: McMinn says that within thirty minutes of the upset, Motiva sent out a team of air monitors.

MCMINN: According to our monitors and according to screening levels there is no reason to be concerned. We did hold a community meeting in El Vista, and the reason we did that is that we don’t want people to have concerns or issues or fears and feel like they can’t talk to us about it. And we want people to be informed of what’s happening over here, because I think in many cases not having information is really when problems arise.


DONDE: Hilton Kelley, though, has been out gathering his own information with gear he keeps in the trunk of his car.


DONDE: Using a five-gallon plastic bucket with a vacuum-screw top, Kelley collects a sample in a clear Teflon bag. Activists call this the bucket brigade. It’s part of a national grassroots initiative, the Refinery Reform Campaign, to arm citizens with information.

Hilton Kelley takes his air sampling bucket out of the his car. (Photo: Deepa Donde)


DONDE: After he’s collected the sample, Kelley sends it to an independent laboratory in California.

KELLEY: Well, it finds out that there was a big release of benzene in that plume and it was right on this community. And I took the air samples, we got samples to prove it.

DONDE: Analysis of Kelley’s air sample showed levels of benzene that were not high, but were high enough, if sustained, to cause a greater incidence of cancers among residents. Tracey McMinn of Shell Oil stands by her results.

While some gulf coast companies, like Shell, have reduced emissions, others in Texas have been fined stiff penalties for increasing theirs. This May, the Texas attorney general fined Huntsman Petrochemical Corporation close to 9.5 million dollars for releasing more than sixteen million pounds of chemicals from its plant, a few miles from the fenceline. In a rare criminal trial, two of Huntsman’s plant managers were convicted of felonies for lying to the state and EPA. The two are appealing. But one thing is certain. More than thirty years after the passage of the Clean Air Act, many folks along the fenceline are still getting sick.

CURWOOD: Our story about air pollution and the community of Port Arthur, Texas continues in just a minute. Stay tuned to Living on Earth.

ANOUNCER: Support for NPR comes from NPR stations, and: Aveda - an Earth-conscious beauty company committed to preserving natural resources and finding more sustainable ways of doing business. Information available at Aveda.com; The Noyce Foundation, dedicated to improving Math and Science instruction from kindergarten through grade 12; The Annenberg Foundation; and, The Kellogg Foundation, helping people help themselves by investing in individuals, their families, and their communities. On the web at wkkf.org. This is NPR, National Public Radio.


CURWOOD: Welcome back to Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood.

Much of the nation's gasoline, fertilizer and plastics is manufactured along the southern Gulf Coast. Producer Deepa Donde continues her report now on the Texas community of Port Arthur. The town borders six chemical plants, and it's not uncommon for even young people to face a range of diseases, from respiratory illness to cancer.

DONDE: A few miles from the refineries, close to the tracks that used to separate black from white Port Arthur, Hilton Kelley waves to a small thin man at the corner.


KELLEY: How are you doing?

DOMINIC: All right.

KELLEY: We are going to get out for a minute and meet and greet, then we’re going to take a tour. Mr. Dominic, this is Deepa.

DOMINIC: Wonderful, wonderful. Close that door.

DONDE: A veteran of World War II and Korea, Reverend Alfred Dominic still holds service on Sunday. He’s the pastor who inspired Hilton Kelley to advocate for clean air, and was one of Port Arthur’s first environmental activists.

DOMINIC: They would never tell us that pollution was here. That all of the Gulf and the Texaco and Atlantic Richfield, at that time, they would never tell us that they were polluting our air. And this is what’s so stifling to me. Why didn’t they tell us? Many of my friends have died with cancer. I am just one of the old dinosaurs and I’m still alive, my wife and I.

DONDE: Reverend Dominic’s concerns for clean air stretch back to Jim Crow times. And he says it gives him peace to pass the torch to Hilton.

DOMINIC: But thank God for this young man. He didn’t, he didn’t wait for nothing; he just got out there and started saying what he had to say. You see, I came up in an era from the 20s on now when they would not allow you to speak. If you would speak they would squash it out. But now, it’s coming to pass that people are speaking out regardless to who you are, what color you are, what country you are from. They are speaking out! And I praise the Lord for that.


DONDE: A few houses down lives 50-year-old John Dixon, a former refinery worker.

DIXON: That’s Snoop Dog – some friends of mine give him to me. That’s the name they gave to him, Snoop Dog. You can’t be interviewed so might as well rest.

KELLEY: Did the German shepherd ever have any puppies?

DIXON: Rest, Snoop. Rest. You’re not resting.

DONDE: A picture of Martin Luther King Jr. hangs on his living room wall. But before we have a chance to say much, a young woman walks in to return a fishing pole. She stands cautiously by the door, smoothing her hair.

DIXON: There is a young lady right there – I don’t know if she wants to discuss it, but you have a comment? We are on the subject of cancer and environment…hmmm.

KELLEY: Uterus, you got cancer in the uterus.

DIXON: In the uterus.

WILLIAMS: I just wake up every morning. I got two kids to live for. I have a two-year-old and I have a four-year-old. A four-year-old, a man. I can’t just lay down on my back and be like “oh well, I’m dying” or something. I just put it in God’s hands – whatever happens, happens. That’s why I don’t claim it all. Everybody has to go from something, so you know.

DONDE: Judy Williams is 21. You’d never know from her broad smile that this woman is a cancer survivor. She found out four years ago, a few weeks after she had her first baby. She thinks that there is something wrong with the air here. She can tell the difference when she drives into Houston, even though Houston has some of the worst air in the country.

WILLIAMS: The air is so different. I mean I’ll swear to living God. You pull into Houston, and it’s like “oh, I can breathe.” You know what I mean? When you get back home, it’s like oh my God, what happened? You can taste it, almost, when you hit the air. It’s like poisonous or something. I don’t know, it just has a real foul stitch taste. It’s in everything.

DONDE: Not a person I met here drinks the tap water. Everyone drinks either distilled or bottled water, including Judy.

WILLIAMS: Ah, yuck!

DONDE: You drink bottled water?

WILLIAMS: Yeah, bottled water.

DONDE: You drink bottled water.

WILLIAMS: Bottled water! Honey, you have no idea what’s in this water out here. I mean, people pollute…

DONDE: The mood suddenly shifts to more serious, as Hilton informs Judy about the latest and most forceful of the recent efforts to clean the air in Port Arthur: a class action lawsuit for damages against Premcor, Motiva, Chevron Phillips, Huntsman, BASF, and Atofina.

KELLEY: Because too many young people like yourself is dying from cancer. We just lost a 15-year-old last month, little girl. She had been living with brain tumors. She been having little small tumors all over her head, on the inside, on her brain. And she was going to Woodrow Wilson, and she died at this hospital in Houston, this treatment center for cancer in Houston. She died just last month.

WILLIAMS: Oh my God, who are you talking about?

KELLEY: She was 15 years old. She was 15 years old. She developed brain cancer and she died.

WILLIAMS: I know who you are speaking of.

CARMAN: In a way, you could describe Port Arthur as a kind of Bhopal in slow motion.

DONDE: Again, Neil Carman, president of the Lone Star Sierra Club.

CARMAN: People are being slowly and systematically poisoned on a daily basis. And while they may not die today or tomorrow from the insults – from the pollution – they will get cancers and leukemias and brain tumors and kidney failures and so forth from the pollution over the next 10, 15, 20 years.

DONDE: No one has ever conducted a comprehensive survey of Port Arthur’s air or associated health risks. A 1998 study conducted by the Texas Department of Health did show Port Arthur had levels of ozone, hydrogen sulfide, and benzene that suggested a “public health concern” and could pose a risk to the health of residents.

A local toxicologist recently conducted a symptom survey of residents in Port Arthur. More than 75 percent had ear/nose/throat problems, respiratory illnesses, muscle and bone diseases -- compared to less than a quarter of those in a control group in Galveston.


DONDE: Our last stop is the home of Reverend Dominic’s daughter, Shaza Dominic Prince, a mother of three.


DONDE: When I enter, the first thing I notice on her kitchen counter are dozens of medicine bottles and a neatly stacked pile of prescriptions. Next to it lies a portable breathing machine, the kind you see in hospitals.

PRINCE: You clean this out with a little vinegar. We just put this solution, it’s already pre-mixed so we don’t need to add anything to this one. Some of the solutions we have to add things…


DONDE: The nebulizer was a gift from her father to help her children cope with asthma attacks. Shaza herself suffers from chronic pain, earaches, and migraines. On average, she takes twenty pills a day to cope. And last year, the doctors told her she has a degenerative bone disease.

PRINCE: I think that the problem is stemming from a lot of the inhalation of different chemicals and whatnot that is causing it to deteriorate so fast. Now, it might have been caused by something else, I’m not saying the plant caused it, but I think the deterioration is caused by a lot of the chemicals I’m inhaling and digesting and whatever.

DONDE: Just then, Shaza’s oldest daughter Temisha walks in.

PRINCE: Look, she’s all clogged up now.

TEMISHA: I’m always sick, every day.



DONDE: Your nose?

TEMISHA: Yeah, my sinus and congestion and everything. Well, it cleared up, but since I moved back here about a month ago I’ve been sick everyday.

DONDE: Temisha takes breathing treatments twice a day. Cullen, her 11-year old brother, stands quietly in the corner watching us closely, holding a basketball.

PRINCE: You wanna show her a couple of hoops? He wants to be a basketball star, I think his cousin was one…

DONDE: Cullen is the one that Shaza spends her time worrying about most, because his asthma is the worst in the family.

PRINCE: I mean, the first couple years of his life he didn’t even know what outside looked like, I don’t think. We couldn’t let him go out there because every time he went outside he got sick. You know, it’s ridiculous.

DONDE: But tonight is a good night. And Cullen’s doing what he loves best, playing basketball.


DONDE: There is a slight orange glow from the refinery across the street. They live at the last house on Foley, the closest to the fence line. Cullen’s five-year old cousin Mariah runs circles around him.


DONDE: Mariah’s wide smile and carefree skip touches anyone who nears her. Shaza whispers that the child came to live with her, a year ago, just after her mom died of uterine cancer at the age of twenty-one.

Shaza has signed her family onto the class action lawsuit filed against the six plants that border her property. But some environmental advocates don’t believe a lawsuit can solve all Port Arthur’s problems. A few have argued for relocation. That’s what happened in Norco, Louisiana, about 250 miles from Port Arthur. But many longtime residents like Shaza don’t want to relocate. She hopes that the refineries and petrochemical plants can simply do a better job.

PRINCE: I don’t want them to go away. Like I said, I have a brother that works right out there, out there, and he’s been working there forever. I want him to get his retirement out of it. I don’t want them to go away. I just want them to control their emissions so that we can live safely here. That’s what I want.


DONDE: It’s nighttime now at the Dominic Prince residence. The children gather close to form a circle.

CULLEN: We want to pray for all the people here, Lord. We want to make sure they wake up tomorrow, Lord, and have another great day like today was. Forgive us for our sins and all the sins that other people have done. Amen.

DONDE: In Port Arthur, Texas, I’m Deepa Donde for Living on Earth.




Living on Earth wants to hear from you!

Living on Earth
62 Calef Highway, Suite 212
Lee, NH 03861
Telephone: 617-287-4121
E-mail: comments@loe.org

Newsletter [Click here]

Donate to Living on Earth!
Living on Earth is an independent media program and relies entirely on contributions from listeners and institutions supporting public service. Please donate now to preserve an independent environmental voice.

Living on Earth offers a weekly delivery of the show's rundown to your mailbox. Sign up for our newsletter today!

Sailors For The Sea: Be the change you want to sea.

Creating positive outcomes for future generations.

Innovating to make the world a better, more sustainable place to live. Listen to the race to 9 billion

The Grantham Foundation for the Protection of the Environment: Committed to protecting and improving the health of the global environment.

Contribute to Living on Earth and receive, as our gift to you, an archival print of one of Mark Seth Lender's extraordinary wildlife photographs. Follow the link to see Mark's current collection of photographs.

Buy a signed copy of Mark Seth Lender's book Smeagull the Seagull & support Living on Earth