Life on Refinery Row
Residents of Corpus Christi, Texas are afraid of the chemicals around them – and scared to leave home.
photos Carrie Robertson, www.thirdcoastphoto.com
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,” Foster says.
For decades, a sprawling ASARCO/Encyle plant was the anchor of this industrial ecosystem. Foster 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.
Residents of Corpus Christi, Texas are caught in a dilemma – afraid of leaving the only home they’ve known and scared of the pollution there.
Similar scenarios played out in communities across the nation, with ASARCO racking up billions of dollars in fines for 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 1 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.
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 much. 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 a 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 an 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.
I asked the foreman, “What if it rains?” He said, “Yeah, I wouldn’t go fishing down there if I were you.”
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 fence-line communities around the globe: Should they stay or should they go?
In the summer of 2011, I meet Jeannine Foster’s daughter, Tammy, for breakfast at a taqueria on the outskirts of Refinery Row. Nearly all of the patrons are petroleros, refinery workers clad in blue jeans, boots, and bandanas, swapping stories as they dunk hand-rolled tortillas into their huevos rancheros. After maneuvering her mammoth truck into a parking slot, Tammy strolls up to my table. At 38, she is a tall and hefty woman whose face is splotched apple-red. She orders a taco salad but doesn’t touch the edible bowl: She has celiac disease, and must follow a gluten-free diet.
When I ask about growing up in Dona Park, she smirks. “When they got home from work, my brothers would get undressed in the front yard because my mom didn’t want them bringing anything inside,” she says with a salty twang. “And if they worked in the contaminated area, they would get naked in the backyard and Mom would hose them down.”
Tammy didn’t pay the refineries much mind herself until Javelina started building a gas processing facility a few blocks away when she was in high school. “Suddenly, my bedroom was like daylight twenty-four hours a day, like the sun was rising right in my bedroom. We hung up blackout curtains, but it didn’t help. I didn’t sleep for a year, so I would fall asleep every day in ag class.”
She joined her mom and the neighbors in picketing the plant’s construction on weekends, even caravanning to Austin to lobby lawmakers. Then she married an industrial painter whose work whisked them overseas and across the United States. By the time they returned to Texas eight years later, Tammy’s mother had bought a new house in the city proper, leaving behind a fully paid-for house in Dona Park.
“My brother was supposed to move in the house, but I said, ‘Oh no you’re not, not with two little girls. All the damage that’s been done to me has already been done,’” she says.
Against her mother’s wishes, Tammy and her husband moved back to Dona Park in the summer of 1999, lured by the prospect of free rent. When a northern wind sailed in the following spring, Tammy awoke one morning to a ferocious itch. A rash burned across her body, from her face to her feet. She went in for a round of Benadryl shots, now an annual ritual, and soon became a watchdog of the industry. She joined a local activist group called Citizens for Environmental Justice and became its Dona Park Chair. She started attending meetings, lots of meetings – of the City Council, of the TCEQ, of the Texas EPA. She offered “Toxic Tours” of Refinery Row to the media and to government officials. Above all, she monitored her industrial neighbors and reported anything she perceived as an irregularity, from odors to flare-ups.
“On a good day, I call TCEQ once a day,” she says, holding up her cell phone to prove it. “I’ve already called them twice this morning.”
It isn’t even noon yet.
I was raised in south-central Corpus, about nine miles from Tammy’s home. We graduated from the same high school, two years apart. But while her childhood skyline consisted of petrochemical plants, mine was dotted with palm trees. My family’s chief thoroughfares were South Padre Island Drive (a highway lined with chain stores and restaurants that eventually deposits you at the beach) and Ocean Drive (a boulevard dotted with million-dollar mansions and a knock-out view of the Corpus Christi Bay). I was well aware of Refinery Row, however, because three of my uncles used to work there. For 14 years, one worked at ASARCO.
Growing up, I thought Uncle Valentine was a dashing man, always clad in cowboy boots, a cowboy hat, and a giant silver belt buckle that read ELIZONDO, his last name. He has since shaved off his handsome handlebar moustache, but he still drives a mighty big truck. He picks me up one morning after my meeting with Tammy, and we drive down to the old ASARCO site together. Three months into the demolition, colossal warehouses have already been reduced to shards and scree. Here and there, steel rods protrude from the rubble as if waving in surrender. From Upriver Road, there are no tarps in sight, although we can see mist rising from the snow blowers used to stifle dust flow.
“You see that, mija?” Valentine says, pointing at the narrow stairwell snaking up the towering smokestack. Back in the seventies, he and a buddy used to scale it to change the light bulbs on the aircraft warning device. “We’d climb straight up, no safety equipment or nothing. I would be saying Hail Marys and Our Fathers the whole time.”
“Why did you do it?”
He blinks at me in surprise and furrows his brow. “We got two and a half times our salary! We had families to feed.”
Dismantling the smokestack is expected to be the demolition’s most delicate operation. Crews will first remove its asbestos skin using a “wet-scraping” method. Then they will cut down the tower foot by foot with hydraulic shears, starting from the top so that pieces fall inward to the base of the stack. They plan to build an enclosed scaffold to ensure no asbestos flies away, but as Valentine says, “Good luck with that. It was already falling apart back when I used to work there. It was all rusty.”
Valentine was also instructed to dump truckloads of waste into the fields outside the plant, near the ship channel. We drive around to the back of the plant so he can show me where. Overgrown with grass and weeds, the fields are level but raised, like an artificial mesa, within a baseball whack of the channel. “I saw what we were doing and thought, ‘This is not a good idea.’ There was a slope going right down into the water. I asked the foreman, ‘What if it rains?’ and he said, ‘Yeah, I wouldn’t go fishing down there if I were you.’”
The residents of Dona Park received no such warnings, however. Days later, I meet a 48-year-old man who not only used to fish in the ship channel when he was a boy – he used to swim down there.
“We used to go to the end of the plant, where they had a reservoir pumped full of mud that looked like liquid peanut butter, and we would take that and chuck it at each other,” says Billy Placker, a lifelong resident of Dona Park. “My daddy [who worked at ASARCO] once took a bunch of pipes from the waste pile and made us a swing set with it. We would go by the grain elevator and shoot rats with BB guns. We could have blown the whole place up!”
A compact man with a full black beard and mound of curly hair, Placker is one of the most vocal critics of the demolition. He is hardly your stereotypical environmentalist: A self-declared “radically saved Christian,” he is a construction worker who wears ball caps emblazoned with slogans like GOD IS IN CONTROL. He invites me to his house to chat. A homemade sign planted in his front yard reads “Save The Dona Park Children From Toxic Soil Contamination/Lead, Cadmium, Arsenic, Zinc. Hair And Soil Samples Proved It.” As we walk through his front gate, a German shepherd hobbles over, lifting its haunches.
“What’s wrong with your dog?” I ask.
“We don’t know. It started about five months ago.”
As if on cue, the dog turns around, revealing a massive growth covering its entire backside, before limping toward a shade tree. We enter Placker’s home. Modest on the outside, it has high vaulted ceilings, black granite countertops, and a Jacuzzi inside, plus a pool out back. Placker remodeled it all himself, and beams with pride when I compliment his handiwork.
I join him and his wife Pat in their living room as they tick off the illnesses in their family. Billy’s son has William’s Syndrome, a rare neurodevelopmental disorder that includes mental disability, heart defects, and elfin facial features. Two of his grandchildren – who live next door – have asthma and attention deficit disorder; another has a foot deformity. Turning around on the couch, Pat points at nearby houses through the window. In that house, a lady has cancer. Next door, same thing. Across the street lives a little boy who, she says, has no ears.
Like most of their neighbors, the Plackers are deeply conflicted about what to do. They love Dona Park. Billy’s parents, children, and grandchildren all live within a three-block radius, as do his childhood friends. They have built their dream house here. But when they step out the door, they can see dust clouds rising from the demolition. They can hear bulldozers gnashing their teeth. The last time a northern wind swirled through, Billy fell into a panic.
“I called the County Commissioner, I called the news teams, and then I went over to the front gate where there was a security guard. I said, ‘I’m from the neighborhood and that wind is blowing at 30 miles per hour so you have to stop this.’ And he said, ‘Let me tell you, I don’t care what you or TCEQ says about this, this is now the property of federal bankruptcy court, and they say we can demolish it and we will.’”
Billy’s black eyes grow round and serious. “Well let me tell you, the Good Lord held me back from jumping that fence and killing him then and there. And the Good Lord didn’t allow me to remember what he looked like either, because if I had seen him at a 7-11 later that day, I might have killed him there too.”
As the state’s chief environmental agency, the TCEQ was granted nearly $1 billion by the Texas legislature to protect the state’s air, water, and soil during the 2009-2010 biennium. Yet it is scorned by environmental groups that say the agency is too close to the industries it regulates. The governor of Texas – who has been either George W. Bush or Rick Perry since 1995 – appoints the TCEQ’s top managers, who in the past have included lobbyists for the Texas Chemical Council, former executives of Monsanto, and lawyers for the oil industry. The current chairman, Dr. Bryan Shaw, is a self-declared climate change skeptic who has repeatedly battled regulatory efforts by the EPA. This is one reason why Dona Park residents hiss when you say the agency’s name.
Take Consuelo and Hipolito Gonzalez. They have lived in Dona Park longer than almost anybody, more than 40 years. Their home is one of the nicest in the neighborhood, with a giant pine tree in the front yard and an American flag rippling from a pole. The afternoon I visit in the summer of 2011, a pack of Chihuahuas prance about the hardwood floor while Consuelo and Hipolito rest in twin leather chairs. Though gracious and kind, they are visibly fatigued: Two days prior, Hipolito had gone into cardiac arrest – for the third time – and he had just returned home from the hospital.
They moved to Dona Park as newlyweds in 1970, months after Hurricane Celia blew the roof off their first apartment and soaked their belongings. Dona Park was a predominantly white community back then; they were the first Latino family on their block. Hipolito, a Vietnam veteran, repeatedly applied for jobs at ASARCO, but always got turned down. He found work at other plants, though, including a job loading benzene – a known carcinogen – on and off trailers. While they feel grateful to their industrial neighbors for providing them a lifetime of financial security, they too wonder about the personal cost. Their children were plagued with allergies growing up, and often had bloody noses. Consuelo has had cysts in her breast, a tumor in her pituitary gland, and liver problems; Hipolito has suffered from prostate cancer and congestive heart failure. They have tried to be as cooperative with the TCEQ as possible, submitting to numerous studies over the years. “We have given them blood. We have given them pee. We have given them soil. And then they come back and want to do it all over again,” Consuelo says.
They have already resolved to leave Dona Park. The question is how. Selling their home is no longer an option: Its value has slipped from $89,000 to $55,000 in recent years, Consuelo says. Moreover, they don’t want to perpetuate the cycle. “You come here because this is what you can afford, and when you leave, your homes are sold to people who don’t know what is happening here. Now people are selling their property to illegal immigrants who don’t know what their children are facing.”
So no, the Gonzalez family doesn’t want to sell their home. They want a buyout. That is not without precedence: The federal government recently bought the town of Pincher, Oklahoma, once the site of an ASARCO-owned mine, at a cost of $55 million. But for the most part the government only funds buyouts of homes built directly over hazardous waste sites, such as New York’s Love Canal. An industry buyout is much more likely. Closer to downtown Corpus Christi, the bulk of the residential Oak Park Triangle neighborhood was bought out in the late nineties, due to its close proximity to Citgo.
Tammy Foster acknowledges that she has been offered a buyout in the past year – from whom, she won’t say. She says she will not accept it until the rest of her neighbors are offered one, too.
I returned to Dona Park over Easter weekend of 2012, about nine months after my last visit. The demolition crews have made remarkable progress: Nearly the entire site has been razed, save for a couple of administrative buildings and a skeletal warehouse. Even the ASARCO smokestack – for years, the landmark of Dona Park – has been toppled. Black netting shrouds the chain-link and barbed-wire fencing. Off in the distance, I can see the ship channel dotted with barges, and beyond that, slowly whirling wind turbines.
It has been a rough year for residents. The Fosters, Plackers, and Gonzalezes are full of stories about distressing sights and sounds from the demolition site. Consuelo Gonzalez shows me the fine black grit coating her plants, birdbath, hurricane shutters, and wind chimes. “We’ve been through a lot,” she says. “The wind blew really hard some days, and they polluted us again and again.”
According to a TCEQ Dona Park Neighborhood Ambient Air Monitoring Program report posted online, arsenic levels of 35.2459 micrograms per cubic meter (ug/m3), cadmium of 0.5993 ug/m3, chromium of 12.0219 ug/m3, and lead of 18.1239 ug/m3 were recorded just a few blocks away from the Gonzalez home on December 7, 2011. Those readings exceed the TCEQ’s “action levels” 350-fold for arsenic, 6-fold for cadmium, 3.3-fold for chromium, and 121-fold for lead. In response, the TCEQ halted the demolition until enhanced emission controls were implemented, and contends that action levels have not been exceeded since December 16. This did little to assuage Consuelo’s fears.
“I want to get out of Dodge,” she says. “I am tired of living in the slums. I deserve better.” She and Hipolito have a new house picked out in Cypress, Texas, near where their daughter lives, but Hipolito started having doubts a few weeks ago, when Consuelo had a health scare requiring hospitalization.
“I came home and called my neighbor of 40 years and she came over right away and helped me. I really felt security in that,” he says. Scooping up a Chihuahua, he looks at his wife and then at me. “What will I do if we move somewhere new?”
Corpus Christi native Stephanie Elizondo Griest is the author of Mexican Enough: My Life Between the Borderlines and Around the Bloc: My Life in Moscow, Beijing, and Havana.