From [TheIntercept] JOSEPH GAINES WAS sitting on his porch in the Charlton-Pollard section of Beaumont, Texas, on a recent evening in June, sipping beer and chatting with some of his neighbors about the NBA playoffs, when a loud boom cut through the night and a stream of fire lit up the sky. A few minutes later, a strong, unpleasant odor settled over the street. As soon as they smelled it, the men stopped arguing about LeBron James and left the porch, covering their mouths and noses as they hurried into their homes.
As unsettling as it was, none of the neighbors reported what happened that night — not the fire that rose above their heads, nor the sound they heard, the sickening smell or the symptoms that followed. For Gaines, the symptoms included an intense sudden headache, tearing eyes, a runny nose, and congestion that made it difficult to sleep and lasted into the next day.
Gaines, who works in lawn care, had the day off when I met him at his home, and as he went about fixing himself something to eat and heading out to sit on his small porch, he occasionally sniffed and dabbed at his eyes.
“No point in complaining,” he said, looking out at the row of modest houses across the street. A block and a half from Gaines’s house, the street ends in an Exxon Mobil refinery that processes “sour crude,” oil that contains high amounts of sulfur. The process of removing the impurities and refining the oil into gasoline produces sulfur dioxide, hydrogen sulfide, and other gases that can cause respiratory, neurological, cardiac, and other serious health problems. Those gasses also give the neighborhood a rotten egg odor that occasionally wafted in with the warm breeze as Gaines and I sat on his porch.
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In Charlton-Pollard, flare events like the one Gaines and his neighbors encountered that night — in which the flames that usually burn on top of the smokestacks erupt into smelly belches of fire — are regular occurrences. The flames burst so reliably from the refinery some local kids treat them as fireworks, gathering at the fence down the street from Gaines’s house at night to catch the show.
The plant releases at least 135 toxic chemicals, many of which — including 1,3-butadiene, benzo[a]pyrene, and styrene — are carcinogens. And the plant is regularly in noncompliance with the Clean Air Act. Yet many of the people I met on my recent visit to Charlton-Pollard said they felt there was no point in trying to reduce the emissions.
“Why would I bother?” asked Gaines’s neighbor Rebecca Thibeaux, who is 64 and has lived near the plant since she was 30 years old. Thibeaux was diagnosed with both endometrial cancer and serious heart problems last year; when we spoke she had just returned from chemotherapy and was resting on her couch. Thibeaux said she suspects pollution from the refinery may have caused her ailments. And it’s certainly possible. The refinery emits carcinogens, and several studies have shown an increased incidence of cancer in people living near these facilities. Exposure to several of the chemicals the plant emits has also been tied to increased risk of heart disease. But Thibeaux dismissed the idea that she might be able to convince a powerful company to change its ways. “It’s not like anything any of us do or say will stop them.”
People who can afford to live elsewhere tend to leave the neighborhood. A family who lived next door to Gaines recently left because they feared the pollution was the reason their 12-year-old daughter had begun losing her hair after they moved in. Theirs, too, was a reasonable fear. Physicians have documented a relationship between exposure to airborne contaminants, including many the plant emits, and hair loss. Research has also shown an increase in birth defects among people living near refineries, as well as in children’s asthma rates. But the family didn’t stick around to parse the science; they just took their daughter to a place that smelled and felt safer.
Meanwhile Thibeaux, Gaines, and the others who remain in the roughly square-mile neighborhood just west of the Exxon Mobil plant had good reason to doubt their concerns would be taken seriously: They already raised them in a formal complaint to the Environmental Protection Agency — 17 years ago.
On April 13, 2000, Charlton-Pollard residents asked the EPA to force the state of Texas to revoke a permit it had recently granted the refinery to increase operations. The law requires the EPA to acknowledge receipt of a complaint within five business days, conduct an investigation, and send the complainants preliminary findings within 200 days after that. After one response three years later — a promise to investigate — the federal agency devoted to protecting Americans from environmental threats did nothing to revoke the permit; for years the EPA didn’t respond at all.
Between 2000 and 2016, while the people who live next to the plant waited for an investigation, the refinery emitted more than 400 million pounds of pollution into the air. Yet in all those years, the EPA never once consulted the people who were most affected.
In May, 17 years after the initial complaint, the EPA finally issued a letter declaring the case over the refinery pollution resolved, with only small changes to be implemented. Many people I spoke with in Charlton-Pollard found the agency’s proposed fixes — two community meetings and a single air monitor to be placed more than a mile away from the plant — more insulting than having been ignored for 17 years.
Adding insult to injury, the residents of this small, mostly African-American neighborhood are now likely facing an increase in emissions as the result of the planned expansion of the refinery and an Exxon Mobil chemical plant that uses its oil. And as the Trump administration rolls back pollution protections and opens the gates for increased oil production, life in this and many other communities living near refineries is about to get much more dangerous and unpleasant.
T WAS THE mid-1990s when a local Baptist pastor named Roy Malveaux began organizing the residents of Charlton-Pollard in response to pollution from the local refinery. Back then, Exxon Mobil was just Mobil (the oil giants had yet to merge), and refineries around the country had less pollution-control equipment. Texas refineries emitted more toxic chemicals per barrel of oil than those in any other state, and the Beaumont facility emitted more pollution than any other in Texas. The pollution was so pervasive that residents had to wipe residue off their cars in the morning, according to the complaint Malveaux filed with the EPA. Some people reportedly fainted after breathing bursts of foul-smelling air.
Though air pollution from the refinery was already regularly exceeding some of the limits set in its permits — and, for hydrogen sulfide and sulfur dioxide, also exceeding state-wide safety levels — Mobil proposed expanding its plant in 1999. The company acknowledged that the move would further increase emissions of several contaminants, including sulfur dioxide, volatile organic compounds (VOCs), and hydrogen sulfide (which can cause both short-term respiratory and memory problems, as well as permanent damage to the heart, brain, and lungs). The company proposed offsetting the increases in the refinery with reductions at its petrochemical plant nearby.
Such horse-trading is common in many parts of the country, but according to Kelly Haragan, director of the environmental law clinic at the University of Texas School of Law in Austin, it’s particularly difficult to ascertain whether the companies honor the terms of these deals in Texas: “The way Texas issues air permits — with a single facility having dozens of different permits — it’s very hard to determine if companies are following the netting rules that apply when they add and subtract different emissions to determine whether they trigger permitting and pollution-control requirements.”
Malveaux and several other people strongly objected to the expansion and asked the Texas agency in charge of refineries to grant them a hearing to voice their concerns. But in 1999, the state denied their request and determined that a permit was not necessary because total emissions from both the company’s refinery and chemical plant would not be exceeded. Brian McGovern, a spokesperson for the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, wrote in an email that “the permit application was reviewed and authorized in accordance with state and federal regulations in place at the time, which included a health effects review to ensure that emissions from the Beaumont refinery were not exceeding safe levels, and that best available control technology was being implemented.”
But Malveaux was already watching members of his community suffer from pollution. He was struggling with it himself, getting headaches and nausea when the air was at its worst. His young niece had recently developed severe asthma after she was placed in daycare near the refinery, and he had watched as the condition improved just as suddenly after his sister moved her to a childcare center farther from the plant. After the state agency denied a request for a hearing, he decided to complain to the EPA, with the help of the Texas chapter of the Sierra Club.
The filing Malveaux and the environmental groups submitted on behalf of Charlton-Pollard residents described Exxon Mobil’s emissions swap scheme, the chemical pollution, and the expansion, which they predicted would only make the pollution worse. And the complaint went further, arguing that the location of the oil refinery — next to a neighborhood where 95 percent of residents were African-American — was a civil rights violation.
Named for a clause of the Civil Rights Act, such Title VI cases are meant to hold government agencies accountable for discrimination on the basis of race. The Beaumont complaint argued that by issuing the permit despite repeated complaints about pollution, the Texas agency, which is subject to the civil rights law because it receives federal money, had violated the rights of the people of Charlton-Pollard.
A compact man with piercing eyes and a well-trimmed beard, Malveaux remembers when he got the 2003 response from the EPA saying the federal agency would investigate the problems in Charlton-Pollard. Already some of residents’ fears about the expansion had become reality. Just a year after the permit was issued, in 2000, the plant greatly increased its emissions of VOCs, chemicals that can cause headaches, loss of coordination, and nausea, as well as cancer and damage to the liver, kidney, and central nervous system. In 2004, a particularly heavy year for emissions at the plant, according to data from the TCEQ, the annual average level of hydrogen sulfide near the refinery was four times what it had been in 1997.
Malveaux was pleasantly surprised by the EPA’s 2003 response. The agency had set up its office of civil rights and had begun taking Title VI complaints only in the 1990s. And he suspected — rightly as it turned out — that most such complaints had not even received the promise of an investigation. Although the wheels of environmental justice were turning slowly, he was encouraged to see them turning at all. “I was overjoyed by the letter,” Malveaux recalled recently. “The whole community had a sense of joy because EPA was going to be investigating our complaint. They really thought that something would come out of it.” [MORE]