Saturday, October 20, 2007

Texas town lures industry, at a cost

PORT ARTHUR, Texas - There is a quiet battle for the future of this industrial town, one of America's most polluted places.

On one side is ex-mayor Oscar Ortiz, who in the waning days of his administration worried about one thing. But it wasn't the toxic chemicals that spew from petrochemical plants, the town's richest landowners, through the windows of its poorest residents.

What rattled white-maned, barrel-chested Ortiz, who ran Port Arthur for nine years, was that someday the petrochemical plants would go away.

"The only money here in the city of Port Arthur that amounts to anything comes from industry, from petrochemical companies," said Ortiz, leaning back in his chair in an office decorated with framed photographs of refineries. "If industry goes away, people might as well go away too because there'll be no money. That's the continued salvation of this city."

Hilton Kelley, like Ortiz born and raised in Port Arthur, is the opposition.

Kelley does worry about the toxic chemicals, the foul-smelling air and the west side residents who suffer from asthma, respiratory ailments, skin irritations and cancer. As the city's most visible environmental activist, Kelley has long campaigned for more restrictions on industrial construction and stricter monitoring of plant emissions.

"I grew up smelling the SO2 (sulfur dioxide) smell, the chemicals. I remember seeing little kids with sores on their legs, with mucus running in August. It's ridiculous what we've had to deal with," says Kelley, a former actor with the sonorous voice of a radio announcer. "We're not trying to shut doors of industry. We're just trying to push these guys to do what's right."

Ortiz calls Kelley an alarmist who likes to "stir things up" in the minority community Kelley accuses Ortiz of sacrificing the community's welfare in exchange for slim tax revenue from the plants.

One man represents Port Arthur the way it has always been; the other symbolizes a growing call for change.

But change, especially in a place like Port Arthur, never comes easily.

"This city is not going to change. It is a refinery town — tomorrow, next year, 100 years from now. It will always be a petro-chemical area," says Ortiz.

And if its residents are getting sick from the pollution?

Well, says Ortiz: "We've all got to die of something."


Port Arthur, located next to the Louisiana line, sits in a corridor routinely ranked as one of the country's most polluted regions. Texas and Louisiana are home to five oil refineries considered among the nation's 10 worst offenders in releasing toxic air pollutants, emitting 8.5 million pounds of toxins together in 2002.

Yet even here, Port Arthur stands out.

Its skyline is framed by the smokestacks and knotted steel pipes of the refineries and chemical plants clustered along the edges of the town. Flares from the plants glow red against the night sky, as incinerated chemicals filter into the air.

The smell of rotten eggs and sulphur hangs stubbornly over the apartments and shotgun houses on the west side. Port Arthur, population 57,000, is on the EPA's list of cities with dangerous ozone levels, and the state has flagged its excessive levels of benzene.

Many cities along the Texas Gulf Coast are dotted with refineries. But the companies' high tax bills are used to improve schools, create green space and bulk up city coffers. Port Arthur waives most property taxes to lure industry.

Here is the full article.