Texas Environmentalist Takes Issue with Big Oil Hilton Kelley believes oil refineries are destroying Port Arthur, Texas, which has some of the largest producers of gasoline in the country. But many residents are impoverished, and Kelley says refineries have taken from Port Arthur for decades, dumping toxic waste on its residents and leaving the town in shambles.
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Texas Environmentalist Takes Issue with Big Oil

Texas Environmentalist Takes Issue with Big Oil

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Hilton Kelley believes oil refineries are destroying Port Arthur, Texas, which has some of the largest producers of gasoline in the country. But many residents are impoverished, and Kelley says refineries have taken from Port Arthur for decades, dumping toxic waste on its residents and leaving the town in shambles.

LIANE HANSEN, host:

It made sense for the Motiva/Shell refinery of Port Arthur, Texas, to announce plans to boost its capacity. After all, the demand for oil and the price per barrel keep climbing. Other refineries in and around the city are also stepping up their output. But some residents of Port Arthur don't like what the energy boom is doing to their city.

One of them showed NPR's Jason Beaubien around what's become of Port Arthur, Texas.

JASON BEAUBIEN: Oil is the life blood of Port Arthur. But Hilton Kelley says it's also what's killing the city of 55,000 people. Kelley, a stocky 45-year-old, was born and raised in Port Arthur. He's driving through downtown.

Mr. HILTON KELLEY (Director, Community in-Power and Development Association): As you can see, this is the World Trade building. Look at it. Boarded up, falling apart and it's about a six-story building.

BEAUBIEN: The street looks like a movie set for a post-apocalyptic ghost town. The brick storefronts are empty, their plate-glass windows covered in layers of dust. There are no pedestrians, no parked cars, and aside from Kelley's pickup, no vehicles on the road.

Mr. KELLEY: As we go downtown the center, a street which is Proctor(ph). When you look right and left, you see nothing but abandoned buildings boarded up. But yet, we sit on the (unintelligible) line of $30 to $40-billion-a-year companies. This makes absolutely no sense.

BEAUBIEN: Port Arthur is surrounded by a maze of industrial pipes, storage tanks and smokestacks from half-dozen chemical plants. Driving in from Houston, the first signs of the city are the silvery tops of refinery distillation towers. Most of the major oil producers have a presence here - Total, Valero, Chevron Phillips, Shell, BASF, Fina.

With the expansion of the Motiva/Shell plant, refineries here will be able to process more than a million barrels of crude a day. Kelley points out what used to be Antoine's(ph) auditorium - he remembers in the 1970s when Al Green, James Brown, even B.B. King played there.

Mr. KELLEY: But look at this place. The heyday has been gone. This building this used to be a clinic. This used to be a board - a bed and breakfast.

BEAUBIEN: Many residents in Port Arthur are so poor that blue plastic tarps handed out in the wake of Hurricane Rita in 2005 still flap over their roofs. Port Arthur's first oil refinery opened in 1903, and the city's been an oil refining hub ever since.

After high school, Kelley left Port Arthur to join the Navy. Later, he lived in California for a few years. But he said he came back because he was disgusted by what was happening to his hometown.

Port Arthur, Kelley says, was becoming a dumping ground for dirty industries. And in his view, that's continued. This summer, the Army shipped tons of VX nerve gas residue to an incinerator here. The waste had been rejected earlier by facilities in two other states.

Through his group Community In-Power Development Association, Kelley has filed lawsuits against the city's industrial plants, claiming their emissions caused chronic health problems for residents here.

Melba Provost-Wilkes(ph) lives in the Carver Terrace public housing project across the street from the Valero refinery. Wilkes suffers from asthma, emphysema and bronchitis - all of which she blames on the adjacent plant.

Ms. MELBA PROVOST-WILKES: We're just, you know, trying to breathe. You know, if we can't breathe, then we can't survive. And the slightest of chemicals or something like that, it throws us back. It fills your lungs full of fluid. And mine stays like that if I get too much of - the odor's not bad.

BEAUBIEN: On July 28, hydrogen sulfide spewed out of a tank at the Valero refinery, fumes laden with the sulfuric rotten egg stench swept through her neighborhood.

Ms. WILKES: I was here and it was a Saturday. Warm like it is today and the odor was horrible. It was, you know, breathtaking - you couldn't breath.

BEAUBIEN: Could you go out and walk around in it or…

Ms. WILKES: Oh no, sir. You couldn't - I couldn't walk. I got very dizzy, I almost blacked out.

BEAUBIEN: Wilkes and others in the area say that the chemical smell was overwhelming for a couple of hours. Police came through and told residents to shelter in place, meaning go inside. Wilkes says it took more than a day for the odors to fully go away.

Ms. WILKES: But this is not the first time we've had, you know, a spill or odor or emission because I've been here eight years and this must be the fourth one.

BEAUBIEN: Bill Day, a spokesman for Valero Energy based in San Antonio, says that gas cloud was created by an industrial accidents in one of their refinery storage tanks.

Mr. BILL DAY (Spokesman, Valero Energy): You know, it's very rare that we have something like this happen. It's a - we have owned that refinery for a little over two years and in that time nothing like this had ever happened. So it's not a common occurrence and it's not something that we took lightly.

BEAUBIEN: Day says some people did seek medical attention and Valero compensated residents who went to the hospital or were inconvenienced. He says Valero has taken steps to try to prevent an accident like this in the future.

He adds that Valero is a good corporate citizen in Port Arthur. It pays taxes, provides jobs and donates to local charities. As for emissions, Day says, the refinery operates under the rules set out by the government.

Mr. DAY: We are a very highly-regulated industry. We have certain criteria that we have to meet and so we operate within those levels.

BEAUBIEN: Hilton Kelley argues that the burdens that refineries place on Port Arthur residents aren't about one refinery or one gas leak. He says the problem is that so much dirty industry is clustered in one town. And he says the refineries are expanding while the rest of the city is falling apart. Buildings damaged during Hurricane Rita sit vacant, small businesses have fled, and the only remaining shop in West Port Arthur is a small convenience store.

Mr. KELLEY: We don't have a supermarket on this side of town anymore. We had three supermarkets on this side of town at one time, and now we don't have one. There's a guy that goes around in a van selling people rice and beans and meat, almost as if we were in a third world country in this area, sad to say.

BEAUBIEN: Kelley says refineries have been operating on the cheap for years and people in Port Arthur - particularly, the black section of town - are paying the price.

Mr. KELLEY: In other countries, they operate refineries a lot cleaner. And here they just don't want to spend the extra buck because they look at African-Americans as being expendable. But I say this, if they're not going to take my health into consideration, I say we go back to horse and buggies. And if the rest of the nation want gasoline, then help us with this fight. Help us to push industries to do the right thing, to help clean up our community. But we are not going to be ignored here.

BEAUBIEN: Hilton Kelley says there's something fundamentally wrong in Port Arthur.

On one side, the refinery expenses are stockpiles of gasoline worth hundreds of millions of dollars. On the other side are dilapidated shotgun shacks, still draped in blue plastic tarps from a hurricane two years ago.

Motorists in the U.S. burn almost 400 million gallons of gas each day, and Kelley recognizes the need for fuel, but he says he wants Americans who don't live next door to a refinery to understand some of the hidden costs of producing that gasoline.

Jason Beaubien, NPR News.

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