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Exposing the Grave Dangers of Life in an Oil Refinery Zone

Residents of Corpus Christi, Texas are afraid of the chemicals around them -- and scared to leave home.

Photo Credit: 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.

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.

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