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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.

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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.

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.

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