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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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When I ask about growing up in Dona Park, she smirks. “When they got home from work, my brothers would get undressed in the front yard because my mom didn’t want them bringing anything inside,” she says with a salty twang. “And if they worked in the contaminated area, they would get naked in the backyard and Mom would hose them down.”

Tammy didn’t pay the refineries much mind herself until Javelina started building a gas processing facility a few blocks away when she was in high school. “Suddenly, my bedroom was like daylight twenty-four hours a day, like the sun was rising right in my bedroom. We hung up blackout curtains, but it didn’t help. I didn’t sleep for a year, so I would fall asleep every day in ag class.”

She joined her mom and the neighbors in picketing the plant’s construction on weekends, even caravanning to Austin to lobby lawmakers. Then she married an industrial painter whose work whisked them overseas and across the United States. By the time they returned to Texas eight years later, Tammy’s mother had bought a new house in the city proper, leaving behind a fully paid-for house in Dona Park.

“My brother was supposed to move in the house, but I said, ‘Oh no you’re not, not with two little girls. All the damage that’s been done to me has already been done,’” she says.

Against her mother’s wishes, Tammy and her husband moved back to Dona Park in the summer of 1999, lured by the prospect of free rent. When a northern wind sailed in the following spring, Tammy awoke one morning to a ferocious itch. A rash burned across her body, from her face to her feet. She went in for a round of Benadryl shots, now an annual ritual, and soon became a watchdog of the industry. She joined a local activist group called Citizens for Environmental Justice and became its Dona Park Chair. She started attending meetings, lots of meetings – of the City Council, of the TCEQ, of the Texas EPA. She offered “Toxic Tours” of Refinery Row to the media and to government officials. Above all, she monitored her industrial neighbors and reported anything she perceived as an irregularity, from odors to flare-ups.

“On a good day, I call TCEQ once a day,” she says, holding up her cell phone to prove it. “I’ve already called them twice this morning.”

It isn’t even noon yet.

I was raised in south-central Corpus, about nine miles from Tammy’s home. We graduated from the same high school, two years apart. But while her childhood skyline consisted of petrochemical plants, mine was dotted with palm trees. My family’s chief thoroughfares were South Padre Island Drive (a highway lined with chain stores and restaurants that eventually deposits you at the beach) and Ocean Drive (a boulevard dotted with million-dollar mansions and a knock-out view of the Corpus Christi Bay). I was well aware of Refinery Row, however, because three of my uncles used to work there. For 14 years, one worked at ASARCO.

Growing up, I thought Uncle Valentine was a dashing man, always clad in cowboy boots, a cowboy hat, and a giant silver belt buckle that read ELIZONDO, his last name. He has since shaved off his handsome handlebar moustache, but he still drives a mighty big truck. He picks me up one morning after my meeting with Tammy, and we drive down to the old ASARCO site together. Three months into the demolition, colossal warehouses have already been reduced to shards and scree. Here and there, steel rods protrude from the rubble as if waving in surrender. From Upriver Road, there are no tarps in sight, although we can see mist rising from the snow blowers used to stifle dust flow.

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