Exposing the Grave Dangers of Life in an Oil Refinery Zone
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“You see that, mija?” Valentine says, pointing at the narrow stairwell snaking up the towering smokestack. Back in the seventies, he and a buddy used to scale it to change the light bulbs on the aircraft warning device. “We’d climb straight up, no safety equipment or nothing. I would be saying Hail Marys and Our Fathers the whole time.”
“Why did you do it?”
He blinks at me in surprise and furrows his brow. “We got two and a half times our salary! We had families to feed.”
Dismantling the smokestack is expected to be the demolition’s most delicate operation. Crews will first remove its asbestos skin using a “wet-scraping” method. Then they will cut down the tower foot by foot with hydraulic shears, starting from the top so that pieces fall inward to the base of the stack. They plan to build an enclosed scaffold to ensure no asbestos flies away, but as Valentine says, “Good luck with that. It was already falling apart back when I used to work there. It was all rusty.”
Valentine was also instructed to dump truckloads of waste into the fields outside the plant, near the ship channel. We drive around to the back of the plant so he can show me where. Overgrown with grass and weeds, the fields are level but raised, like an artificial mesa, within a baseball whack of the channel. “I saw what we were doing and thought, ‘This is not a good idea.’ There was a slope going right down into the water. I asked the foreman, ‘What if it rains?’ and he said, ‘Yeah, I wouldn’t go fishing down there if I were you.’”
The residents of Dona Park received no such warnings, however. Days later, I meet a 48-year-old man who not only used to fish in the ship channel when he was a boy – he used to swim down there.
“We used to go to the end of the plant, where they had a reservoir pumped full of mud that looked like liquid peanut butter, and we would take that and chuck it at each other,” says Billy Placker, a lifelong resident of Dona Park. “My daddy [who worked at ASARCO] once took a bunch of pipes from the waste pile and made us a swing set with it. We would go by the grain elevator and shoot rats with BB guns. We could have blown the whole place up!”
A compact man with a full black beard and mound of curly hair, Placker is one of the most vocal critics of the demolition. He is hardly your stereotypical environmentalist: A self-declared “radically saved Christian,” he is a construction worker who wears ball caps emblazoned with slogans like GOD IS IN CONTROL. He invites me to his house to chat. A homemade sign planted in his front yard reads “Save The Dona Park Children From Toxic Soil Contamination/Lead, Cadmium, Arsenic, Zinc. Hair And Soil Samples Proved It.” As we walk through his front gate, a German shepherd hobbles over, lifting its haunches.
“What’s wrong with your dog?” I ask.
“We don’t know. It started about five months ago.”
As if on cue, the dog turns around, revealing a massive growth covering its entire backside, before limping toward a shade tree. We enter Placker’s home. Modest on the outside, it has high vaulted ceilings, black granite countertops, and a Jacuzzi inside, plus a pool out back. Placker remodeled it all himself, and beams with pride when I compliment his handiwork.
I join him and his wife Pat in their living room as they tick off the illnesses in their family. Billy’s son has William’s Syndrome, a rare neurodevelopmental disorder that includes mental disability, heart defects, and elfin facial features. Two of his grandchildren – who live next door – have asthma and attention deficit disorder; another has a foot deformity. Turning around on the couch, Pat points at nearby houses through the window. In that house, a lady has cancer. Next door, same thing. Across the street lives a little boy who, she says, has no ears.
Like most of their neighbors, the Plackers are deeply conflicted about what to do. They love Dona Park. Billy’s parents, children, and grandchildren all live within a three-block radius, as do his childhood friends. They have built their dream house here. But when they step out the door, they can see dust clouds rising from the demolition. They can hear bulldozers gnashing their teeth. The last time a northern wind swirled through, Billy fell into a panic.