Exposing the Grave Dangers of Life in an Oil Refinery Zone
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“I called the County Commissioner, I called the news teams, and then I went over to the front gate where there was a security guard. I said, ‘I’m from the neighborhood and that wind is blowing at 30 miles per hour so you have to stop this.’ And he said, ‘Let me tell you, I don’t care what you or TCEQ says about this, this is now the property of federal bankruptcy court, and they say we can demolish it and we will.’”
Billy’s black eyes grow round and serious. “Well let me tell you, the Good Lord held me back from jumping that fence and killing him then and there. And the Good Lord didn’t allow me to remember what he looked like either, because if I had seen him at a 7-11 later that day, I might have killed him there too.”
As the state’s chief environmental agency, the TCEQ was granted nearly $1 billion by the Texas legislature to protect the state’s air, water, and soil during the 2009-2010 biennium. Yet it is scorned by environmental groups that say the agency is too close to the industries it regulates. The governor of Texas – who has been either George W. Bush or Rick Perry since 1995 – appoints the TCEQ’s top managers, who in the past have included lobbyists for the Texas Chemical Council, former executives of Monsanto, and lawyers for the oil industry. The current chairman, Dr. Bryan Shaw, is a self-declared climate change skeptic who has repeatedly battled regulatory efforts by the EPA. This is one reason why Dona Park residents hiss when you say the agency’s name.
Take Consuelo and Hipolito Gonzalez. They have lived in Dona Park longer than almost anybody, more than 40 years. Their home is one of the nicest in the neighborhood, with a giant pine tree in the front yard and an American flag rippling from a pole. The afternoon I visit in the summer of 2011, a pack of Chihuahuas prance about the hardwood floor while Consuelo and Hipolito rest in twin leather chairs. Though gracious and kind, they are visibly fatigued: Two days prior, Hipolito had gone into cardiac arrest – for the third time – and he had just returned home from the hospital.
They moved to Dona Park as newlyweds in 1970, months after Hurricane Celia blew the roof off their first apartment and soaked their belongings. Dona Park was a predominantly white community back then; they were the first Latino family on their block. Hipolito, a Vietnam veteran, repeatedly applied for jobs at ASARCO, but always got turned down. He found work at other plants, though, including a job loading benzene – a known carcinogen – on and off trailers. While they feel grateful to their industrial neighbors for providing them a lifetime of financial security, they too wonder about the personal cost. Their children were plagued with allergies growing up, and often had bloody noses. Consuelo has had cysts in her breast, a tumor in her pituitary gland, and liver problems; Hipolito has suffered from prostate cancer and congestive heart failure. They have tried to be as cooperative with the TCEQ as possible, submitting to numerous studies over the years. “We have given them blood. We have given them pee. We have given them soil. And then they come back and want to do it all over again,” Consuelo says.
They have already resolved to leave Dona Park. The question is how. Selling their home is no longer an option: Its value has slipped from $89,000 to $55,000 in recent years, Consuelo says. Moreover, they don’t want to perpetuate the cycle. “You come here because this is what you can afford, and when you leave, your homes are sold to people who don’t know what is happening here. Now people are selling their property to illegal immigrants who don’t know what their children are facing.”