The Cancer Belt

People around Port Neches like to say that the odor from the chemical plants nearby is the smell of money. But it could also be the smell of death.

Before he got sick, Carlos Dwight Stokes liked to hunt rabbits. He would usually go hunting at night, after supper, when the open fields near his neighborhood in Port Neches were covered with darkness and dew. Wearing faded blue jeans and carrying a bow and arrow, Carlos looked like the kind of teenager who knew how to take care of himself. He was broad-shouldered and big-boned. He stood an inch over six feet tall and weighed a good 215 pounds. He had blond hair and what his mother later described as “blue-blue” eyes. He was, as his father says, “strong as a mule.”

The fields where Carlos used to hunt lay between his parents’ house and the petrochemical plants. In darkness as in light the plants dominated the low, marshy landscape of Port Neches (population: 13,000) like skyscrapers looming over a city’s streets. In fact, when first seen at night and from a distance with their bright strings of lights arcing from distillation tower to distillation tower like suspension bridges, the plants seemed to be whole cities unto themselves. Up close they were even more awesome-living steel monsters belching forth smoke, fire and tumes.

Of course, Carlos Stokes and most of his Port Neches neighbors took the petrochemical plants for granted. The plants were neither fearsome nor inspiring. They were simply the area’s bread and butter, the place where almost everybody worked. The plant closest to Carlos’s hunting grounds belonged to Neches Butane. Right next door were the B.F. Goodrich and Texas- U.S. Chemical (now SYNPOL) plants. Together, these last two plants covered roughly a hundred acres and formed the largest synthetic rubber complex in the world. Also nearby were the Texaco asphalt plant and terminal, on the Neches River, and Jefferson Chemical (now Texaco Chemical Company). On the outskirts of Port Neches and in the neighboring cities of Beaumont, Port Arthur, and Orange were scores of other major petrochemical plants and refineries, the largest concentration of such plants in the world and the industrial base of Texas known as the Golden Triangle.

During the daytime, Carlos liked to go fishing near the plants. He even used to sneak over the fence at Neches Butane and fish in the plant’s reservoir—that is, until he got caught. After that, he stuck to fishing in the canals and creeks that emptied into the Neches River. He never ate any of the fish he caught. He just did it for the sport.

Carlos also went to school near the plants. The classrooms and playing fields of Port Neches-Groves High School ran parallel to the rubber and butane plants just a few blocks away. Thanks to the prevailing southeasterly Louisiana wind, noise and odors from the plants so regularly wafted across the school grounds that Carlos and most of his classmates barely noticed them.

Carlos graduated from Port Neches-Groves High School in 1968. He attended two years of vocational training classes at Lamar University in Beaumont, did a two-year hitch in the Army, got a job as a machinist back in Port Neches, got married, and fathered two children. But as he neared his mid-twenties, he became very sick. On July 20, 1974, after a protracted illness, Carlos died of leukemia at the age of 25. According to his father, the blond, blue-blue-eyed young man who was once strong as a mule passed away “all shriveled up like a spider.”

Carlos Dwight Stokes’s widow believes that her husband’s death was caused by exposure to cancer-inducing chemicals emitted by the petrochemical plants of Port Neches and the rest of the Golden Triangle area. Unlike most of his male neighbors in Port Neches, Carlos never actually worked in a petrochemical plant. But his widow believes that by growing up near the plants of Port Neches—by hunting, fishing, and going to school in his community—he was “bombarded” by the carcinogens that caused his death. One of a small but growing minority of local citizens who blame the petrochemical plants for causing cancer in the community, the former Mrs. Stokes bases her belief partly on three sad facts:

* Between 1943 and 1976, 9 of the 1662 people who worked at the B. F. Goodrich plant a few blocks from Port Neches-Groves High School died of cancers of the blood or the lymph nodes. Five of thosecases were leukemia, a cancer involving the white blood cells. The five leukemia deaths were nearly three times the number expected to occur in a similar-sized segment of the general population.

* Between 1964 and 1974, three Port Neches-Groves High School graduates besides Carlos Dwight Stokes died of leukemia. These four deaths were more than four times the number of deaths expected to occur in a group that size.

* Ever since they opened in the forties, the rubber plants of Port Neches and the other plants and refineries in the Golden Triangle have used confirmed and suspected cancer-causing chemicals, including chemicals associated with causing leukemia. There are many kinds of leukemia. The kind that killed the four high school graduates was acute myelogenous leukemia, which studies have associated with exposure to certain petrochemicals.

What is significant about Carlos Stokes’s widow’s ideas about her husband’s death is that if they are true, then it is risky even to live in the prosperous area where the petrochemical plants are concentrated. In other words, she is saying that whole communities—not just certain chemicals or certain workplaces—can be hazardous to your health. Statistics seem to bear her theory out. The four counties that make up metropolitan Houston (Harris, Galveston, Brazoria, and Montgomery) and the two that make up the Golden Triangle (Jefferson and Orange) have some of the highest rates of cancer death in the state. Texas as a whole is well below the national average in cancer deaths, with 158.6 deaths per 100,000 population compared to 174 per 100,000 for the United States. But the rate in Harris County is 179 per 100,000; in Jefferson County, where Carlos Stokes lived, it is 187

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