Hazardous Duty

My father loved his job at a Gulf Coast oil refinery. In fact, he loved it to death.

March 1992By Comments

TODAY PORT ARTHUR IS A ROUGH, run-down refinery town, but when my father arrived there in the late 1940’s, it was booming. Big companies like Gulf and Texaco had been in the city since the early 1900’s. After World War II, those and other refiners began expanding to serve the thousands of new filling stations sprouting across America. New stores, hotels, and restaurants arose. Downtown pulsed with nightlife.

My father thought Port Arthur was a godsend. Jobs were scarce in the South, and he had been shipping out of the port of Mobile, Alabama, on oil freighters and tankers since dropping out of high school in 1943. So when Gulf offered him a job in Port Arthur making a very decent $1.25 an hour, he quickly accepted. It was a rare opportunity, and my father settled down for what looked like a lifelong career. But in 1964, at the age of 38, Gordon Lewis Ivey died of cancer.

I now suspect that his job killed him. More than that, I know he was not the only one. As a pipe fitter, my father routinely handled substances that today are known to be carcinogens. By the time I grew up and moved away in 1976, the rate of cancer and other fatal diseases in the area was starting to rise. In the mid-eighties, some of my father’s former refinery buddies began dying; sometimes their families were afflicted as well. The region where I grew up came to be known as the Cancer Belt.

When my father was born in 1926 in tiny Marion, Alabama, Port Arthur was an insignificant seaport. Gordon was the seventh son of a carpenter in a family of nine children. At seventeen, he went to work in the U.S. Merchant Marine. After the war, he worked on oil tankers.

During a stopover in Port Arthur in 1949, he met Nelwyn Fields. She was seventeen years old, one of thirteen children of an East Texas mailman. A straight A high school student, she was bright and attractive, with long brunette hair. The two of them were as different as oil and water—he, boisterous, athletic, and self-assured; she, shy, serious, with literary interests. Nevertheless, they hit it off, and in 1950 they were married.

By the time I was born in 1955, my father was prosperous. He bought a new maroon Mercury and splurged on snazzy sport coats and double-breasted suits. In 1959 he built a new house in nearby Port Neches, and we settled in as the typical sixties family. I couldn’t wait for him to get home every day because he usually brought me candy. But when I jumped in his lap—feeling snug and warm against his fuzzy, worn overalls—I could always smell the bitter odor of chemicals on his clothes. No matter how often they were washed, the smell never left.

Dad loved his job. He would volunteer to work if another pipe fitter was ill. At night he attended Lamar State College, intending to earn an industrial engineering degree and become a supervisor. His bosses noticed. In 1962 the plant manager chose my father out of six thousand men to represent his co-workers in a corporate tribute to Gulf’s worldwide work force. My father appeared in a group photo in the 1963 annual report.

When relatives visited, he would haul them to the top of the Rainbow Bridge, which towers over the Neches River and the refineries. Inside, the refineries resembled giant erector sets, with vast networks of steel pipes. At night they looked like alien cities, breathing fire and smoke, strung with glittering lights.

By day and night, though, refinery men worked in hellacious conditions. Dad specialized in chemical cleaning, handling hazardous substances like toluene and benzene. To remove stubborn hydrocarbon deposits from the towers and other large processing units, he used giant pumps to circulate volatile chemicals at rates of five hundred gallons a minute.

One of the most potent substances was Oakite 18, which contained authodichlorobenzene, a benzene derivative. The men hated it because it made them sick  and caused migraines. “Just one whiff of it made you dizzy,” says Ralph Bryant, now 62, who worked with my father in the fifties and became the supervisor of chemical cleaning in 1960.

After cleaning, the degraded chemicals were pumped into giant settling ponds as big as city blocks. Much of the chemical slop was drained into Taylor’s Bayou, which emptied into local waterways—a common practice among refiners.

Dad would also wash his pipe wrenches in the solvents, and he was constantly exposed to asbestos. When one of the refining units was refurbished, asbestos would float down from overhead pipes like snow. Ex-workers say they weren’t warned of the danger, certainly not adequately warned. “We didn’t have any protection, and we didn’t know much,” says Bryant. Since retiring in 1984, Bryant has suffered from heart disease and has been diagnosed as having pleural asbestosis, a cancer of the lung lining.

In early 1964 my father’s shoulder started hurting. The Gulf company doctor initially diagnosed his condition as bursitis, but the shoulder kept aching. In July, Port Arthur doctors discovered cancer cells in Dad’s lung and transferred him to Methodist Hospital in Houston.

I visited my father for the last time on a Friday, August 21, 1964. He sat up in the bed, lightly panting for breath, his face gaunt and scarlet with fever. His cotton pajamas seemed to swallow his emaciated frame. From his sixth-floor window we could see the new Astrodome going up miles away. Despite the disease that was eating away at his body, Dad remained upbeat. “When people can start playing baseball indoors,” he said, smiling, “just about anything’s possible.”

He died the next afternoon. The cancer had attacked every major organ in his body except his brain and heart. At his funeral I watched as his refinery buddies—big, burly men—cried like babies. My relatives consoled me, but I was hopelessly lost and dazed. Nothing made sense anymore.

Growing up in a close-knit refinery town had always been reassuring. But now our cozy three-bedroom house seemed cavernous and haunting, and even the most mundane activities seemed threatening. When I enrolled in the third grade a week later, my classmates crowded into the room, giggling and full of life. I stood quietly next to my mother, who was still dressed in black, feeling strangely detached from the activity. I was no longer just one of the kids.

The refineries, so magical before, now bothered me. They were always rattling and spewing out soot and filth, which aggravated my allergies unmercifully. Then there were the fires, explosions, and other mysterious incidents. In 1975, when I was a student at Lamar University, a cloud of toxic gas swept across the campus and enveloped dozens of students on their way to class. Three of them were so nauseated that they were hospitalized. They survived, although a story went around later that the chemicals had melted one student’s nylon stockings. Yet no one complained. These hassles seemed small compared with the millions of dollars the companies were pouring into the economy.

By 1976 the area was booming, and most of my friends were landing jobs at the plants. I moved to Austin that year to attend the University of Texas and returned home infrequently. As I moved on to Dallas, Denver, and Houston, though, I kept hearing reports about the rash of cancer deaths in the Port Arthur area. I wondered if there really was a cancer plague and if any of my old school buddies had been afflicted. After all, they had been working in the plants for more than a dozen years. By the late eighties I was looking for an excuse to check it out, as well as to visit my mother and two brothers. Then, in June 1989, my employer, Business Week, asked me to write a story about cancer in the area. I jumped in my car and drove down the next day.

Port Neches had changed. The region was still struggling to recover from big layoffs at the plants, and most merchants were more worried about the economy than about cancer. Scowling, the manager of a photography store griped about muckraking reporters giving Port Neches a bad reputation. I felt like an interloper. This was no longer the open, friendly town where I had grown up. But another downtown shop manager, who had contracted cancer herself, told me about an elementary school teacher who was researching cancer in the area.

The daughter of a refinery worker, the woman taught English as a second language in Port Neches. In 1988, at 39, she was diagnosed as having thyroid cancer. Then in 1989 she discovered three children with different forms of leukemia or aplastic anemia, rare blood diseases believed to be linked to benzene exposure. Two of the students were in her class. I looked her up and asked about her research. She was glad to talk, although she later requested that I not use her name. “I was horrified,” she told me. “You rarely see these diseases, and we had three cases in one school.”

All three children lived in Port Neches, less than three miles from three rubber and petrochemical plants. The teacher went door to door in nearby neighborhoods, then to local union halls and the senior citizens’ center. Soon she had compiled a list of more than two hundred names. Most of the cancer victims were refinery men in their fifties and sixties, and there were also a few women and children.

I returned the next spring, eager to see my old friends. By then I had finished the story for Business Week, but what I had discovered made me more curious than ever to know what had happened to my classmates. I looked up Roy Vergara, whom I had known since childhood. Roy had worked as a maintenance man at various plants, the last being Unocal’s Nederland facility. In 1988 Unocal laid him off, and in 1989 it closed the plant. Roy still lived with his parents in a tiny house near the plants and the high school stadium, where we had both run track.

Roy was bitter. Recently he had undergone a blood test, which showed traces of zinc and other metals, as well as a low white-cell count. He blamed the plant. As he drove me around the deserted Unocal refinery, he talked about how the plants had changed. The refineries were vastly safer places to work now than in the fifties, he admitted. The men now had to wear respirators when working around toxic substances, and they underwent frequent urine and blood tests to detect benzene. And, driven by new clean-air laws, many companies were installing expensive new equipment.

Despite this, Roy said, refinery work remains dangerous. Since 1987, there had been a number of explosions and fires at refineries in Texas and Louisiana. Men were still being exposed daily to toxic fumes in their work, and many managers were lax in enforcing new safety rules, just going through the motions.

My former classmates looked seven or eight years older than I did. They dreamed of moving, but they couldn’t afford to, and all were rooted to Port Neches by family, friends, and jobs. They viewed refinery work as a calculated risk, no different than choosing to smoke cigarettes or ride a motorcycle. “We know it’s bad working here, but most of us worry about making money now and our health later,” said Richard “Dickie” Hughes, a former Unocal machinist who was laid off in January 1990. “We’re like the Appalachian coal miners. We work for years, ruin our health, and then they let us go.” What worries the refinery workers most is knowing that they may already have cancer and—like a time bomb—it is ticking away.

As I finished my rounds and drove to the cemetery, I wondered what my father would have thought of Port Arthur’s plight. When I arrived at his grave, a distant refinery whistle wailed, and I drifted back to 1963, to happier times. I will always remember my father and Port Arthur the way they were when I was growing up, and for that I am grateful. Never knowing the origin of his disease, my father died as he had lived, with grace and good humor. But my old friends know they are sacrificing their lives for their jobs, and they will always be bitter. I’m thankful I got out when I did.

Mark Ivey is a freelance writer who now lives in Portland, Oregon.

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