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Bad Air Days

In 1981 we ran a story about pollution and disease in Southeast Texas. I went back to see if anything had changed. It had—but not for the better.

By August 2003Comments

“I’M SORRY,” HILTON KELLEY SAYS, letting out a dry, barking cough. “Ever since I moved back to Port Arthur three years ago I’ve had this.” He gestures to his throat and coughs again.

I understand. I’ve been in Port Arthur for barely a day and I have a cough too. In fact, a lot of people I’ve run into in the Golden Triangle—the cities of Beaumont, Port Arthur, and Orange, along Texas’ upper Gulf Coast—seem to have a barking cough. Maybe this is the result of pollen, but it is more likely the product of the region’s notorious smog. In 1981 Harry Hurt III wrote about that smog and its potential health hazards in a Texas Monthly story titled “The Cancer Belt,” in which he argued that the petrochemical plants and oil refineries in the area were causing more than just coughing. The lung-cancer death rate in Jefferson County (Beaumont and Port Arthur) at the time was 62.1 per 100,000, compared with 42 for the nation—a striking 48 percent difference. As its headline implied, Hurt’s story made a compelling, if largely circumstantial, case that all that smoke belching from all those smokestacks accounted for the region’s high cancer-mortality rates.

I have returned 22 years later to see if, given two decades of improved environmental regulation, research, activism, and awareness, the Cancer Belt should still be called that. Kelley runs an environmental group in Port Arthur and is one of many local residents who believe that it should. They say that air pollution from the plants and refineries continues to cause cancer at high rates. “Everyone here knows someone who has cancer or who has died of it recently, sometimes a child,” Kelley tells me at a meeting of his Community In-power and Development Association. In fact, some five hundred area residents, including Kelley and many members of his group, are so upset that in late June they filed suit against six Port Arthur refineries, alleging that the companies’ constant and often undocumented emissions have caused chronic health problems in their neighborhoods.

The pollution levels in the Golden Triangle these days are not reassuring. While emissions of most common pollutants are down as much as 50 percent or more since the late eighties, a significant part of that improvement is probably phantom. First, some chemicals that used to be measured have been “delisted,” which automatically removes them from the statistics. Second, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), “fugitive” emissions from refineries—slow leaks from valves and pumps—may be five times greater than the plants detect or report. Third, according to Eric Schaeffer, a former EPA enforcement official who now heads the Washington, D.C.-based Environmental Integrity Project, there are chemical pollutants being released in the Golden Triangle that are not on the EPA’s list, so they don’t get measured. “I’d be skeptical of historical comparisons of emissions from the late eighties or early nineties,” he says.

And while there may be an overall drop in pollutants, on any given day, levels of carcinogens in the air are often well over state and federal guidelines. When the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) sampled the air around the Huntsman chemical plant and the Ameripol Synpol synthetic-rubber plant in Port Neches in 2000, its inspectors found levels of the carcinogen 1,3-butadiene that were nine times the state limit. (And remember, medical science still can’t tell us how much, or how little, of the bad stuff it takes to actually cause cancer.)

Which may help to explain why residents of the Cancer Belt’s six counties—Brazoria, Galveston, Harris, Jefferson, Montgomery, and Orange—are still dying of cancer at about the same rate that they were twenty years ago, according to a study by Texas Department of Health epidemiologist David Risser. In fact, the 2000-2002 average of the current cancer death rates in all six counties is actually 3 percent higher than the average from 1980 to 1982. And mortality rates for cancers commonly associated with industrial exposures are in some cases dramatically higher. In Orange County, for example, deaths from brain cancer have nearly quintupled since the eighties (none of the other counties saw an increase). And cancer isn’t the half of it. A University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston study last year found that, cancer aside, residents of Beaumont-Port Arthur were three to six times as likely to complain of respiratory, nervous system, skin, cardiovascular, urinary, and other illnesses than residents of Galveston Island, which tends to be less affected by the smog in the region. But in spite of the grim statistics, it is difficult, often impossible, to scientifically prove a cause-and-effect link between environmental conditions and cancer. That means it is almost impossible to win a lawsuit claiming that poor air quality is responsible for your disease.

Industry spokesmen aren’t exactly voluble on the subject. To find out how much money the petrochemical industry has spent on pollution-control equipment, I had to call an official in Jefferson County who could do no better than “hundreds of millions of dollars.” You would think the industry would be anxious to trumpet such expenditures. Tom Purves, the refinery manager of Motiva Enterprises, of Port Arthur, did get on the line to say, “We’re on a path to making things cleaner. Motiva signed an agreement with the EPA to voluntarily put a lot of these things in place ahead of regulations. This is a significant investment.” But that only raises the scary prospect that even with all the investment and regulation—even with lower documented emissions—we’re still not making much progress.

Why?

Let’s start with the notion of “regulation.” Part of the problem is that, for all the agencies and laws that we have created, the petrochemical industry remains essentially self-regulated—and poorly at that. One of the refineries’ chief methods of self-regulation is “flaring”—a procedure in which potentially dangerous accumulations of vapors are diverted and burned off. It can be effective if the vapors burn at 99 percent efficiency. But if a refinery has to flare too often or burn flares for too long or under windy conditions—so-called smoking flares—more noxious chemicals can get into the air. “A couple of weeks ago, we had this ‘accident’ at Motiva, up the road from here,” Kelley tells me. “The plant must’ve had five smoking flares out there on one day, with all that black smoke. The company offered me a free car wash! I thought, ‘How ’bout a lung wash?'” (When asked about the flares, Purves told me that such large accidents are rare and that the plant always did its best to bring them under control.)

Kelley was grandstanding a bit there, but such upsets—potentially dangerous build-ups of certain kinds of vapors, which then need to be burned off—aren’t that unusual in the region. A study by former EPA watchdog Schaeffer discovered almost one “upset” or shutdown a day at six Port Arthur facilities during 2002 that were followed by smoking flares and resulted in the emission of 1,700 tons of ozone-forming, volatile organic compounds, including 150 tons of the carcinogens benzene and butadiene. Even though smoking flares are against the law, the EPA or the TCEQ can’t be “sitting behind a billboard,” as Schaeffer puts it, waiting to nab the refineries. As long as the plant reports such accidents promptly, files the proper paperwork, and promises that it remedied the problem as quickly as possible, it faces no more than a minor fine.

This is nothing new. As lofty as the phrase “environmental protection” sounds, in practice it’s always been less about policing than passive monitoring, record-keeping, standards-setting, and trying to schmooze or threaten refineries or other commercial concerns into following the latest set of guidelines. Author Devra Davis is probably right when she suggests in her provocative history of the environmental movement, When Smoke Ran Like Water, that the high point of the movement may well have been the creation of the EPA in the seventies. By one estimate, there are 34,000 sources of pollution in the U.S. and only three hundred EPA employees to monitor them.

“It comes down to money and . . . how many inspectors you have and what kind of equipment they have,” laments Neil Carman, a former TCEQ inspector who now works with the Lone Star chapter of the Sierra Club.

This is probably why, even though emissions from refineries here are relatively lower than they were twenty years ago, the Cancer Belt counties remain ranked among the dirtiest 20 percent of all counties in the nation in terms of total environmental releases, cancer risk, air releases of recognized carcinogens, and more.

But it’s not fair to simply write this off to bureaucratic inadequacies. Part of the reason that a laissez-faire attitude has become so entrenched in this area is that, amazingly, science still can’t make a firm case for the pollution-cancer nexus. “My grandson died two years ago of a rare brain cancer that they say mainly comes from environmental exposures,” said Ann Tillery, a Beaumont woman who works with a Golden Triangle-area anti-pollution group, Clean Air and Water, Inc. “But you try proving it.”

Some specific links have been made, such as that between exposure to benzene and leukemia. But generally speaking, an environmental version of reasonable doubt continues to cloud the air when it comes to pollution and cancer. The Cancer Belt may have more releases of suspected carcinogens into its air and more cancer-cluster investigations than any other part of the state, but since cancer is so slow-developing and so complex in its pathogenesis, and because so much of it is simply the result of aging, smoking, or heredity, it’s difficult to prove that pollution causes any more than 4 to 6 percent of cancer deaths. Tillery’s grandson may have developed cancer from pollution; then again, both his parents smoked, so who can really say?

“We still really haven’t done the research we need to,” says Melanie Williams, of the Texas Department of Health’s cancer registry, which tracks cancer statistics for the state. They were saying that back in the early eighties too. And what little has been done is amazingly inconclusive. A 1976 study of cancer mortalities in different sections of Houston by Eleanor Macdonald, of the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center, for example, seemed to show that “exposure over time to air and industrial pollutants has a demonstrable effect on increasing regional mortality from cancer of the respiratory tract.” But a 1994 study supported by the petroleum industry concluded that “the chemical and petroleum refining industries made no appreciable contribution to the cancer burden of Texas.”

Proof may yet be on the way, but in the meantime, one final reason for the lack of progress is that pollution’s health hazards are seen as just part of life here, kind of like the risk of hurricanes. After all, ExxonMobil and Motiva and DuPont and Huntsman didn’t invade the upper Gulf Coast a century ago like some band of plundering pirates. They were welcomed and embraced as vital cogs of an economic dynamo that enabled these unlikely towns to flourish in the middle of what was otherwise a big, fetid swamp. People here like them: A recent survey showed that a staggering 84 percent of residents of the area trust the petrochemical industry here and want it to grow.

You can’t really understand the degree of this hegemony until you take the refinery tour by night. Tillery took me up to the crest of the bridge to Treasure Island, where we gazed out over industrial southeast Texas in all its soaring, sprawling, smoking, stinking glory. In the dark and mist, the towering smokestacks that were strung almost gaily with lights were reminiscent of great Gothic cathedrals: scary, inspiring, and very, very permanent. I rolled down the window and took a whiff of air that smelled of gasoline fumes and rotten eggs. There was a disturbing sense that, as in the Big Bend—albeit for altogether different reasons—man was out of place here.

“Maybe the only answer is to pack up and leave,” Tillery commented, stifling a cough.

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