Long before the COVID-19 pandemic, Benjamin Thomas had grown accustomed to wearing a mask in Port Arthur, his hometown, where inhaling the air can feel like breathing the exhaust of an old car. The city is home to the largest oil refinery in North America and ten of the highest-emitting petrochemical facilities north of Corpus Christi on the Texas Gulf Coast. The EPA has linked cancer, respiratory illness, and reproductive disorders to emissions in the area. In high school, Thomas and his teammates on the football team had a running joke that inhaling the air during practice would turn them into “half-mutants.”
More than a decade ago, Thomas had been desperate to leave. He turned down an offer to work as a processor at one of the petrochemical facilities, instead opting to travel as a singer-songwriter before joining the military. Two of his grandparents who worked at local plants had died prematurely of asbestos poisoning and cancer. “Watching them die from it—how they struggle and are sick—it made me not want to be around it,” Thomas said.
When the coronavirus pandemic hit, Thomas decided to return home, arriving in July. Last week Thomas was preoccupied with Hurricane Laura, which made landfall less than fifty miles east of Port Arthur and whose winds knocked down local power lines and caused small fires. But before the hurricane’s near miss, he was struggling to readjust to life in his hometown. It was strange for him to wander streets made ghostly empty by the pandemic. Immediately after he returned, so did the headaches that had dogged Thomas growing up.
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This summer, the local petrochemical facilities, which process the hydrocarbons that make plastic products, have been playing a critical role in America’s medical response to the coronavirus. Plastic is in our gloves, gowns, disposable masks, medical tubes, ventilators, and even Clorox wipes. Single-use plastic bags, recently the subject of bans in many cities—but not in Texas where the state Supreme Court has struck them down—have become a precious resource thanks to fears that reusable bags can spread the virus. Skyrocketing demand has led petrochemical facilities to ramp up production. During a July 7 House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing on the environment, Plastics Industry Association CEO Tony Radoszewski said: “Simply put, plastic saves lives.”
But for those in Port Arthur, a community of 54,000 that is 38 percent Black and 33 percent Hispanic, and where median income is just 60 percent of the state average, the increased production comes with increased health risks. Dr. Elena Craft, a senior health scientist at the Environmental Defense Fund based in the Houston area, said that “the higher the emissions, the higher the risk of some sort of adverse health outcomes.” A 2004 study from the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston found that 80 percent of Port Arthur residents self-reported heart ailments and other health problems, compared with only 30 percent in Galveston, a town with similar demographics that, because of favorable wind patterns, sees fewer effects from nearby industrial pollution. Port Arthur has double the national average of childhood asthma. And Port Arthur activist Hilton Kelley, who spearheads the Community In-Power and Development Association, an environmental justice nonprofit, says that he can ask a room full of locals if they know someone who has died of cancer and can guarantee that almost everyone will raise a hand. The most recent data taken from the Texas Cancer Registry shows that the Beaumont–Port Arthur area had around six more cancer cases and 24 more fatalities per 100,000 residents than the state as a whole during 2013–2017.
This puts residents at particular danger from the coronavirus. A recent Harvard University study determined that the more exposure one has to a common Port Arthur air pollutant, PM2.5, the more likely one is to die from contracting COVID-19. It’s a fact not lost on local activists. “If you are here at the fence line during COVID, you’re inhaling all of the gloves that everyone in the country needs,” said Yvette Arellano, who works for the Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Service.
The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality won’t have a detailed air emissions inventory for 2020 until March of next year, but a Texas air quality specialist told me that anecdotal evidence shows that emissions are increasing in Port Arthur, as plastics production rises. When Hurricane Laura threatened the city last week, many petrochemical facilities rushed to close and burned off unprocessed product—an authorized emergency procedure, but one that the TCEQ acknowledges can cause excess emissions that violate air quality standards. Last week, the facility shutdowns in the Port Arthur area resulted in as much as four million pounds of additional chemical emissions, according to the Houston Chronicle. TCEQ reports that at the Motiva plant—the largest refinery in North America, jointly owned by Shell Oil and Saudi Refining—a leak that occurred during its shutdown might have released a few hundred pounds of chemicals as well. According to the Beaumont Enterprise, Motiva self-reported the leak to the TCEQ and wrote that “the line was blocked in to prevent further material from leaking” and “the area the material was contained in was boomed and measures were taken to reduce emissions.”
Industry representatives have long worked with local organizations to curb emissions. The American Chemistry Council, a trade association whose members include Motiva and other prominent petrochemical companies, has spearheaded efforts with the TCEQ to analyze levels of toxic emissions, including sulfur dioxide and carbon monoxide, and make sure they adhere to national standards, according to Tara Henriksen, managing director of the association’s Responsible Care Initiative.
But Port Arthur residents, and others in communities along the Gulf Coast fueling the plastics industry, are dealing with the effects of these emissions. Former Port Arthur city councilman John Beard, who worked at the local ExxonMobil chemical plant for 38 years, said his daughter is starting to develop headaches that are eased only by leaving town. Beard noted that common symptoms of the coronavirus are hard to distinguish from the daily discomforts of dry coughs and sore throats that many Port Arthur residents experience from breathing the petrochemical facilities’ emissions.
Some in the city are now bracing for the worst. Judith Smith, the director of the Port Arthur health department, said that as COVID is spreading in the city, she’s especially worried about the high percentage of vulnerable residents. The community struggles with high rates of comorbidities in COVID-19 patients, such as lung disease and cancer. Members of the city’s large Black and Hispanic communities face increased risk of contracting and dying from COVID-19 as well. Nationwide, COVID-19 is killing Black and Hispanic Americans at rates 2.1 and 1.1 times higher, respectively, than those of white Americans. The CDC attributes the increased mortalities in part to deep-rooted inequalities in the health care system. White Texans are covered by health insurance at substantially higher rates than others. The CDC also identifies as factors inequality in the housing, employment, and education systems that can increase the likelihood of infection and of carrying pre-existing conditions. Black and Hispanic populations in Port Arthur, in particular, experience higher rates of homelessness and make up a large portion of the essential workforce whose jobs often make it hard to maintain safe distancing.
Cases of COVID-19 in Port Arthur have been rising, recently nearing 1,000. “We’re experiencing it this week,” Mayor Thurman “Bill” Bartie said in late July, referring to how the virus is tearing through the town at an accelerated rate. Concerns are rising rapidly among residents and activists alike.
Hoping to mitigate any damage he can, Kelley has been focused on grassroots advocacy work. He’s spending his weekends passing out free masks and hand sanitizer bottles on the city streets, and has fed more than two thousand Port Arthur residents through a food drive he organized this month. But other advocacy efforts have slowed as attention has shifted to the more immediate needs caused by the pandemic. “There’s going to be a serious increase in toxic emissions coming from plastics being molded and made,” he says, “and we’re paying for it.”
As the pandemic surges, one lawsuit against a polluter lingers. Last year, a local activist group, the Port Arthur Community Action Network, filed a lawsuit against the Valero Energy refinery for allegedly emitting more pollutants than allowed under federal air quality standards. Attorney General Ken Paxton subsequently filed his own suit against the company that is pending in state courts. Valero’s executive director of media relations and communications, Lillian Riojas, wrote Texas Monthly that the company “is committed to working cooperatively with the TCEQ and Attorney General to resolve the State of Texas’ enforcement concerns.”
Experts say air quality standards are difficult to enforce in a preventive way. Neil Carman, a former TCEQ employee, now the clean air director of the Sierra Club, doesn’t believe that petrochemical companies can coexist safely with neighborhoods like those in Port Arthur. He argues that companies should consider buyout options in which they pay residents to leave the neighborhood. This summer, Valero proposed buyouts for properties in west Port Arthur.
Many in the community want to stay. Benjamin Thomas, now working to assist an uncle whose house was destroyed during Hurricane Laura, says that despite the air quality and his headaches, he can’t abandon Port Arthur when it’s in such dire need: “I’m here to help.”