Port Arthur, Texas has long faced a double whammy. Not only is it a low-income, African American community—the kind most susceptible to environmental injustice—but it lies at the western end of the notorious “cancer alley” in an under-regulated state. Along with nearby Beaumont, Port Arthur is hemmed in by a plethora of oil refineries, chemical plants, and drilling rigs, “surrounded by 8 major oil and chemical companies” according to an Earth Justice report. The area is ground zero for the ongoing environmental justice battle.
Under President Obama, the battle had been going better. That administration increasingly prioritized environmental justice; as one example, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) set up a medical clinic that will help Port Arthur residents deal with the asthma, respiratory and heart diseases, and cancer exacerbated by the toxic facilities. Yet, the advent of the oil- and corporate-oriented Trump administration reverses the hope of such gains.
This reversal will only add to a long history of neglect. In the 1960s and ‘70s, jobs were plentiful and Port Arthur and Beaumont “were happening places,” says Eric Schaeffer, Executive Director of the Environmental Integrity Project. Over the years, however, “a lot of services have been cut off, buildings collapsed, people moved on and out due to the impact of industry and lack of services,” says Hilton Kelley, 2011 winner of the prestigious Goldman Prize for environmental activism.
A native of Port Arthur, Kelley moved on to success as an actor and small-business owner in Oakland, California. On a 2000 visit, Kelley saw his home town’s dilapidated condition and felt compelled to move back and begin his activist odyssey.
Port Arthur, and nearby Beaumont, have a “disproportionate number of people here with cancer, respiratory problems, you name it,” says Kelley. “You can see a direct correlation” between pollution from the refineries and health problems. Indeed, the cancer rate for Port Arthur is 15% higher than for the rest of Texas, and the mortality rate is 40% higher according to Earth Justice.
The situation is worsened by pollution fluxes. Kelley points to a “plant in Port Arthur” that has “been letting out gases for least 45 days,” causing a rotten smell to permeate the air. Such events are common. A 2015 event, for instance, “released 13,065 pounds of cancer-causing benzene,” making the BASF Total Fina Nafta Complex Texas’ “number one benzene polluter in 2015,” according to an Environmental Integrity Project report.
These releases have immediate consequences. Kelley points out that one in five children in Port Arthur use an inhaler daily. “A child with asthma struggling to breath is not a pretty sight,” he exclaims.
The Reverend Roy Malveaux knows the ravages of pollution well. His niece suffered from asthma while attending a Beaumont daycare, daily facing “outbursts of shortage of breath.” She was moved to another daycare in a clean neighborhood and the asthma disappeared. “She is a healthy teenager today,” exclaims Malveaux. Yet many residents of Port Arthur and Beaumont are not so lucky and must live every day breathing air polluted by propylene, hexane, benzene, sulfuric acid, and other contaminants from the petrochemical industry. Some 70 tons of these chemicals are emitted by the three refineries in the area annually, according to TCEQ data.
Malveaux, a long-time environmental justice crusader, explains that one predominantly “black neighborhood is bearing the burden of all of the exposure throughout the whole city.” The situation goes beyond benign negligence, since it has “been known for more than 20 years that pollution is harming people’s health.” Too little has been done to aid the most vulnerable, despite years of local activism and law suits.
To protect the health of children and other residents, Malveaux helped institute a suit some 17 years ago, asking for a one mile buffer around the ExxonMobil Beaumont refinery along with a ½ mile greenbelt, air quality monitoring, better medical facilities, and relocation for those most affected. In early June, the EPA finally settled the case conceding just a single monitoring station located a mile from the refinery. Malveaux sees this as woefully inadequate for tracking pollution. It “makes you wonder, were they intent on just doing it to” palliate people “rather than enforce.”
Reducing pollution and helping low-income communities takes a long-term commitment. After an initial indifference to environmental issues, the Obama administration’s environmental record grew stronger and stronger. “Eight years after he was in they were just starting to get it right,” says Kelley. “They were listening.” Now all that is being swiftly reversed. The federal government sets the tone for regional EPA offices and the Trump administration has signaled a green light to pollute.
“Under Trump a lot of people are looking at a death sentence,” says Kelley. “This guy is trying to unravel all the good that’s been done, all the regulations in place.”
Some progress had been made. In 2012, EPA head Lisa Jackson oversaw the opening of the Westside Health Clinic, an affordable care facility in Port Arthur using $1.2 million from a 2007 settlement with the Valero Refinery. “The EPA was instrumental in helping us get a clinic built in our community,” says Kelley. Now, some of the people most affected by refinery emissions will at least have a chance to be treated.
The Obama administration, besides prioritizing environmental justice, had also set tough new standards on emissions. Following a 2008 DC circuit court order, the federal EPA began to mandate monitors to check on benzene levels and, if these were high, “to find the source and fix” the problem, says Schaeffer.
Because the federal government sets policies that are followed by local agencies, Kelley fears that, under Trump, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) will weaken enforcement of environmental standards. The agency already has a reputation for favoring the petrochemical industry. In “the heart of petrochemical country,” says Schaeffer, “the state agency is very responsive to what the plants want.”
TCEQ has another conflict of interest. The agency “gets money when they write these permits,” says Malveaux. “They are the permitting agency and the enforcing agency.” So, there is a financial benefit to allowing refineries to operate. The fox is, to an extent, guarding the chicken coup.
In addition, regulations had assumed that refineries were operating under “normal” conditions when in fact pollutions levels would often spike. Previously, TCEQ had treated unexpected releases “as if they never happened,” says Schaeffer, assuming “normal operational circumstances,” when conditions are “often abnormal at refineries.” With new rules, these spikes would no longer be acceptable and monitoring was to be constant.
However, under Trump appointee Scott Pruitt, the EPA has ordered a 90 day pause to review these new rules just as they were “just starting to take effect,” says Schaeffer. He does not expect the delay to be temporary. “If Pruitt can figure out how to unwind [the rules] he’ll try.” A long period of legal challenges is likely. “We expect . . . to be back in court,” says Schaeffer. Still, getting rid of existing rules is difficult, with an extensive process and a period of public comments required.
To make matters worse, ExxonMobil continues to expand refinery capacity and has recently added new production of plastic in Beaumont. Communities already suffering from environmental injustice tend to be victims of a viscous cycle of increased production where things are already bad.
Trump appointees are finding other ways to undermine environmental safeguards. On June 7, Attorney General Jeff Sessions barred court settlements that include payment to a third party. This means that a settlement cannot include, for instance, a mobile asthma unit that would help people afflicted by local pollution, explains Schaeffer. The tool kit for handling environmental justice issues becomes more limited.
Still other measures to protect highly polluted communities are under assault. The EPA’s Office of Environmental Justice has already been hit with a possible budget reduction of up to 78%, or even total dissolution, events prompting the agency’s co-founder and a key administrator, Mustafa Ali, to resign after 24 years of service. “That’s a kick in the pants right there,” exclaims Kelley. “We need that office to be strong so they can support our struggle to reduce air and water pollution.”
The multiple rollbacks portend worse times ahead for Port Arthur and Beaumont. “What that means for us,” says Kelley, “will be an increase in SO2 and benzene, known carcinogens, due to Trump’s policies.” While cause and effect can be hard to unravel, “three or four years down the road I believe we will see a serious increase in illness,” says Kelley, impacting communities such as Port Arthur hardest but likely across the entire United States.
The climate change intensification likely triggered by Trump actions will also affect poor and coastal communities, such as Port Arthur and Beaumont, the most. “Sea level rise is happening right now,” says Kelley. He points to Highway 82: “As a kid we used to take that highway,” which was “historically 100 yards” from the ocean. Now, however, “the surf has basically taken over. Due to hurricanes and sand dunes washed away, that road is no longer there.” Poor communities are least equipped to move and rebuild when the inevitable coastal catastrophe strikes.
On a planet in trouble, the communities of Beaumont and Port Arthur have been battered hard by time, history, and environmental depredation. “People are fed up with the fact that nothing ever changes,” says Malveaux. “The refineries just keep on doing what they’ve been doing. People have gotten weary.” Nevertheless he tries to remain optimistic. “I can’t communicate that kind of an attitude.” The only hope, Malveaux says, is “the power to protest” using “the only voice that you’ve got.”