When the black smoke pours out of the Texan oil refinery across the road in yet another unplanned discharge, Erma Lee Ellas has just one way to try to keep the cloud of chemicals from reaching her asthmatic lungs: “I close the door.”
Port Arthur, Texas has some of the dirtiest air in the United States. Some people like to say it’s the smell of money. For residents like 78-year-old Ellas, it brings sickness and pain.
Texas Governor and White House hopeful Rick Perry is among those who, critics say, don’t seem to mind the stench.
While Perry may be trailing in the polls to win the Republican nomination, his desire to dismantle the federal Environmental Protection Agency — which he calls a “jobs cemetery” — is popular among the party’s conservative base.
If the Republicans manage to unseat President Barack Obama in the 2012 election, regulatory rollbacks and cuts to the agency’s enforcement activities are expected to follow.
There are few places in the United States where the impacts of loose environmental regulation are more deeply felt than Texas, observers say.
Texas emits far more greenhouse gases than any other state — thanks in part to its heavy reliance on coal-powered electrical plants — and has built its economy on the back of dirty industries like oil and chemicals.
Critics say oversight is lax, permits are issued with scant review and there is little incentive for companies to abide by environmental rules because fines are rarely imposed and are typically just a fraction of the cost of compliance.
State regulators say results — not fines — are the best way to judge effectiveness.
“If all that stuff was true then air quality wouldn’t be getting better,” says Terry Clawson, a spokesman for the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.
But while overall emissions are certainly down, the scale is still high, as are the number of unplanned and unpermitted discharges.
There were 2,553 “emission events” in Texas last year which poured 44.6 million pounds of contaminants into the sky. The state took enforcement action in 123 of those incidents and issued violation notices in 172 others.
BP’s decision to continue refinery operations after a fire at its troubled Texas City plant knocked out critical pollution controls for 40 days last year is one of the few instances where the state sought civil penalties beyond fines that are usually limited to a maximum of $10,000 a day.
No action was taken by regulators to push BP to shut down operations rather than simply burn the gases in a flare, nor was BP required to notify local officials because “fenceline” monitors did not show a significant spike in hazardous pollution levels, records show.
“When you have a loose environmental regulatory scheme such as we have in Texas, what you have is the people who are supposed to watch out for the public interest… really don’t give adequate review,” says Ken Kramer, director of the Lone Star Chapter of the Sierra Club.
“So a lot of the necessary things for protecting public health get left by the wayside.”
With little help from state regulators, residents of Port Arthur have taken environmental monitoring into their own hands.
Port Arthur has been a home for the nation’s oil refinery industry since 1901. Eight major petrochemical and hazardous waste facilities surround the predominantly African-American West Side neighborhood, where cancer and asthma rates are among the highest in Texas and income levels are among the lowest.
Even on a good day, the air is heavy with a nasty smell that can quickly clog the sinuses.
Armed with air monitors made out of buckets and plastic bags, a small band of environmental activists began taking air samples after “upsets” and sending them to independent labs for testing more than a decade ago.
They’ve had some substantial victories, like getting Shell’s Motiva to install new pollution controls, pay for annual health check-ups and set up a $3.5 million economic development fund after a bitter battle over a massive expansion plan.
But kids are still getting sick while factory owners postpone maintenance and upgrades that could cut down on the number of times plants spew dangerous levels of toxins into the air.
“At least three times a month one of these facilities will have an emissions event that dumps tons of toxins into the air that supersedes the clean air laws,” says activist Hilton Kelly, who recently won the prestigious Goldman prize for his work with the Community In-power and Development Association.
“A lot of the time what we find is the state looks the other way and they’ll tell you it was nothing to worry about even though a lot of the citizens in this community have to put a wet towel over their nose just to breathe.”
While state officials say even the smelliest emissions rarely reach hazardous levels, Kelly is worried about the long-term health impacts of chronic exposure.
But he doesn’t want to shut down the refineries. His community needs the jobs, even if most of the people who work there end up driving out of town at the end of the day.
The solution, he says, is for the plants to adopt existing technologies and maintain a focus on “best practices” so pollution levels can continue to come down.
In the meantime, Kelly wants local officials to move the tidy public housing complex he grew up in farther away from the smoke stacks. There’s something not right about having a playground across the street from a refinery.