Jefferson county Kelly Air Force

Environmental Injustice
in Beaumont Texas

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Beaumont This week the Texas Toxic Tour takes us to Beaumont, Texas--a short distance from the Louisiana border, the Gulf of Mexico and the famous oil gusher Spindletop. This week's story includes an interview with Rev. Roy Malveaux, who grew up in the town's vibrant African American neighborhoods before heavy industry started moving in during World War II. Now, the streets are run down in the shadow of the Mobil/Exxon industrial complex--the largest grandfathered refinery in Texas.

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Spindletop

Although Spindletop evokes images of the glory days in the Texas oil industry, residents of Beaumont living near the modern day Mobil/Exxon oil refinery are suffering under the nearly 39,000 pounds of air pollution spewed out of the complex each year. The massive Mobil complex consists of a huge refinery, three chemical plants, and several other facilities. Despite years of violations, exceedingly high emissions of sulfur dioxide and hydrogen sulfide, and complaints and health problems in the surrounding neighborhoods, the state environmental regulatory agency--the Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission (TNRCC) has not issued any formal enforcement actions against the company since 1993.

Environmental Injustice

Despite Mobil's record, the TNRCC issued a permit allowing the facility to increase emissions in 1999--over the objections of neighboring residents and without allowing the public to challenge the expansion in a hearing. The TNRCC's failure to regulate the facility is compounded by a disturbing fact: 95% of the people living next to the Mobil complex are African American, with almost 54% of them living in poverty. Rev. Malveaux says that the Beaumont minority community is similar to others in Texas such as in Corpus Christi; "it's the poor, the minority, the disenfranchised, the children, the elderly; [and] they have no idea how to overcome their situation." He said that repeated fires, spills and explosions in the industrial plants forced the residents to begin scrutinizing their corporate neighbors. "In Port Arthur, we found a large amount of MTBE in the air, there was a school near, three churches near there, a housing project right there." In the early 1990's, these discoveries and others led Rev. Malveaux to found PACE, People Against Contaminated Environments, to protect the people from the industrial pollution from the refinery complex.

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Listen to the Beaumont pollution story

Featured in our interview is Rev. Roy Malveaux.

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History of Violations and Complaints at the Beaumont Mobil Complex

The Mobil complex is consistently listed in the nation's top 10% of worst polluting refineries and chemical plants.

Within Texas, Mobil's emissions are 385% above the state's refinery average. Residents in the nearby neighborhoods have been complaining of headaches, nausea, eye and nose irritation, and other health problems for years. Research by neighbors brought additional problems to light; Rev. Malveaux said the neighbors were shocked to learn that "when there was threat of hurricane or bad weather that the refineries were in threat of losing petroleum which meant they have to dump all of their waste product in the storm drains." He summed up the attitude of many of the neighbors by saying, "Once we got to asking questions, we found out there was more information being hidden from us than there was being given to us." While four enforcement orders and penalties were issued from 1987 to 1993, no further enforcement orders have been issued since. Unfortunately, the violations and unhealthy emissions continue to worsen.

Sampling of Complaints Received by TNRCC:

  • July 1, 1996 Complaint about odors and a cloud coming from vicinity of Mobil plants. Investigation more than two days after complaint was made. Complaint unconfirmed.
  • October 30, 1996 Complaint about terrible odor making complainant's eyes and nose burn. Investigation one hour after complaint was made. Category four [with five being the worst] odors detected. Complaint unconfirmed.
  • June 18, 1997 Complaint about odors that cause nausea. Investigation less than one hour after complaint was made. Complaint unconfirmed.
  • September 8, 1997 Complaints about offensive odors believed to have caused an individual working in the area to become unconscious. Investigation one hour after complaint was made. Category one odors detected. Complaint unconfirmed.

TNRCC Grants Permits Despite Troubled Compliance history

Since 1997, Mobil has repeatedly violated health standards in its emissions of two key air pollutants: sulfur dioxide and hydrogen sulfide--the "rotten egg gas." These exceedences did not hinder TNRCC from granting a permit in December 1999 for increased pollution of these two chemicals. Only four months before TNRCC issued the new permit, agency monitors had recorded levels of sulfur dioxide far over the TNRCC's standard of 320 parts per billion. In August 1999, TNRCC registered sulfur dioxide from the Mobil refinery at 967 and 1163 parts per billion. The Beaumont Mobil Refinery ranks #1 in sulfur dioxide emissions compared to other Texas refineries. Similarly, Mobil has exceeded hydrogen sulfide standards for years, with no enforcement action by TNRCC. From December 1998 through July 1999, TNRCC documented almost continuous problems with hydrogen sulfide exceedences. Yet the new permit allows emissions of 72 more pounds of hydrogen sulfide each year.

TNRCC Shuts the Public Out of Permit Hearing

TNRCC justified its issuance of Mobil's new pollution permit without allowing the public the opportunity for a hearing by claiming that the agency had only issued a minor amendment to the existing Mobil permit. TNRCC also claimed that Mobil was offsetting emissions increases with emissions reductions from other facilities that were forced to reduce emissions under federal law. In April 2000, PACE and the Lone Star Sierra Club filed a formal Civil Rights Complaint against TNRCC-- asking the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to intervene and force TNRCC to abide by state and federal environmental and civil rights laws.

Environmental Justice problems at TNRCC

African American communities living near the Mobil Oil Beaumont refinery typify the communities of color burdened in this state by disproportionate environmental impacts because of TNRCC's permitting and enforcement processes. The discriminatory impact created and sanctioned by TNRCC's actions is a clear violation of Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. As of January 2000, more civil rights complaints (12) had been filed in the state of Texas than in any other state. Of the nine pending cases, all involve air pollution.

Realizing the seriousness of the environmental racism problems in Texas, the US EPA awarded TNRCC with a $100,000 environmental justice grant in October of 1998. According to the EPA, the money was to be used to "enhance the state's effectiveness in complying with Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act by demonstrating to the impacted communities that Texas will aggressively seek environmental equity for all citizens and ensure that the voices of the poor and misrepresented are heard."

The TNRCC used the grant to set up an advisory panel with just four community members--only one of which has experience with Title VI. Agency representatives on the panel outnumber the people representing the affected communities. To date, the Advisory Panel has had three meetings: one in Austin, one in Corpus Christi, and one in Beaumont. The meeting in Beaumont was closed and Rev. Malveaux was told he could not attend. Rev. Malveaux said that he believes that the TNRCC isn't doing its job for the citizens of Texas. "The agencies that are supposed to protect and serve end up regulating the people and protecting and serving big industry."

Join Texas PEER soon for another stop on the Texas Toxic Tour.

Sources:

  1. Neil Carman and Raul Alvarez from the Sierra Club, for all the background research material.
 
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