Nueces county Corpus refineries

Corpus Christi's Refinery Row

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Refinery Row This week the Texas Toxic Tour takes us to "Refinery Row," in Corpus Christi, on the Texas Gulf coast. Home to at least 16 refineries and other polluting industries, the area is bordered on one side by the Dona Park neighborhood. This is the story of Zelma Champion and Teddy Murchie, Dona Park neighbors who are working to protect their families and neighbors from the pollution on Refinery Row.

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Grandfathered Plants
on Refinery Row

Zelma Champion, a long time resident of the area, says, "The ASARCO plant and all the refineries here are grandfathered --they were built in the 30s and 40s, and what they were built for is not what they're producing now."(1) Zelma and her neighbor, Teddy Murchie, who lives less than a quarter mile from the ASARCO plant, have been in the area for approximately 30 years. Zelma noted that the change from light industrial production to large polluting facilities has brought drastic changes to the neighborhood. "We used to play on the beach and enjoy our beautiful weather," mused Zelma, "and as time went on, the industries began to change their product and we had contamination in the neighborhood.

Encycle's Refinery Row Hazardous Waste Plant

From 1942 until 1985, ASARCO operated a zinc refinery at its Refinery Row location. In 1988, an ASARCO subsidiary, Encycle, took over the plant, turning it into a hazardous waste management facility. Repeated violations of federal and state health and safety standards have occurred for years at the ASARCO and Encycle plant. The company has mishandled, spilled, and discharged wastewater into the Corpus Christi harbor and drainage ditches leading into the adjacent neighborhoods. Wind and water have carried lead, cadmium, arsenic, and other health-threatening chemicals into neighbors' yards and homes.(2)

Audio & Video

Listen to the Corpus Christi pollution story

Featured in our interview are Dona Park residents, Zelma Champion and Teddy Murchie.

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A History of Environmental Violations

A review of violations documented by the TNRCC concerning the Encycle plant reveals repeated serious violations of health and safety standards; some of these include:

6/17/97: Encylce did not include in their notice to TNRCC on their hazardous waste storage activities any mention of the fact that they had been illegally storing hazardous waste from the incineration of military chemical warfare agents in 22 railroad cars for months.

1995 to present: Encyle has failed to clean up "blue rocks" found scattered throughout the facility (and potentially offsite as well). These "blue rocks" come from out of the filters that are used in waste processing, and contain arsenic concentrations of up to 35,870 parts per million.

November 1994-April 1997: Encycle discharged illegal amounts of heavy metals and hazardous chemicals such as arsenic, lead, selenium, and mercury in their waste water eighty eight times.(3)

Health Problems near Refinery Row

Life next the plants has been difficult for the people of the Dona park neighborhood. "There are people sick all over the neighborhood," says Teddy. "I would venture to say one house out of three has someone that's been affected. I have two baby granddaughters that my son will not allow to come over because he's afraid to let them play in the yard because of the danger to their health."(4) Zelma adds, "We have a 17% higher cancer rate than the rest of the city. We have plants that should be green, but they call us the 'Black Thumb' neighborhood." (5)

"Dona Park Poisoned"

ASARCO facility In the spring and summer of 1994, TNRCC and ASARCO collected soil samples from the yards of some of the homes in Teddy and Zelma's neighborhoods, testing for lead and cadmium contamination. Teddy said the people of the neighborhood were notified of the test results with headlines in their daily newspaper. "We woke up one morning and read in the newspaper, 'Dona Park Poisoned.'" Soon after, Teddy remembered, "we went to a meeting at St. Teresa's Parish Church and the Health Department and the TNRCC [said]...that we were in danger; the land was poisoned by lead and cadmium and zinc..." After months of fear and uncertainty of the impact to their neighborhood from the contamination, state officials changed their position. Teddy said, "Then they came back nine months later and said, 'oh, it's not that bad--it's only twelve houses." (6)

TNRCC Orders Cleanup

TNRCC ordered ASARCO to clean up the homes where the soil was contaminated at levels greater than 500 parts per million lead or 50 parts per million of cadmium. Despite research by neighbors that showed excessively high levels of arsenic in the neighborhood, the TNRCC did not require any testing for arsenic. In January 1997, ASARCO did clean up 15 homes, but left several others with high contamination levels untouched. That summer, TNRCC mailed a notice to everyone in the neighborhood letting them know that they had a right to remediation if their home was contaminated beyond 500/50 parts per million standard.

TNRCC Hides Test Results

In an effort to thwart a lawsuit that had been filed against it, ASARCO tested 19 homes in the Dona Park neighborhood in 1998, hoping to accumulate evidence which would show that no contamination remained in the neighborhood. In December 1998, a state district court in Corpus ordered ASARCO to turn over the results to the property owners as soon as they were in. ASARCO gave TNRCC the results, explaining that the contamination was caused by lead paint. TNRCC accepted this explanation and did no further investigation. Both TNRCC and ASARCO refused to reveal the results of these tests to the individual homeowners until after a deal was struck in March, 1999. The deal, which was negotiated by ASARCO and TNRCC without the neighbors' input, allowed ASARCO to refuse to clean up yards where the 1998 testing showed contamination above the TNRCC standards.(7)

Case Closed, Contamination Continues

Finally, after the clock had run out for several legal remedies, the TNRCC made public the records showing that an additional 12 out of the 19 homes tested by ASARCO were contaminated above the standards. The people of the neighborhood are frustrated that the state's environmental regulatory agency has gone to such lengths to protect the polluters. "The TNRCC is aware that there is still contaminated soil. They've closed the case and they've not allowed the case to be re-opened," explains Zelma. "As an absolute last resort, we've had to go to litigation. All we want is our health."

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

Sources:

  1. Interview with Zelma Champion , Corpus Christi, January 25, 2000.
  2. Affidavit of Paul Mushak, Toxicologist at PB Associates and Professor of Pediatrics at Albert Einstein College of Medicine, New York City. In Mr. Mushak's study of the Dona Park neighborhood, he concludes that "my statistical analyses show that the source of cadmium, lead, and zinc in Dona Park/Manchester and Academy heights soils is the ASARCO/Encycle facility."
  3. Based on TNRCC records.
  4. Interview with Teddy Merchie, Corpus Christi, January 25, 2000.
  5. Interview with Zelma Champion, Corpus Christi, January 25, 2000.
  6. Interview with Teddy Merchie, Corpus Christi, January 25, 2000.
  7. ASARCO Inc. TNRCC Agreed Order March 24, 1999.
 
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