Ector county Huntsman Plastics

The "Odessa Syndrome" -
Environmental Racism
in Odessa, Texas

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Hunstman flare This week the Texas Toxic Tour takes you to Odessa Texas, deep in the western part of the state. This is the story of the predominately minority neighbors of Huntsman Corporation, the company that runs a massive industrial complex on the south side of town. This week's segment features an interview with Gene Collins, local president of the NAACP, and a story of environmental racism in Texas.

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Environmental Racism

Gene Collins, local businessman and minister, is the 14 year president of the Odessa NAACP, and co-chair for environmental justice for the statewide NAACP. He tells how "in the middle fifties, the plant was built out there, about a mile from the minority neighborhoods. There have been problems with the environment ever since, but there's no question in our mind there was a deliberate effort made by the owners of the plant to build in this neighborhood where there were poor people, people who were disenfranchised and did not have empowerment to protest the building."(1)

Residents of the area neighborhoods were worried when Huntsman, the corporation which had recently purchased the facility, announced to state officials their plans to enlarge the plant to produce plastic pellets. However, despite the protests of the surrounding neighborhoods, Huntsman's plans to expand the plant were supported by the state's environmental regulatory agency, the Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission (TNRCC).

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Featured in our interview is Gene Collins of the NAACP.

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The "Odessa Syndrome"

For Odessa residents living downwind of the Huntsman Polymers plant, the two weeks at the end of 1998 and into 1999 must have been very eerie and terrifying days. The newly expanded plastics plant went into "upset" mode, burning within the first three days alone over 61,014 pounds of ethylene and 32,981 pounds of propylene, and hundreds of pounds of benzene and butadiene--known and suspected carcinogens. (2) Black, toxic smoke engulfed the neighboring community, almost entirely populated by African American and Mexican American residents. Gene Collins remembers, "We had a huge upset over there, in fact it was so dark over there in the middle of the day you nearly needed your headlights on the south side of Odessa.(3)

Health Problems from the "Odessa Syndrome"

newspaper article Severe and chronic health problems, collectively dubbed the "Odessa Syndrome," followed the disaster; sore throats, breathing difficulties, itchy eyes, and bloody noses prompted over 3,500 complaints to (TNRCC). Despite the complaints and pervasive black smoke, the TNRCC did no special testing or investigation during the massive release, and did not issue any violations, penalties, or enforcement orders against Huntsman. "We expect those types of things to happen at start-up," said Mike Hagan, TNRCC's air section manager in Midland. (4) Only one out of the 3,500 complaints was logged in the TNRCC complaint database.

One Year Later

A year later, on January 12 and 13, 2000, something went wrong again at the troubled plant. During a single 16-hour period, Huntsman burned more chemicals than during the entire two- week upset the previous year. An estimated 11,000 pounds of butadiene and 1,400 pounds of benzene, along with over 36,000 pounds of ethylene and propylene were sent to the company's flare and into the atmosphere, along with numerous other chemicals. (5)

Community Outrage

This time, the community responded with deeper outrage toward Huntsman and the TNRCC. Nearby residents demanded that the plant fix the problems causing the hazardous releases. "We can smell the bad odor, causing us headaches, dizziness and making it hard for us to breathe," said Lucy Llanez, southside resident. "Citizens are in debt with medical bills and end up on welfare because of health problems. We don't want to see anyone lose their job. All we want is clean air."(6)

TNRCC Inaction

black smoke Again, TNRCC did nothing. Hagan excused the second release, explaining to the Odessa American that, "there are specific exemptions for upsets and maintenance. Companies are allowed to break their allowable emissions for obvious reasons. Any business that operates will eventually have problems."(7) Because southerly winds had rendered the state's sole air monitor useless, there was virtually no data from which to determine whether Huntsman violated state and federal air quality standards.

A Slap on the Wrist

After repeated complaints and pressure from citizens, TNRCC began to negotiate with Huntsman on an Agreed Order, a low level regulatory action, in which Huntsman would end up paying a meager $4,500 fine. The Agreed Order would replace a formal Enforcement Action, and would not put a black mark on the company's compliance history. Odessa citizens were angry. "The fine was ludicrous, it was a slap in the face, the whole Agreed Order was" Collins said.(8) "The fact (is) that they totally ignored the complaints from the citizens. The Agreed Order only addressed the fact that the company, Huntsman, failed to notify the TNRCC of the impending flaring, not the quality of what was going out."(9)

Threats and Intimidation

"I think the process is a very traumatic process to the community. I'm sure communities like ours are intimidated," Collins said. (10) "I think there was an effort to try and mobilize [Huntsman industry supporters] and threaten the minority workers who depend on the various companies"(11) Collins also believes that the TNRCC, the state agency charged with protecting the health and safety of Texas citizens, hasn't sided with the citizens. "In this ordeal I do not feel the TNRCC was our ally at all [In written comments submitted to the agency,] I named the TNRCC as an accomplice to what's happening here, not ones who're trying to resolve it they put up more hurdles than anyone."(12)

Governor Bush Sets the Tone

In March 2000, dozens of south Odessa residents--mainly elderly members of the NAACP and LULAC (League of United Latin American Citizens), set off for Austin to attend a meeting of the TNRCC Commissioners. Boarding a bus at 2 AM for a 6-hour drive to Austin, the Odessa citizens were determined to protest the lack of TNRCC regulatory action, the weak Agreed Order, and Governor Bush's responsibility for the problems. Gene Collins summed up the community sentiment by saying, "With our dealing with the TNRCC, our expectations were very low [the Governor] basically sets the tone for all the state agencies; if he doesn't, he should. We feel the responsibility stops there at the Governor's mansion."(13)

In an unusual turn of events, the TNRCC Commissioners returned the case to the staff for further investigation. The case is still pending.

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

Sources:

  1. Interview with Gene Collins, February 2000.
  2. Preliminary estimates on amounts released were given to the Odessa American. Harman, Greg, "Dark smoke raises environmental concerns," Odessa American, December 31, 1998.
  3. Interview with Gene Collins, February 2000.
  4. Harman, Greg, "Air quality concerns some," Odessa American January 14, 2000.
  5. Huntsman documents provided to TNRCC.
  6. Letter to TNRCC, Lucy Llanez, Kids on the Block Project Coordinator, Odessa, Texas,
  7. Harman, Greg, "Air quality Concerns Some," Odessa American January 14, 2000.
  8. Interview with Gene Collins, February 2000.
  9. Interview with Gene Collins, February 2000.
  10. Interview with Gene Collins, February 2000.
  11. Interview with Gene Collins, February 2000.
  12. Interview with Gene Collins, February 2000.
  13. Interview with Gene Collins, February 2000.
 
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