An illustration of children playing basketball next to a smoke-spewing refinery.
Illustration by Cathryn Virginia
Environment

'Sentenced to Death': What It's Like Living in a Cancer-Plagued Oil Town

Port Arthur, Texas, is surrounded by refineries that residents say are poisoning them.
January 2, 2020, 1:00pm

In the early 1980s, when Etta Hebert was a young woman suffering from ovarian cancer, sometimes her body became so sensitive that even the vibrations caused from walking across the floor sent an excruciating pain shooting up her legs and into her insides, doubling her over in agony. More than a decade later she would tell this to her foster daughter, who began suffering the same pain after she was diagnosed with the same disease in her early 20s. By then cancer was beginning to stalk Hebert's family like a ghost: The following year her mother died from ovarian cancer (tests showed the disease wasn't hereditary); later her cousin and sister were both diagnosed with breast cancer, her ex-husband died from liver cancer, and her brother was hit by prostate cancer. Three years ago her daughter Angela, at age 42, was diagnosed with colon cancer. Once, she was at the grocery store, and broke down crying after the cold air blasting from a freezer sent her body writhing in pain.

Hebert's family lives in Port Arthur, a struggling city of 55,000 at the edge of Southeast Texas, the heart of the state's petroleum industry. The region has long been known for its elevated cancer levels (Texas Monthly labeled it the state's "cancer belt" back in 1981), and the EPA ranks it among the worst in the country for toxic chemical emissions. Virtually everyone in the city is affected by serious health problems. Deaths from cancer, even among young people, surprise no one. "It's almost a thing," Landrey Patin, a 31-year-old resident, told me, "to where you know that you're sentenced to death."

The disease disproportionately particularly afflicts the area's Black residents: A 2017 report from the NAACP pointed to Texas Cancer Registry data showing that Black people in Jefferson County, which includes Port Arthur, had cancer rates 15 percent higher than average Texans; the cancer mortality rate for Black county residents was nearly 40 percent higher than the state average. One 2010 study found that Port Arthur residents were more than four times as likely than people just 100 miles upwind of the refineries to report a host of conditions, including respiratory problems, skin disorders, and headaches. A 2001 study discovered that more than 80 percent of residents of Port Arthur's predominantly Black West Side suffered heart and lung ailments.

"We just have no idea with some things that are going on," Judith Smith, the city's health department director, told me. Smith doesn't see cancer patients, but these days, she said, she hears about a lot more cases than she did 37 years ago, when she first started working in town. Several years ago she and her sister were both diagnosed with breast cancer within the same week, although tests showed they didn't carry the genetic marker; her husband was also diagnosed with a rare muscle cancer.

"You just kind of wonder, 'Well, is it an environmental thing?' You just don't know, and that's the thing—you just don't know," she said. "Oncologists can't really tell you where it came from."

This April, Etta Hebert's husband Roy was diagnosed with prostate cancer. Barely six months later, on a late morning in November, I found him bedridden in a sunny third-floor motel room on the outskirts of town, too weak from a radiation treatment to sit up for extended periods or speak above a barely audible murmur. Before he got sick, Roy, a one-time track star from Louisiana everyone called "Flashy," had weighed a lean 160 pounds; now he was down to 110, with a stash of junk food—Peanut M&Ms, Coke, potato chips—next to his bed to help him gain weight. There was also a garbage can, for the inevitable vomiting fits. At one point during a long interview with the Heberts I turned to Roy, who had mostly been listening quietly as he lay resting, and asked him if he was angry, if he blamed the local energy companies that had polluted Port Arthur for also causing his disease. "Yes," he managed in a low voice that started to crack with emotion. "Yes. I ain't never been sick like this."

"It's going to get better," Etta told her husband a minute later.

"Yeah," Roy answered, "I hope it don't get worse."

An aerial view of an oil plant.

A petrochemical plant in Port Arthur in 2008. Photo by David J. Phillip-Pool/Getty

In late October, a rupture in the Keystone Pipeline, a vast network that stretches from Alberta, Canada, to Texas, spilled 380,000 gallons of oil near a small prairie town in North Dakota, contaminating nearly five acres of wetlands and inspiring a call from Democratic representatives for a Congressional review. Yet it's Port Arthur, some 1,500 miles south, where the Keystone system terminates and billowing vapor from some of the world's largest refineries is visible at all times, that continues to bear the most profound costs of American dependence on Big Oil. Earlier this year, fed up with a status quo of persistent industry violations and the city's ceaseless public health nightmare, a coalition of advocates initiated potentially landmark legal action against Valero, owner of one of Port Arthur's three major refineries, alleging a series of Clean Air Act violations.

"The heart and soul of the city is at stake," John Beard, a prominent Port Arthur advocate and the driving force behind the effort, told me. "If we continue to go like we're going, what is there going to be left?"

Beard is a gregarious and spirited Port Arthur native who spent 38 years working in the oil industry before retiring and diving into local advocacy. ("Somebody has to be the voice of reason in the wilderness," he said.) He also served for nine years on city council, and on a chilly November morning escorted me to the observation deck of a quiet six-story Port Arthur City Hall for a panoramic orientation.

To the west, looming just beyond the city's modest downtown like a taller, vapor-shrouded neighboring city, was the Motiva refinery—the largest in North America, with a capacity of 600,000 barrels per day, occupying more than five and a half square miles. Then Beard pointed south, to more white vapor rising from another, slightly shorter cluster of silver machinery. That was Valero's refinery, with a capacity of 335,000 barrels per day. To the east was Total, another refinery. To the southeast, in the green-blue waters of Sabine Lake, Beard pointed out distant rigs and floating tankers carrying liquefied natural gas. Smaller petrochemical facilities dotted the horizon, each producing its faintly visible emissions cloud. There, Beard indicated, next to a Valero tower, was a pile of thick black petroleum coke, a key ingredient in making aluminum and steel.

A refinery at night.

The Valero refinery in 2012. Photo by Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post via Getty

The industry came here more than a century ago, after the discovery of the nearby Spindletop field set off the frenzy that led America into the modern oil age. Yet Big Oil money has by and large not trickled down to Port Arthur residents. The majority Black and Latino city has a median household income of under $33,000, more than 40 percent lower than the corresponding state and national figures. More than 30 percent of its residents live under the poverty line, among the highest rate in Texas. These days relatively few Port Arthur residents actually work in the area facilities—a sore spot Beard and others attribute to corporate racial and geographic bias—and for years the once-thriving local economy has been deteriorating, leaving a town visually defined mostly by closed storefronts and vacant lots.

"Like I say," Beard remarked as we drove through a silent, potholed section of downtown, "you could shoot a bullet down this street and it'll probably fall down in the middle of the street before it hits anything."

Beard's nonprofit, the Port Arthur Community Action Network, filed its intent to sue Valero in April, teaming with the Sierra Club and Environment Texas. The company's Port Arthur refinery, they allege, had committed more than 600 Clean Air Act violations over the last five years that emitted 1.8 million pounds of chemical pollutants, a startling catalogue of corporate malfeasance. Two months later the Texas Attorney General's office, acting in response to the group's notice, filed its own suit on the matter, although it's not yet clear how vigorously the traditionally corporate-friendly state will pursue it. (A Valero representative did not respond to a request for comment. In July, after the Texas attorney general filed the suit, a spokesperson told the Houston Chronicle the company "takes compliance seriously and has made substantial strides in reducing emissions from the Port Arthur refinery." The spokesperson added that the refinery's overall emissions had decreased 72 percent since 2002.)

Valero is exceedingly powerful, but advocates hope the suit might represent a turning point, providing leverage to force a serial bad actor to clean up. "My thing is," Beard told me, "if you're going to do this to us, then you're going to have to give us something for our pain."

Area residents have become accustomed to a regular onslaught of what should be exceedingly rare industrial accidents. Just weeks after the North Dakota spill, in late November, a series of explosions at a chemical plant in Port Neches, a few miles north of Port Arthur, injured three workers, blew out neighbors' windows, and released a massive plume of black smoke into the sky. The smoke even made it to the Heberts' motel room, where it seeped in through an open window, and promptly gave both Etta and Roy coughing fits and diarrhea. The taste, Etta told me, felt like sucking on metal.

An oil plant surrounded by smoke.

A chemical plant in Port Neches surrounded by smoke after the November explosion. Photo by Steven Song/Xinhua via Getty


Landrey Patin grew up on 19th Street, on the west side, in a public housing project that was later demolished because of its proximity to the refineries. As a teenager, he and his football teammates on the bus returning from away games would begin scanning the night for the "Port Arthur skyline"—the unmistakable glow from the refineries—from miles away. But over time Patin's view of the local industry darkened. His grandmother and great aunt both lived in those same apartments, and both died from cancer. More than a dozen other relatives and friends also died from the disease. "I have had multiple classmates who are dead from 'natural causes' in their 20s," he told me. "It's not natural."

I met Patin in an upstairs conference room at a local community college, where the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality was hosting a public hearing over a permit renewal request from Oxbow, a petrochemical company owned by the billionaire William Koch (one of the two lesser-known of the four Koch brothers). The company operates a nearby plant that emitted more than 11,000 tons of highly toxic sulfur dioxide in 2016, ranking it among the highest emitters of the chemical in all of Texas. Oxbow already had a history of environmental dubiousness, previously refusing to install emissions-reducing scrubbers and using misleading emissions counting metrics; in August the company was fined $39,000 by the TCEQ after a series of air quality violations.

The forum was attended by a diverse crowd of roughly 40, along with panel of TCEQ experts and two Oxbow representatives. In his opening remarks, Mike Holtham, the company's Port Arthur plant manager, briefly described Oxbow's operations ("Our business is pretty simple: We thermally upgrade ring petroleum coke sourced from domestic and international refineries by removing the bulk moisture involved to organic compounds to make a calcite coke product that has exceptional electrical conductivity properties that we market to domestic and international customers") before defending the company's environmental record. "Our operations are highly regulated, and we work hard to maintain compliance," Holtham emphasized. He added that TCEQ had even recognized the Port Arthur facility as an environmental compliance "high-performer."

Minutes later, what might have been a boilerplate meeting over a mundane renewal process transformed into a fiery remonstration by a town fighting for its life. A middle-aged woman told of waking up every morning to find a coating of film on her car, of struggling to breathe, and said TCEQ merely issued assurances that everything was fine. Hilton Kelley, a prominent local activist, relayed how he had meticulously catalogued local air pollution only for the data to be denied by the agency, beginning a tense exchange with a state toxicologist. Others questioned why the company only tested its smokestacks every three years, why the sulfur dioxide couldn't be captured, why the public comment period was so short, why an egregious polluter like Oxbow had been grandfathered into lax enforcement, why TCEQ should be trusted at all when it didn't have any monitors who looked like Port Arthur residents.

"Is this the Oxbow man right here?" began Greg Richard, a broad shouldered Black man in a leather New York Jets jacket, directing the question at the forum's moderator. Holtham, the Oxbow man, sat just a few feet from Richard's microphone, dressed in a sharp black suit and bright green tie.

"OK plant manager," Richard continued, "if you're so satisfied with you meeting the standards how come you don't live in my neighborhood? If it's all good like that?"

Holtham, in the slow, rehearsed tone of a politician, responded that he lived in Jefferson County. Richard cut him off. "I ain't talking about Jefferson County, don't beat around the bush! I'm talking about Port Arthur West Side. I've had quite a few classmates who died of cancer recently."

Again Holtham repeated that he lived in Jefferson County, and then insisted—recycling a line he had used minutes earlier in his opening remarks—that his mother had taught school in Port Arthur for years. He went on to declare that the EPA and TCEQ "do a very good job" protecting the local environment and residents' health, that all county residents benefit from the industry. "I drive on the same roads, I drive across the bridges, I shop at the stores. Same places that you do," he insisted. "Our area is very prosperous."

"I'm not prosperous!" Richard interjected. A few minutes later he was more explicit. "Listening to the other speakers talk, it seems to me that the Koch brothers and Oxbow are too cheap to upgrade their facilities—they're dumping their toxic waste on a bunch of negroes so they don't really care. I mean that's the way it sounds to me."

Correction 1/2: An earlier version of this post stated that there were three brothers in the Koch family when in fact there are four Koch brothers. VICE regrets the error.

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Trevor Bach is a journalist based in Detroit.