Energy and Environment Reporting for Texas

On Refinery Row, a Life of Fires, Smoke and Sickness

Billy Placker’s Front Yard in Refinery Row/Photo by Teresa Vieira for KUT News

What do you see when you look out your window at night? If you live in Billy Placker’s neighborhood, it could very well be a giant ball of fire.

“This is what we deal with here a while back,” the former refinery worker says. “My grandson run in the house, he said, Grandpa! Grandpa! The refinery’s fixing to blow up. We run outside, and the refinery back around the corner from us over here, both their flares were going insane.”

You might have seen a flare before, maybe while driving along the highway. It’s the fire on top of stacks at refineries. When things are going according to plan, the flame is small. But here on refinery row, a ten mile stretch of plants, refineries  and homes in Corpus Christi, things don’t always go according to plan.

Billy Placker Shows a Photo of a Flare/Teresa Vieria for KUT News

“We jump in the truck, I call 911, and I see a fire coming from the middle of the plant a hundred feet high. I said, it looks like it’s about to explode,” Placker recalls.

“Everything happened the way it was meant to,” assures Bill Day, spokesman for Valero Energy Corporation. He says flaring events are rare, and declining in frequency. The fire Billy Placker witnessed was a safety measure, a way of releasing gas during a power outage. “It is pretty bright, when it happens, especially at night, because of the combustion,” Day says. “No external impacts to the community were known, as far as I was told.”

That community is Dona Park, a small neighborhood of about three hundred homes, literally surrounded by oil refineries, many of them less than a mile away.

Every day up to seven hundred and eighty thousand barrels of crude oil are refined here. But with all of that refining comes flaring, when chemicals are burned off into the sky. And residents here say it’s making them sick.

“We have a friend that lives on Dona street,” says Connie Gonzales, who has lived in the neighborhood for more than forty years. “They told her that her baby wasn’t going to be born, and that it would be best for her to abort it. And she said, no, I’m gonna take a chance. And her baby was born, but it was born without an ear.”

Her husband has prostate cancer, and studies of residents have shown high rates of benzene in their blood, and elevated rates of birth defects. Bill Placker says the health effects of living so close to the refineries is obvious. “Just doing a little bit of talking to some people in the neighborhood, out of 284 homes it looks like forty to fifty percent of the people could have cancer,” he says. “Fifty percent of the children in this neighborhood have some kind of physical or mental disorder. And basically people in the plants or who have anything to do with them – they do not care.”

The situation in Dona Park has not gone unnoticed. Over the last decade, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) has “scraped” away several inches of dirt from some people’s yards to remove heavy metals left by a hazardous waste processing plant. And the TCEQ has put a monitoring station at the edge of the neighborhood.

A Flaring Event at the Javelina Plant on Refinery Row/Photo Courtesy of Suzie Canales

The refineries say they are operating according to state and federal rules required by air quality permits. “Valero has it’s commitment to safety,” spokesman Bill Day says. “We’re committed to running reliably and properly.”

The TCEQ regulates the refining industry in Texas. Richard Hyde, the commission’s Deputy Director for Compliance and Enforcemen says it does plenty to enforce the Clean Air Act in places like Refinery Row. “Our enforcement continues to go up,” he says. “Many of these facilities that individuals are concerned about, we have boots on the ground in those facilities almost daily. Some of these facilities are inspected two to three hundred times a year.”

But a new EPA list of Clean Air Act violators obtained by NPR and the Center for Public Integrity seems to demonstrate that regulators are not doing enough to protect the neighborhoods on Refinery Row. Of the six major refineries here, five were found to be “high priority violators.” That means the EPA has flagged them for serious or repeated violations. All six refineries have a high health-risk assessment from the agency. In 2009, these six refineries alone sent almost a million pounds of chemicals into the air. You can see the facilities below:

A Map of Refinery Row in Corpus Christi. Dona Park sits directly south of the Encycle Texas Plant

“We’re trying to grow gardens, we’re trying to grow fruit trees, we can’t do that anymore,” says Connie Gonzales. “We love to be outside, barbecuing or whatever else – we can’t do that anymore, because all of the sudden we have those flares.”

Part of the difficulty for the families who live here is not knowing what’s coming next. “We have tried and tried to get them to set up a system so they could come here if something’s fixing to blow and they have failed to do it over and over again,” says resident Billy Placker. “This neighborhood is too close to these plants right here. It doesn’t belong.”

Dona Park Residents Connie Gonzales and Billy Placker/Photo by Teresa Vieira

Many of the people who live here have had enough. Some families here recently formed a group with a specific goal in mind: getting the oil companies to buy them out and close down Dona Park for good.

“You know, this is prime land,” says a neighbor and member of the group. “This is land that they want. All the refineries want this land. But you know, they don’t want to pay us. They want us to leave, or die. That’s what they want us to do.”

Tomorrow we’ll report more on the efforts of the community to close down the neighborhood for good.



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