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The Ungreening of America: No Clear Skies

In a Texas oil town, the assault on the nation's clean-air laws has hit close to home.

SHORTLY AFTER 4:30 P.M. ON MONDAY, April 14, 2003, the power went out at the Motiva refinery in Port Arthur, Texas. The massive plant shut down instantly and, as is common when something goes wrong at a refinery, the "product" in the pipes -- tens of thousands of pounds of highly pressurized liquids and gases -- was released through the smokestacks. In this particular incident, 256,653 pounds of toxic chemicals were hurled into the air over the next 24 hours.

"That refinery was blowing hot," says Hilton Kelley, the tall, sturdy, 42-year-old founder of a local group called the Community In-Power Development Association. "And that cloud of poison hung over us until, I'd guess, 10 or 11 that night."

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It wasn't the first such incident, or "upset," at the 3,800-acre plant, a century-old, grime-stained industrial giant that glowers above Port Arthur's pancake-flat landscape. Motiva had experienced seven in just the previous 11 weeks, and the record of Port Arthur's other refineries wasn't much better; during one six-month period last year, barely a day went by without a toxic accident of some kind.

And so, Kelley knew just what to do as 128.3 tons of vaporized poisons -- including sulfur dioxide, hexane, carbon monoxide, isobutane -- began sifting earthward. He went door to door, warning his neighbors to either leave quickly or stay inside with the windows shut tight. He also made a phone call, to a toll-free number at the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, the state agency charged with monitoring airborne toxic releases.

When a TCEQ staffer finally arrived, Kelley says, "I asked the guy, 'You got any air-monitoring equipment with you?' And the guy said, 'No.' And I thought, So...what? You're here to watch?"

"Around here," Kelley says, "it turns out April 14 was just another day."

PORT ARTHUR AND POLLUTION have gone together ever since Texas' First major oil well was discovered in 1901, at the Spindletop derrick just up the road in Beaumont. The city's First refining facility was built that same year, and Port Arthur boomed along with the oil business. Janis Joplin was born here, the daughter of a refinery engineer, and sang in the choir at First Christian Church in the '50s. But by the 1990s, mechanization had taken away most of the refinery jobs, and Port Arthur -- along with much of the Gulf Coast oil belt between Houston and Baton Rouge -- fell on hard times.

Today, Port Arthur resembles nothing so much as a gated community in reverse. Sprawling refineries hide behind chain-link fences topped with razor wire and guards at the exits. Outside the fences, in the predominantly African-American neighborhood known as the Westside, streets are potholed, and every third or fourth house is empty and overgrown. All around Port Arthur, clapboard Victorians from a more prosperous era stand in want of paint and shutters, and tall weeds grow in the sidewalks of once-busy downtown avenues. Unemployment hovers around 13 percent, and the only buildings that see much activity appear to be City Hall and the offices of the local paper, the Port Arthur News.

Spend a few days in town and you'll find that the air always carries a throat-tickling mix of murky sea spray from the Gulf of Mexico and low levels of airborne sulfur, given off by the refineries. At night, above the dark shapes of enormous live oaks, the sky often glows orange with flares and the plants' thousands of lights; a constant, low electric hum from the refineries blankets the city like east Texas humidity. Port Arthur ranks high in just about every national pollution statistic -- the city and surrounding county are among the top 10 percent for major chemical releases; environmental cancer risk; levels of carcinogens; and levels of toxins that interfere with fetal development. According to a study by the Austin-based Sustainable Energy and Economic Development Coalition, more than 20,000 children in the area are exposed to toxins that can cause cancer, learning disabilities, and birth defects.

This, in other words, is the kind of place the federal government promised to start cleaning up a generation ago, when Congress passed a series of sweeping environmental laws including the Clean Air Act of 1970. The act never quite lived up to its name; many companies ignored its mandates, or learned to accept environmental fines as part of the cost of doing business. But in the 1990s, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency began cracking down on companies that were violating the law, threatening power plants and refineries, including some in Port Arthur, with costly lawsuits if they did not install state-of-the-art filters and scrubbers.

Now, the Bush administration has pulled back on that effort -- and, according to critics, demolished the foundation of the Clean Air Act itself. It has issued rules that relax key provisions of the act, allowing thousands of dirty power plants and other industrial sites to increase pollution without any Fines or penalties. Fifteen states have filed suit to block the changes; a national group of state and local air-pollution officials says the rules will result in "unchecked emissions increases that will degrade our air quality and endanger public health."

Though the administration characterizes the policy shift as minor -- a "response to a longstanding, bipartisan call for reform," as an EPA briefing paper puts it -- changing the clean-air rules has long been a top priority for companies that have donated millions to the Bush campaign. In March 2001, just two months after Bush took office, the National Petroleum Refiners Association, which represents several of the companies operating in Port Arthur, told the U.S. Department of Energy in an internal memo that "the EPA's enforcement campaign against U.S. refineries should be halted and re-examined." And that, in effect, is what happened: The administration's proposed changes would legalize what until now were violations of the Clean Air Act, in some cases creating a permanent exemption from rules that were supposed to have kicked in three decades ago. The EPA has also released a plan it calls "Clear Skies," which would loosen Clean Air Act standards for most of the nation's power companies. And it has taken the pressure off companies that violate the law, cutting inspections staff and reducing Fines and criminal charges against polluters.

"What is so profound is that this is the First time in the history of the Clean Air Act that we are going in the wrong direction," says Judith Enck, a policy adviser to New York attorney general Eliot Spitzer, who has Filed suit challenging the administration's new rules. "For 30-plus years, there had been a gradual tightening of standards. This is the First time the federal government has tried to weaken the act. We're in uncharted territory here."

HILTON KELLEY CAME BACK to Port Arthur in February of 2000, a local Eagle Scout turned Hollywood stuntman. "I was working on the TV show Nash Bridges with Don Johnson," Kelley recalls. "I decided to make a visit home, like I did every few years, and what I found was beyond belief. Because of the increasing air pollution, the people of Port Arthur were too sick to help themselves. They were beat down. The town was dying, and I saw a need here that I thought I could fill."

Three months later, Kelley put his Hollywood career on hold and headed home. "That last day at work, Don Johnson said, 'We'll miss ya, Hilton. Go and get your hometown cleaned up and come back to work,'" remembers Kelley, doing a dead-on impersonation of the star's gravelly voice. Back in Port Arthur, Kelley hooked up with two local ministers -- Reverend Alfred Dominic and Dr. Roy Malveaux -- who had, after years of watching their town's decline, started a campaign to clean up the refineries. "Our goal," says Reverend Dominic, "has never been to shut the refineries down, only to make them better neighbors. Hilton came home from California, and he became like an 'on' valve for this campaign and this town. He just turned it loose."

These days, Kelley patrols his old neighborhood in his 1995 Buick LeSabre, carrying the environmental activist's low-tech equivalent of a James Bond gizmo -- a "bucket-style" air monitor, literally a white five-gallon plastic bucket that pumps samples of air into sealable plastic bags. Kelley uses it to make "grabs" of polluted air during refinery upsets, then ships those samples to a private lab. "The refineries' attitude has always been, 'If you catch us, we'll pay the fine -- if you don't catch us, so much the better,'" Kelley says. "So I decided to be the guy who started catching them."

As we drive the streets of the Westside, Kelley -- in shorts and flip-flops, his mobile-phone earpiece always in place -- shows off the sights of what he calls "my toxic reality." Our First stop is Carver Terrace, a cluster of red-brick buildings wedged between the fence lines of the Premcor and Motiva refineries. "I was born here," Kelley says as we cruise the grid of streets. "And this is a federal housing project, meaning the people who live here pretty much by definition have nowhere else to go. They're stuck living next to a refinery that throws toxic chemicals over its fence, sometimes every day."

Kelley steers the car into the driveway of a white bungalow, and we head inside. The house is occupied by a woman and her three daughters, each of whom has been diagnosed with asthma. The girls' inhalers sit on a table in the kitchen and the woman -- who, like many people in the neighborhood, doesn't want her name used -- explains that in the past when one of the refineries had an accident, company representatives would troll Carver Terrace, paying $50 a head to residents who'd sign a waiver promising not to sue for damages. "They don't do that anymore," she adds.

A few miles away, Margaret Jefferson lives with her four children just outside the fence line of the BASF plant. "I grew up here, and I grew up with asthma," she says matter-of-factly. "And when I had children, all four of them got asthma, too." Jefferson says she used to have to take the kids to the hospital constantly; now she keeps inhalers and dozens of prescriptions within reach, and only ends up at the emergency room a couple of times each month. The doctors, she says, never tell her what might be the cause of the attacks. "They only treat it and send me home."

There are hundreds of stories like Jefferson's on the Westside; practically every household, it seems, is stocked with inhalers and a cupboard full of pills. Lillie Tilley, who lives half a block from the Motiva fence line, gets eyewash and Pepto-Bismol by the boxful at the local dollar store. (Eye irritation and nausea are among the symptoms of exposure to airborne toxins.) All three of Tilley's children, aged 18 to 22, have asthma, as does she. "I did everything I could to make sure these kids were healthy," she says, "but they still came up sickly. I was trying to get them to get their education and get out of here." Asked whether she's angry at the refineries, Tilley -- who for years worked the graveyard shift at one of the plants -- says she's upset "because the children had to deal with it," then adds, "For me, myself, I just accepted it. We count on these refineries to provide for our families, but they are killing us off."

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