At the heart of Port Arthur, the simple, tight-knit city in southeast Texas is the mega center of oil imports and exports. Supplying the country with a substantial amount of its oil, the city is famous for its big brand oil companies. When Hurricane Harvey hit, Port Arthur, along with its refineries, were completely underwater.
While the city is still rebuilding and moving on from the storm’s destruction, the citizens from Port Arthur say they face a greater threat that has been hiding in the town long before the hurricane hit: the refineries swallowing the city.
Port Arthur is one of the three cities apart of the Golden Triangle. Beaumont and Orange help make up the triangle given its name for the oil strike that happened in the early 20th century. The triangle contains refineries that collectively export over a million gallons of oil each day.
The city has been termed an “oil town,” with it being home to several of the country’s most vital oil refineries, with big names such as Motiva Enterprises, Valero Energy Corporation and Chevron Phillips Chemical Company LLC. The seemingly small and quiet town holds a mega city right at its center, where some of the world’s wealthiest companies have taken the city hostage.
From less than 15 miles away, the refineries appear to be a bustling city. Hundreds of bright, yellow lights embody the skyline of New York or Chicago. As the long winding roads lead to the striking metropolis beaming in the pitch-black Texas sky, the admiration is short-lived.
Excess oil and chemicals, burned off from enormous stacks hovering tall over the city, set massive fires ablaze in the sky throughout the night. Almost all of Port Arthur is haunted by the smell of rotten eggs from the emissions released through smoke stacks day in and day out. The town is blanketed in the thick, clouds of pollution that burn and seem to suffocate the average person. Simply walking outside becomes a chore for the lungs and eyes.
While the refineries appear to be almost beautiful at night, they seem to be straight out of a sci-fi film during the day. The frighteningly large structures fill the sky with mazes of chilling, dark metal and smoke stacks that cover the light blue sky with makeshift chemical clouds.
Apart from its booming refinery center, Port Arthur is one of Texas’ poorest cities with a majority of its citizens being African-American or Hispanic and having a median annual household income of only $32,000. Many of the residents most affected by Harvey live in run-down homesteads just on the outskirts of the oil refineries, living in the shadow of the billion-dollar companies that have the poorest neighbors.
These homesteads, some within walking distance of the refineries, have been passed down through generations. This along with the damage from Harvey, leaves many of the homes in shambles, with the presence of mold and rot caused by water damage being unsafe for homeowners to breathe in. With the mold inside and pollution filling the air outside, some residents of Port Arthur say they feel like they are stuck in a death trap.
When Harvey hit Port Arthur, oil production was suddenly at a standstill. The refineries in Port Arthur were affected by high floodwaters and were forced to shut down their operations. Motiva reported it had to stop its operations after the refinery was working at only 40 percent capacity. Valero, just two miles away, also faced the same fate. The sudden halt in oil production threw the refineries into the spotlight, with the nation’s gas prices skyrocketing and uncertainty of how long the refineries would be down.
Motiva Enterprises, the largest oil refinery in the country, produces over 600,000 barrels of crude oil a day and is the country’s largest lubricant plant for both consumer and commercial use. The company is owned by Saudi Aramco, the world’s largest oil and gas company, producing more than $1 billion in revenues daily, according to Forbes.
Refineries such as Motiva Enterprises and Chevron Phillips Chemical Company have “Health, Safety, and Environment” pages on their websites. According to the companies, the health and safety of the community is the top priority. While the websites boast about their claims of ensuring the safety of their workers and surrounding community, people are concerned about their health.
The refineries process manufacturing oil. They release emissions, and along with the excess gas and chemicals burned at the refineries, the residents of Port Arthur are forced to live in what some believe is a dangerous, polluted environment.
In addition to the emissions coming from the refineries daily, there have been accidental emission releases over the past years. A fire at Valero in September released an excess of nearly 1 million pounds of emissions, according to a report filed with the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.
According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency, the agency has had to create settlements and come to agreements with refineries such as Motiva, Total Petrochemicals USA, and Valero over the reduction of emissions in compliance with the Clean Air Act
When Harvey hit, refineries in Port Arthur, Beaumont, and other surrounding cities reported an extreme excess of emissions due to the shut down and start up of operations.
Tamika Reed, a resident living in one of the neighborhoods shadowed by the refineries, suffers from asthma and bronchitis. Her symptoms have persisted.
“These refineries, and these other places like that of that nature, they messed us up,” said Reed.
In a study conducted by the University of Texas Medical Branch, those living in Port Arthur were four times more likely to suffer from heart and respiratory problems, nervous system and skin disorders, headaches and muscle aches, and other illnesses compared to those who live 100 miles away.
The African-Americans of Port Arthur, while also being some of the poorest, are the ones hit hardest by health disparities. African Americans in Port Arthur also have a 40 percent higher cancer mortality rate than African Americans in the rest of Texas, according to the Environmental Integrity Project.
“We always complaining about it,” said Reed.
The controversial proposal of extending the original Keystone pipeline, creating the Keystone XL pipeline, would increase crude oil transportation to 830,000 gallons a day. The oil would be transported from Canada to the refineries located right in Port Arthur. The proposed development would increase the amount of oil brought to the city, posing an even greater threat to already preexisting health conditions of its residents.
As the damages still linger from Harvey, the refineries will remain long after Port Arthur recovers. In the fight for advancement and growth, Port Arthur’s health has been sacrificed, some might argue, in order to meet the oil refineries’ hunger for money and the national desire for gas. The need for oil only increases, and Port Arthur finds itself stuck between its resident’s health and the country’s need for oil.