Environmental Justice Case Study: Toxic Neighbors of Corpus Christi

Table of Contents
Key Actors
Environmental Description of the Area
Evaluation of Strategies
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The "Refinery Row" districts of Corpus Christi, Texas are primarily low income, Afro-American and Hispanic communities located uncomfortably close to a large collection of industrial companies. The problem is the air and ground pollution caused by these industries and the apparent disregard by both the polluters and the city and state agencies of federal laws designed to protect affected citizens. Incidents such as ground well water contamination, lead contamination of soil, accidents and explosions at plants, various toxic clouds resulting in nausea of the residents on several occasions have provoked little or no actions by the TNRCC and the city. Complaints phoned in by the citizens are ignored and a siege mentality has set in on both sides.

The population of Refinery Row has organized under the auspices of the AGIT, PACE and LULAC in order to change their living conditions. Since the city of Corpus Christi and the TNRCC have chose to ignore complaints of environmental contamination, the grass roots organizations with the help of the Sierra Club have filed a formal complaint with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. This occurred after city hall refused to hold special town meetings on the subject, and rebuffed citizens when they brought up the topic while attending council meetings.

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Key Actors

Rev. Roy Malveaux - State Director - People Against Contaminated Environments (PACE)

As director of this grassroots movement, the reverend is concerned for the health of the children of these communities and is upset about the lack of action by the city of Corpus Christi and the TNRCC. He favors community relocation.

Gilbert Jasso - Civil Rights Coordinator - American GI Forum of Texas (AGIT)

Jasso is a member of an organization founded to help Hispanic veterans receive their legitimate benefits. This movement has recently grown into a larger anti-discrimination group. He blames the city and the TNRCC for not enforcing environmental laws. Jasso further claims that cancers and other illnesses in the community have been the result of this lack of enforcement.

Grover Hankins - Attorney, Professor of Law - Texas Southern University

Hankins is the former Deputy General Counsel in U.S. Health and Human Services Dept. and General Counsel of the NAACP. He sees these neighborhoods as being in a critical position due to the inundation of chemicals. He further points to the fact that children there have the highest blood lead levels in Texas.

Neil Carman - Clean Air Director - Austin Sierra Club

Carman is the co-architect of the E.P.A. complaint and a former Texas Air Control Board investigator. In the paper he documents zoning and tax abatement rulings that discriminate against people of color. His statistics show how badly the area is bearing the burden of the industrial waste.

Barry R. McBee - Chairman - Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission

His organization believes that they have been very active in enforcing environmental laws in Corpus Christi and expects the E.P.A. will not find any discrimination in this case.

Mayor Mary Rhodes - City of Corpus Christi

The city feels that they have enforced the laws fairly and thinks that they have mediated well between the interests of the community and the industries. They point to the fact that Amerada Hess Co. lost itŐs industrial district contract when it failed to meet city pollution control standards.

Daniel J. Rondeau - Director, Office of Civil Rights - U.S. Environmental Protection Agency

Rondeau claims the complaint will take time to investigate and the city and the TNRCC will need to respond to all allegations. The E.P.A. prefers to settle the issue by bringing the parties together to compromise and avoid sanctions such as losing federal assistance money. E.P.A. representatives were recently taken on a tour of the area by Grover Hankins and Neil Carman for a first hand look.

League of Latin American Citizens (LULAC)

The League was formed in 1929 to in response to discrimination of Hispanics who were assimilated after the Mexican war in the United States. They were part of the original complaint to the E.P.A. and make up a significant proportion of the residents of "Refinery Row".

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1990 Census tracts of communities nearest to the refineries

Tract 4 % of total population
Afro-American 56.2
Hispanic 39.6
Caucasian 3.4

Tract 5 % of total population
Afro-American 52.3
Hispanic 43.5
Caucasian 3.6

Tract 6 % of total population
Afro-American 7.8
Hispanic 71.4
Caucasian 19.8

Tract 7 % of total population
Afro-American 2.1
Hispanic 52.4
Caucasian 44.5

Tract 11 % of total population
Afro-American 4.3
Hispanic 89.3
Caucasian 5.4

Corpus Christi-Refinery Row Distance from refineries (in miles) % of population below the poverty line
Tract 4 0-0.5 70.3
Tract 5 0-0.2 42.9
Tract 6 0-1.9 32
Tract 7 0-0.4 23.6
Tract 11 0.35-1.0 73.6

Corpus Christi-Refinery Row % of adults with high school diploma
Tract 4 64.1
Tract 5 54.3
Tract 6 48.2
Tract 7 44.2
Tract 11 80.1

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Environmental Description of the Area

Air pollution from industry is evidenced by the following TRI (Toxic Release Inventory) numbers:

Company Zip Codes % Minority Total Toxic Releases Toxic Air Releases (% of County Total)
Celanese Engineering 78343 56 4,416,429 1,904,937 (43%)
American Chrome 78407 80 1,503,110 184,660 (12%)
Coastal Refining & Mkg. 78408 77 1,311,982 536,382 (41%)
OXY Petrochemicals Co. 78410 23 1,070,450 1,044,250 (98%)
Koch Refining 78410 23 481,302 451,469 (94%)
CITGO Refining 78408 77 478,095 165,085 (35%)
Southwestern Refining 78407 80 296,686 285,336 (96%)
Valero Refining 78408 77 132,995 49,368 (37%)
CITGO Refining 78409 52 83,487 7,831 (9%)

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The help of Neil Carman of the Sierra Club and Attorney Grover Hankins of Texas Southern University was crucial on putting together a cohesive statistical picture of the environmental conditions in such a way which could espouse the proper federal and state environmental laws and how they are being broken.

In their complaint the Carman and Hankins point out health studies showing a cancer mortality rate in the industrial census tracts as being significantly higher than the state average. Studies were sited which implicate chemicals such as the ones used in Corpus Christi industries of causing respiratory ailments such as Asthma which commonly inflict the many young and old residents of the area. A particularly telling episode described in the complaint involves the denial of a rezoning for a Go-Cart track in a majority white area of Corpus Christi because of citizens complaints of the noise and air pollution it would cause. In contrast to this was a request by "Refinery Row" citizens to stop the rezoning of a portion of their neighborhood from light-industrial to heavy-industrial which was denied by the city in spite of their vigorous protests.

In reply, the city, state and industrial interests have attempted to create a buffer between the residents and the refineries by crafting a bill in the Texas State Senate that would allow any gasoline or oil contaminated residential property next to the refineries to be condemned by eminent domain and purchased at greatly reduced price by the Port Authority of Corpus Christi. The Port Authority, according to SB 1676, would have zero liability as a potentially responsible party in remediation of all residential contaminated property seized and under its jurisdiction. Refineries would still have been responsible for remediation of contaminated properties but without any liability to the residents who had lived on the home sites with ground water contamination. The bill was successfully killed in the Texas House after PACE sent a letter to their state senator advising him that they believed the pending legislation was illegal and may result in a civil rights lawsuit under title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

That the community only learned of the legislation through the news media after it had already passed the Senate clearly shows that the city of Corpus Christi was not interested in citizen input into resolving the situation. The city was aware that the residents would accept the creation of a buffer zone only through a buyout of their homes at fair market value, and without losing their rights to sue over the health problems caused by the environmental contamination.

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Evaluation of the Strategies

The strategy used by the community is the most logical one available to them. When up against a greater power, seeking help from a power greater than they makes the most sense. The biggest weakness of this strategy is that the federal government, despite their desire to help citizens in need, will rarely come to the rescue of its most unfortunate, namely, the residents of refinery row. This is true especially when it will result in great loss of revenue for its most fortunate, namely, the industries. The legal precedence that could be set by this case would be felt all across the country and would spur hundreds of similar complaints and lawsuits.

The possibility does exist that the federal government will force an out of court settlement that accepts some of the remedies suggested by the citizens complaint. These remedies would address more active participation of monitoring the pollution by the TNRCC, health study requests, and the inclusion of the community in drafting proper emergency procedures in case of industrial accidents. If this is all that is expected of the E.P.A. then I believe the residents may achieve their goal. However, the vagueness of the remedies, such as "aggressive enforcement" of air and water pollution violations and "better" health monitoring may give the government the opportunity to do little and claim much.

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To repeat, the remedies sought by the complainants are modest and quite doable. The suggestion raised by both the industries and the residents is the creation of a buffer zone. However, if the industries were serious about buying out the neighborhoods at fair market value, this process would have already been initiated. Whatever becomes of this complaint to the E.P.A. the real battle will be when civil rights groups take to the courts to try to force the companies to take responsibility for cleaning up the communities and compensating the plaintiffs. The Executive Order No. 12898 signed by President Clinton along with Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 gives residents a legal standing to sue. Therefore, if studies can unquestionably incriminate the industries pollution with the failing health of nearby citizens, then a lot of money in punitive damages could be up for grabs.

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More studies on the affects of air and ground pollution to community residents need to be done. The E.P.A., if so inclined, could take a step in the right direction and authorize these studies. When studies show a direct link between sicknesses such as cancer and these chemicals, the outcry for something to be done will not only be heard from the minority communities, but also from affected white communities. Only by linking the fate of others who are more influential to the conditions suffered by the minorities will prompt action which will benefit all of mankind.

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Title VI, Civil Rights Act of 1964 http://www.os.dhhs.gov/progorg/ocr/oasamt6.html

Executive Order No. 12898 http://www.epa.gov/docs/oejpubs/execordr.txt.html

I would like to pay credit to NEIL CARMAN of the Sierra Club for providing me with much of the information used in this web page.

Local Contact: Alison C. Horton, Director Mackinac Chapter Sierra Club 300 N. Washington Sq., Suite 411, Lansing, MI. 48933 Phone: (517) 484-2372 Fax: (517) 484-3108

Some additional links:

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