Growing up in Port Arthur, Texas, I always knew that neighbors and family members seemed to get sick more often than they should. It wasn’t until I left — and came back — that I realized with fresh eyes just how dire our slow crisis was and that my community is riddled with sickness and dim prognoses.
Port Arthur residents live and work in the shadows of chemical facilities that unleash daily doses of air pollution and pose the threat of catastrophic disasters that could each kill or injure thousands in minutes. According to reports submitted by local chemical facilities to the Environmental Protection Agency, Port Arthur is home to five high-risk chemical plants that place more than 100,000 people at risk of a break, leak, or explosion and the 25-mile-long cloud of lethal gas that would follow.
While every community downwind of high-risk facilities is in danger of such a disaster, those living closest to these facilities experience the immediate effects of a disaster and the long-term effects of daily exposure to these carcinogens. These are often low-income communities of color with insufficient, underfunded emergency response, health care, evacuation and relocation services.
As we saw after Hurricane Katrina, underserved communities are at greatest risk in the midst of disaster. In Texas, communities closest to these high-risk facilities are told more frequently to “shelter in place” than to evacuate. This means stay in your home, duct tape your doors and windows, turn off your AC or heat and listen to the radio for the “all clear” to go back outside. While chemical leaks should warrant evacuation, these communities are told to stay put — and the effects of these leaks are long-lasting and devastating.
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Troynell Daw grew up in Port Arthur with his sister, mother, and grandmother. They resided on the west side of town, where refineries loom over residents’ backyards. In 2003, Troynell’s 17-year-old sister died from a malignant brain tumor. Six years later, when his mother turned 50, she died from breast cancer. Less than a year after Troynell’s mother died, his grandmother was diagnosed with stomach cancer; two years later, she too passed away.
Of the 473 chemical facilities in the U.S. that each pose an immediate risk to 100,000 or more people, 101 of these facilities are located in Texas; five are in the Port Arthur area. Just one of those plants, Port Arthur’s Premcor refinery, stores tons of hydrofluoric acid; the refinery reported to the EPA that 330,000 local residents live in the plant’s “vulnerability zone.”
The immediate and long-term chemical isn’t limited to Port Arthur residents; more than 100 million Americans live in risk zones around similarly dangerous plants.
To be sure, there are ways to operate these plants that could eliminate the catastrophic effects of a potential explosion or leak, and hundreds of facilities have adopted safer alternatives. Clorox recently converted all of its U.S. plants by substituting liquid bleach for chlorine gas. In Houston, this switch eliminated the threat of a toxic chemical disaster for over 1.8 million residents. A 2006 Center for American Progress survey showed that 87 percent of facilities that made similar switches did so for $1 million or less — a small fraction of the annual profits of most of these companies — and about a third anticipate the switch will save revenue.
It’s time more companies put people over profit. Switches like these shouldn’t be left up to individual facilities, and therein lays the larger problem: even after lethal chemical facility disasters like the explosion in West, Texas, last year that killed 14 and injured hundreds, there are still no federal or state requirements to use safer alternatives.
As it stands, no facility in Port Arthur has made any indication they plan to eliminate the risk they pose to thousands of Texans.
Enforceable safety standards could turn safe chemical facilities from a rarity to a norm, and the EPA has the authority to establish requirements that require these hazardous chemicals for any safer alternatives available.
Currently, the EPA is in the slow-moving process of establishing regulations that would require companies to use safer chemicals when available, but it’s time for President Barack Obama to make chemical safety and storage a No. 1 priority for the 100 million Americans nationwide who live in cities like Port Arthur. The president was a leader on this issue in the Senate and promised to make effective changes when he was elected, but at the current pace these regulations won’t be established by the end of his term.
There are millions of Americans living in a chemical death trap every day — too many lives have been lost, and too many others remain in danger, to wait any longer.