Peter Moskowitz/Al Jazeera America

Life in the shadow of an oil refinery

Louisiana residents say EPA regulations won’t stop them from getting sick. One solution: a buyout of their homes

SHREVEPORT, La. — On the blocks surrounding Calumet Specialty Products’ Shreveport Refinery the stench of rotten eggs is nearly constant. It’s a sign that hydrogen sulfide is in the air, and residents say the chemicals they’ve come to associate with that smell are responsible for a host of health issues — from cancers to lung disease to nerve damage — that plague families in the area.

Still, hundreds of little wooden houses on small plots of grass dot the blocks surrounding the plant, in the Ingleside neighborhood of Louisiana’s third largest city.

Some houses are so close that their backyards end where the Calumet’s chain link fence begins. The plant’s smokestacks are the skyline. It’s not that people don’t mind the smell, but they say there’s little they can do.

“It’s been going on so long that it doesn’t seem like anything is going on,” said Mosey Maiden, a 72-year-old lifelong resident of Shreveport. “That scent — you inhale it so long, it becomes all you smell.”

Ingleside is in a conundrum common to the often low-income communities that surround U.S. refineries. Calumet has done little that’s against the law — its emissions are rarely reported to exceed Environmental Protection Agency standards — and, residents and activists say, even if Calumet did emit more than allowed, there’s little way to know. Emissions and air quality monitoring at Calumet and every other refinery in the U.S. is largely left up to the plants themselves, a practice that the EPA admits has led to some underreporting of air quality data.

After being sued by environmental groups last year, the EPA is now under a consent decree to review the ways in which air pollution from oil refineries is monitored. A draft of their proposed rule changes is due out next month. But residents aren’t convinced a change in EPA rules will do much. Given Calumet’s location right in the middle of Ingleside, residents say there’s only one option: The plant goes, or they do.

That’s why a few people, led by lifelong Shreveport resident-turned-activist Velma White, have taken the matter into their own hands. For nearly 15 years, White and her team have monitored the air around Calumet, producing reports showing elevated levels of carbonyl sulfide, benzene, hydrogen sulfide and a host of other chemicals potentially harmful to human health.

While its nearly impossible to prove a direct correlation between any one source of emissions and the health problems of a neighborhood, White and her group hope that through their years of monitoring and meetings with plant managers, they can make a strong enough case to convince Calumet to buy out the neighborhood’s residents and relocate them.

Otherwise, they worry they’ll keep getting sick.

I can’t tell you how many times we’ve been to the ICU. This has torn my family down.

Velma White

Ingleside resident

White, 64, says she is one of the few members of her family who isn’t chronically ill. Her family’s problems began back in 1984, when Pennzoil owned the plant, right after there was a chemical spill.

“It looked like there was some kind of steam or heat coming out of the plant,” White said. “There were men on the back of trucks with bullhorns telling people to get inside. My daughter came back inside the house because she couldn’t breathe. Then things started going downhill.”

Her daughter Luberta Daughtry, now 44, has had breathing and kidney problems since the incident. In 1993 her kidneys failed, and she was given a kidney transplant at a local hospital.

White’s youngest daughter, Roksheika White, still gets blood clots in her lungs. Velma White’s older sister has cervical cancer and sarcoidosis in her lungs, and her other sister died in 2006 of lung cancer. Her brother died in 2007 after a bout with bone cancer.

“I can’t tell you how many times we’ve been to the ICU,” White said. “This has torn my family down.”

Velma White outside her sister’s house in Shreveport, La. She uses a room in the house for the office of her group Residents for Air Neutralization.

Calumet denies that its plant is responsible for any of the health issues in the area. Spokesman Noel Ryan would not answer any specific questions for this story but issued a statement that read, in part, “In recent years, there have been multiple and extensive air monitoring events by the U.S. EPA and the LDEQ [Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality] in and around the Shreveport refinery. None of these sampling events have shown unsafe air quality levels … Since acquiring the Shreveport refinery in 2001, Calumet has continued to make investments that enhance the safety and environmental compliance of the facility.”

White says Calumet has done a slightly better job at running the plant than its previous owners. But residents say the problems persist.

White’s friend and neighbor Joseph Ashley, 57, said every family in the neighborhood has a story about the plant. Ashley’s son Avery has sinus issues. His wife has bronchitis. His other son Caleb had to be rushed to the hospital after a particularly strong-smelling smoke was released from the plant four years ago. Since then, Ashley said, Caleb has had trouble breathing.

“He’s short of breath all the time,” Ashley said. “I wake up in the middle of the night because I want to make sure he’s breathing.”

Despite EPA and Calumet assurances that there’s little to worry about, White says her research proves otherwise.

A small neighborhood group White started, Residents for Air Neutralization, conducted a survey from August 2012 until April of 2013 of 647 residents who live on the blocks surrounding the plant. It found that 94 percent of respondents smelled a foul, chemical, sulfur or rotten egg smell coming from the plant on a weekly basis. Nearly 60 percent reported health issues they believed were related to the plant, including 15 percent who said they have experienced trouble breathing and other lung issues.

Four out of five residents told RAN they would relocate if they could afford it.

It’s not only health issues that make residents want to leave. They want to get out of a neighborhood where an oil refinery is its defining feature, providing its jobs, its smell and even its weather.

“When I’m out there monitoring, you can feel the particles falling on your face,” White said.

Ashley calls it black snow.

Calumet has been fined twice for its emissions. In 2010, the LDEQ fined the plant $1 million and required Calumet to make $11 million to $15 million in emission control improvements. Calumet has until 2015 to comply.

In 2011 the EPA performed a surprise inspection at the plant and found several violations, including accidents and spills that were underreported and a critical lack of early warning air monitoring systems. The agency fined Calumet $326,000.

But residents and many experts say these improvements likely won’t be enough because regardless of what Calumet does, running an oil refinery so close to people’s homes is always likely to cause problems.

“Just given the fact of what running a refinery involves, basically, boiling oil, there will always be emissions,” said Mark Latham an environmental law professor at Vermont Law School.

And Latham said it would be nearly impossible for Shreveport residents to take legal action against the plant because, aside from its few run-ins with environmental agencies, Calumet is staying within its legal limits.

When it comes to accidents and emissions, Calumet’s Shreveport plant is actually on the very low end of Louisiana’s refineries. The Bucket Brigade, a nonprofit group that helps people like Velma White conduct air quality tests, calculated that Calumet released 331,270 pounds of emissions into the air from 2005 to 2013. That’s about 5 percent of the emissions from the state’s biggest emitter, Chalmette Refining, which released over 7 million pounds.

That’s why residents aren’t holding their breath for the EPA or LDEQ. They suspect that even after improvements are made to the plant’s monitoring, their health issues will still persist and that the smell will be ever present.

White says that without government action, it’s up to people like her to persuade the plant to give the community what it wants and buy it out.

But she says at this point, she isn’t expecting that to happen either.

“The oil and gas industries … they do what they want to do, and people are supposed to accept it,” she said. “I keep up the work because I feel compelled to do it, not because I think they’re going to do something about it.”

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