Massoud Hayoun

China’s Texas Hold ’em: Chemical plants flank historic black community

Neighborhood already home to many energy projects fears potential effects of proposed giant methanol plant

This is the second in a three-part series on China’s inroads in Texas’ energy industry. The first part investigates the links between former Texas Gov. Rick Perry and the Chinese officials behind the proposed project. The third looks at Beijing's recent push to "hunt down" escaped Chinese officials in the United States. 'China's Texas Hold 'em' follows another series on another push by Chinese politician-investors and U.S. officials for a methanol plant in a predominantly black neighborhood of St. James Parish, Louisiana.

TEXAS CITY, Texas — Renetta Trylas had not heard about plans to build one of the world’s largest methanol plants less than 3 miles from her neighborhood, even though it has been more than six months since the land was leased by Chinese entrepreneurs behind the project.

Trylas, a 52-year-old black woman, blames the petrochemical plants and refineries that are already in her predominantly black, low-income enclave of Texas City for what she calls rampant public health concerns, including the cancer that has ravaged many of her loved ones. Situated on the Gulf of Mexico, Texas City offers plants a deep-water port and cheap production costs.

When a new plant is built or malfunctions, she said, she and her neighbors seem to be the last to find out. And they often learn about what she calls the fallout from the plants at the doctor’s office, she added.

“I guess it’s ’cause we’re poor and black that we’re dropping off like flies ’cause of cancer,” she said after being told about the proposed methanol plant at nearby Shoal Point. “American plants kill us now. I’ll be damned if a Chinese plant’s gonna come here too.”

Trylas said she has a lump in her breast that doctors told her could be cancerous. She still hasn’t had a biopsy because she can’t pay for treatment if turns out to be breast cancer.

Galveston County, Texas

Click a census block below for the percentage of African-American residents. Shoal Point, the proposed site of the methanol plant, is about 2.5 miles from the historically black neighborhood’s eastern border.

Source: American Community Survey, 2013.
Map by Alex Newman

White residents make up a majority of Texas City’s population, according to recent census data, followed by Latinos. Plants flank much of the port of Texas City, including Trylas’ century-old black community, which was settled just after the Civil War by newly freed former slaves and cowboys. A more affluent, majority-white part of the city is home to a flurry of mini-malls, franchises and chain stores, including Starbucks.

Should Fund Connell USA Energy and Chemical Investment Corp. — a Delaware-incorporated enterprise of Chinese politician-entrepreneurs Song Zhiping and Zhang Jun — decide not to build the plant in Texas City, according to local media reports, it has eyed an alternative location in Donaldsonville, Louisiana, another predominantly black community, which after the Civil War was one of the largest African-American communities in the United States.

It remains unclear why Song and Zhang considered Donaldsonville, but according to The Galveston County Daily News, the office of then-Gov. Rick Perry directed the Chinese bid to Don Gartman, then the president of the Galveston County Economic Alliance (GCEA), which oversees Texas City development. The GCEA, Texas governor’s office and Perry’s representatives and affiliated organizations did not respond to a request for interview at time of publication. 

“In many cases, it’s the foreign companies targeting the black communities here,” said Robert Bullard, the dean of the Texas Southern University School of Public Affairs, who in environmentalist circles is known as the father of environmental justice for his research on and advocacy against environmental racism.

“Now with globalization, you’re getting the companies coming from places with very poor track records on environmentalism … locating in the poorest communities and acting with impunity,” he added.

Not only are black communities being targeted for enterprises that Bullard called “poisonous,” but also the benefits to those communities remain unclear.

“We should be rich,” said Michelle Trotter, 49, another resident of Texas City’s black neighborhood, which is dotted with boarded-up homes abandoned after hurricanes. “The money from the plants isn’t coming to us. We don’t have the right leadership or lawyers.” She said her community has yet to see any trickle-down effect from the number of petrochemical plants just blocks from their homes. 

“This community can’t even afford to bury our loved ones,” Trylas said.

On April 6, 2010, a British Petroleum (BP) refinery malfunctioned, releasing into the environment what national media described as a toxic soup, including the highly toxic and flammable crude oil component benzene, reportedly for 40 days. Since then, BP has battled nearby residents’ claims for $10 billion in damages. In October 2013, a Galveston County court ruled that BP was negligent in the leak, but ultimately ruled in favor of the energy giant, saying there was not enough evidence linking the pollution to illness.

“They refused to pay people in the benzene leak,” Trotter said, “This being a poor community, people aren’t even getting restitution.”

There are few businesses in the area. One of them is a sparsely stocked convenience store, King Food Mart, where some unemployed locals congregated in mid-March and stared out the window at an overcast sky beyond billowing smokestacks. It’s a part of town where, apart from the plants, addresses have not yet been registered on Google Maps.

“You know, they don’t give a fuck about no blacks,” said Joe Smith, 32, at King Food. Smith, who is black, is another member of the community who said he knew nothing about the Shoal Point project.

Smith told Al Jazeera he wished that Texas City had a #BlackLivesMatter movement to match the rest of the nation’s call against police brutality. He said he feels his safety is also threatened by what environmentalists have called environmental racism.

Bullard agreed. “Whether it’s being shot down by police with a gun or a poisoning facility being placed in your backyard, it kills you — over 30 or 40 years, if not instantly,” he said, adding that he thinks the #BlackLivesMatter movement is looking to expand to address the various other ways that black American lives are devalued.

Al Jazeera requested a number of local environmentalists for interviews regarding the plant, and all of them said they were not aware of the project’s existence before being contacted.

More broadly, rights advocates say many of the new petrochemical plants and refineries in southern Texas are near lower-income, black and other minority communities.

“You’ll find a lot of poor, low-income, minority folks living in pockets around these plants, ’cause they are cheap areas to live in,” said Neil Carman, the director of the clean air program at the Lone Star chapter of the environmental group the Sierra Club.

Despite notifications on local environmental authority websites, these communities are frequently left in the dark when a plant is built or an existing plant malfunctions, Carman said. Oftentimes concerned simply with making ends meet, “these kinds of [poor] communities — they are just not as environmentally active … so it’s a problem,” he said.

He added that notification requirements, which, for example, require developers to put a printed notice on the grounds where the project will be built, are often insufficient. Without any feasible means of traveling across the small stretch of water to Shoal Point, “there’s no one in Texas City going out there” to read a notification about the proposed methanol plant. 

The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality did not return requests for comment by time of publication.

Bullard disagreed with Carman, saying that many black communities — particularly in the South — have opposed an increasing number of industrial projects in their backyards, but to no avail. Bullard added that the “Southern states that often look the other way when it comes to protecting the environment” are the same states that have struggled and continue to struggle with breaches of civil rights.

Environmentalists and the development authorities handling the plant and are at odds over the possible ramifications of the proposed plant. The land for the project has been leased by the Chinese entrepreneurs for two years while, according to local officials, due diligence environmental and cost assessments are made.

Methanol production is better for public health than other fuels, according to a “Methanol Primer” issued to local media in a press release on the project by the Galveston County Economic Alliance, the local development authority to which Perry’s administration reportedly referred the bidders in mid-2014.

“Methanol also produces much less toxic emissions than reformulated gasoline, with less particulate matter and smog emissions,” read the primer, published online by The Galveston County Daily News, a local newspaper. Many energy industry giants and tycoons have lauded methanol as a clean fuel.

The same release said that the plant would create up to 500 permanent jobs, depending on the finished plant, with an average annual salary of over $70,000.

“This is typical,” said Bullard of the press release. “The public relations message that is sent out is that they will provide jobs for local residents. If you look at the facts, the benefits of having industries like this methanol plant and others adjacent to the community are more far afield.”

While plant employees typically don’t live beside the plant, he said, “The costs are localized. People who live down the street get the pollution, the lower property values, the lack of amenities that would be in an area because of the negative environmental impact.”

And just because methanol typically produces fewer emissions than gasoline doesn’t mean its production in massive quantities — about 7.2 million tons a year at Shoal Point, all of which would be shipped to China — is safe, said Carman.

“I would be very concerned for people living within a mile or two of that plant. It’s not going to have zero emissions,” he said.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) warns that methanol is toxic and can be disseminated through air and water. The CDC also warns that methanol is highly flammable and that methanol containers and runoff into sewers can create an explosion hazard. Among the many possible effects of methanol exposure, according to the CDC, are gastrointestinal bleeding, liver malfunction, partial to total loss of vision, seizures, kidney failure and damage to the nervous system.

“Texas City has refineries and chemical plants down there. It’s a pretty polluted area. [The methanol plant] will be another source of pollution. I’d never call any industrial operation clean. It’s just a matter of how much it will emit,” Carman said.

Compounding fears about a potential public health impact, one of the Chinese tycoons behind the proposal was at the center of an alleged environmental crisis that garnered international media attention. In July 2009, Song Zhiping’s Jilin Connell Chemical Industry Co. was accused by residents of the northern Chinese city of Jilin of poisoning the air in the area, after some 450 people were admitted to a hospital, The New York Times reported, complaining of “convulsions, breathing difficulties, vomiting and temporary paralysis.”

The alleged victims lodged their complaints about three years before Beijing embarked on an ongoing crusade against corruption and, separately, environmental degradation. Locals said it was a crisis provoked by the highly toxic industrial chemical component aniline that Song’s plant produced, but public health authorities then the incident an outbreak of imagined, or psychogenic, illness — also known as mass hysteria. Song is an influential politician, both in Jilin and nationally, as a delegate to China’s National People’s Congress.

In January, Al Jazeera reported a similar project in St. James Parish, Louisiana, where another Chinese official under fire in the Chinese press for allegedly side-stepping environmental regulations hopes to build a $1.85 billion methanol plant. Locals there expressed hopes that U.S. environmental law would be enough to stop the Chinese company behind the project from causing a major public health crisis.

But Darryl Malek-Wiley, an environmental-justice organizer in New Orleans for the Sierra Club, said that was unlikely. “It’s not feasible to just hope they will abide by regulations. Most of the industry environmental reporting requirements are done by companies without a secondary check with the Department of Environmental Quality or EPA.”

“In effect, if a company was doing wrong, it would have to write itself a ticket. I know every time I’m going down the interstate too fast and there’s no cop, I pull over and write myself a ticket … No, it doesn’t happen that way.”

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