Feb 13 9:00 AM

Living in the shadow of Big Oil

Kids play basketball near an oil refinery in Port Arthur, Texas.
America Tonight

Within the span of seven years, Troynell Daw lost three of the most important women in his life.

“I lost my sister back in 2003. She was just 17. My mother, she was 50, we lost her back in 2009. And my grandmother we lost in 2010,” he told America Tonight while sitting in front of his childhood home. "It messed me up completely."

All three died of cancer, and each death was a complete shock to the family.  “We have a good history of high blood pressure," Daw explained, "but as far as cancer, no.”

Instead, he blames the place where he was born and raised: Port Arthur, Texas.

Most people have never heard of this small, sleepy city nestled near the edge of the Texas Gulf Coast. But if you drive about two hours east of Houston, it's hard to miss.

The city's smokestacks light up the sky like skyscrapers – marking the spot for one of the largest concentrations of oil refineries in the world. Inside the plants, hundreds of thousands of barrels of crude oil are converted into everything from gasoline, to asphalt, to the petrochemicals needed to make plastics.

The area has long been a hub for the petrochemical industry. Oil was first discovered in Texas at the Spindletop oil field near Port Arthur at the turn of the last century. By 1923, it was a bustling home to the largest oil refinery complex in the world, one that made Texas an economic hub.

Today, this multibillion-dollar industry helps fuel our modern way of life. But the residents who live here also say it's making them sick.

Losing loved ones

Port Arthur resident Troynell Daw with his grandmother, who passed away from cancer in 2010.

The death of his mother hit Daw the hardest.

“She went for the chemotherapy. She held strong. She fought it diligently," he explained. It was just like her: She'd always been "the life of the party" and the “glue” that held the family together.

“I have moments where every day it'll hit me or I'll catch myself missing them or whatever, and I think about it," he said. "Sometimes, I cry about it.”

Daw grew up on Port Arthur's west side, just across the fence line from the complex of eight major oil refineries and hazardous waste plants. And he's convinced the loss of his mother, grandmother and sister are a result of that.

“I feel that the losses that I took have something to do with these petro-chemical companies out here," he said.

I guess as long as you making the bucks, it don’t matter how many people lives are lost during the process of everything.

Troynell Daw

Port Arthur resident

The cancer rate in Jefferson County, which includes Port Arthur, is “significantly higher” than in the rest of the state, according to the Texas Department of Health. Based on the most recent data from 2010, it’s almost 8 percent higher for men and 6 percent higher for women.

But there's no way to know for certain whether it's the environment, or something else, behind those higher numbers.

Still, Daw believes he doesn’t need to see hard evidence, because he's certain about one thing. "The effects on their health has something to do with these refineries in this area," he said. "I guess as long as you making the bucks, it don't matter how many people lives are lost during the process of everything."

Gasping for air

Shantelle Yowman's daughter uses a lung treatment.
America Tonight

Shantelle Yowman, a 25-year-old mother of five, also lives in Port Arthur. Each of her children suffers from respiratory problems, and each, she said, also takes the asthma medication Albuterol three times a day.

"The kids all have bronchitis and allergies," she said. "And when I take 'em to the doctor, they said mainly it's because we're close to the refinery.  We're like two, maybe three blocks down the street.”

Yowman and her family live within sight of the sprawling Motiva plant – the largest refinery in the country.

Standing outside her small two-bedroom apartment, Yowman said she’s used to the sights and smells around her home, but wants to move for her children’s sake.

But when it comes down to the research, it's hard to draw direct links.

Dr. Sharon Petronella-Croisant, an environmental epidemiologist at the Texas Medical Branch, has done medical studies where Yowman lives. Her team found a higher rate of asthma in Port Arthur, but she added that it's "very difficult to make that causal link," between the environment and higher rates of asthma.

“We do know that environment pollutants are capable of exacerbating asthma," Petronella-Croisant still acknowledged. “Port Arthur is significant, and they do have a ring essentially of industrial facilities around a small community.”  

The doctor, who specializes in community-based research, added that the work she's done is just a start. More is needed on the link between the air in Port Arthur and the health of residents, she noted. And many other communities in Texas have similar concerns.

America Tonight contacted Motiva and Valero, the two largest refineries in Port Arthur. Neither granted an interview, but the Port Arthur Industry Group, which represents all the plants in the area, sent a response to questions from America Tonight. In its response, PAIG stated that "air emissions have decreased by 56 percent over past 15 years and episodic emissions are down by over 90 percent." The group also said its companies had invested “hundreds of millions of dollars in air emissions control projects” and that "air quality in Port Arthur is as good as or better than any other city in the U.S."

Investing in the community

A Port Arthur playground
America Tonight

Hilton Kelley also grew up in Port Arthur, but at the age of 19 he left to join the Navy. Later, he settled in California where he pursued an acting career.

While on a visit back to Port Arthur to see friends one year, Kelley remembers being "really struck" by the number of dilapidated buildings in the area.

"I was really just kind of set back by the odors that was still in the air," he said.

So after 21 years away, he decided he had to return home and do something about it. Today, he's an environmental activist who has spent the last decade working to help the community he says is stepped in toxic fumes.

“I remember standing out here when I was a kid," Kelley told America Tonight during a visit back to the housing complex where he grew up. "We used to smell the sulfur odors, the stinky rotten egg odors…the strange chemicals.”

Kelley was born and raised in a government-subsidized housing complex known as Carver Terrace. Today, it sits boarded up and mostly abandoned, just on the other side of the fence from an oil refinery.

These days, downtown Port Arthur is a shell of its former self. The unemployment rate is nearly 16 percent – more than twice the national average. These grim statistics motivate Kelley.

Port Arthur activist Hilton Kelley
America Tonight

“We have the disproportionate number of people with cancer, and we have people on dialysis at this present time," Kelley, who has become an advocate for Port Arthur’s largely African-American community. "It’s too many people dying from this and we have a disproportionate number of kids with respiratory problems."

He started his own environmental group, the Community In Power & Development Association, and lobbied the Environmental Protection Agency. Kelley eventually got its attention, and the regulatory agency selected Port Arthur as a community in need of help in 2010. Only nine other communities were selected in all of the country.

The city was already on the EPA's watch list for unsafe levels of Benzene, a known carcinogen. After being labeled an “environmental justice community,” the EPA invested $100,000 in a partnership with the community, local government and the refineries to help improve the environment.

And while the signs of economic depression are very visible in Port Arthur, so are the signs of resilience.

Even though Daw believes pollution from the refineries are what made his sister, mother and grandmother sick, he still sticks up for the community.

“I want people to know that this area is, it's a good community. Port Arthur is a nice, small town you can actually raise your family in," he added, " But at the same time, be aware the oil refinery chemical companies around here, you, we basically surrounded.”

The challenges ahead

America Tonight

The EPA’s intervention, spurred by local activists like Kelley, has a made a difference in the city. The regulatory agency told America Tonight that preliminary data from last year indicated air quality in Port Arthur now meets its standards. 

Kelley said he’s hopeful about the future, but there’s also a long way to go. He argues that stronger measures need to taken in a community that sits in the shadows of one of the world’s largest oil refinery complexes. And he sees one more big challenge the city's residents face.

If the Keystone XL pipeline, which would carry 830,000 barrels of oil a day from Canada to the Gulf Coast, is approved, oil from tar sands in Canada will be transported to Port Arthur to be refined.

"We don't want what's coming out of that pipeline to be processed here," Kelley said. "There would be a serious increase in the dangerous emissions that's going to be coming out of this stack. And we do not need addition, new emissions in this, in this community. We need emissions to be reduced. Not increased."

So far, only the Valero refinery has indicated they will take in tar sands oil. But a company representative told America Tonight that refining the viscous form of petroleum would not result in increased emissions.   

Regardless of the outcome of the proposed pipeline, Kelley and many of his fellow residents agree their community needs more help.

"We are more than numbers, we're more than just statistics, we are living, breathing, human beings, that need a better quality of life," he said.

And he plans on staying to help fight for that better life.

"I say to a person who would tell me to move, when do we stop moving?” Kelley said. “When do we stop and turn and fight?"

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