Port Arthur, Texas, is an oil town, home to massive refineries that process 900,000 barrels of crude oil each day, occasionally burping up columns of thick black smoke. It’s where the proposed Keystone XL pipeline — after pulling tar sands down from Alberta, Canada, and across the American midwest — would end. And its residents are sick and dying.
In a new feature story in On Earth, author Ted Genoways goes down to Port Arthur, and gets a look at what’s happening to the people — largely low income, and almost entirely African-American — who call it home. Residents and activists are fighting hard to relocate from where they currently live, close to the refineries. It’s desperately needed. Thanks to occasional flare-offs of toxic gas, along with the incessant pollution caused by such a major refinery and ‘incidents’ that only worsen that effect, residents are experiencing staggeringly high rates of death and disease:
In a state that regularly records in excess of 2,500 toxic emissions events per year, Port Arthur is near the top of the list of offending cities. Data collected by the Texas Cancer Registry indicates that cancer rates among African Americans in Jefferson County are roughly 15 percent higher than they are for the average Texan. Shockingly, the mortality rate from cancer is more than 40 percent higher. And cancer is only part of the story. A study by the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston found that residents of Port Arthur were four times more likely than people just 100 miles upwind to report suffering from heart and respiratory conditions; nervous system and skin disorders; headaches and muscle aches; and ear, nose, and throat ailments.
Genoways also spoke to those who are deeply worried that the health risks won’t disappear when they move. Many residents use respirators or other medical assistance to breathe. They’ve grown up in the shadow of the refineries.
Sadly, the Keystone XL pipeline could only intensify these health problems. It would bring an additional 830,000 barrels of crude into the town. There it would remain, until the refineries convert it into diesel or petroleum coke. The latter is a carbon-rich, high-sulfur tar sands byproduct whose effects are shrouded in mystery but can’t be good. Earlier this year, a mysterious black cloud appeared over Detroit, a byproduct of petroleum coke. The cloud’s dust contained “the metal vanadium, which is believed to cause cancer in high concentrations and prolonged exposures.”
Discussion of fossil fuels often focuses on big, down-the-road, effects of a changing climate. Sadly, the stories of those who bear the brunt of the current state of dirty energy tend to go under-reported. That’s because many of these communities don’t have even a fraction of the bargaining power of the big oil companies. They are often low-income people just struggling to get some political involvement. Or they are communities of color who the government has simply left behind.