Environmental racial disparity and Keystone

by Frederick Sparks

My hometown of Port Arthur, Texas may be considered “famous” for a few things: natives Janis Joplin and former NFL coach Jimmy Johnson, rappers Pimp C and UGK, who collaborated with Jay Z (“big pimpin down in P-A-T”), and for its past as a central point of vice and corruption in Texas; in the late 1950s a special state legislative committee convened to investigate the complicity of law enforcement with open and notorious illegal gambling and prostitution (the actor Steve McQueen once worked as a bouncer at one of Port Arthur’s bawdy houses).

But Port Arthur’s most notorious legacy may be related to its status as home to one of the largest oil refining capacities in the world, and the disproportionate rate of cancer and other diseases and ailments experienced by Port Arthur’s poorest black residents, who live in close proximity to Port Arthur’s refineries.  Now, Port Arthur is the terminus for the Keystone pipeline.

In a 2013 article awarded a prize for social justice journalism, writer Ted Genoways highlighted the health challenges of residents of a housing complex built in close proximity to the refineries:

“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.”

The article also notes that while African Americans make up only 12 percent of the Texas population, people of color make up more than 66 percent of residents near the state’s most hazardous waste sites.All of this is of course made easier by state and local officials who receive financial incentives from energy companies in exchange for lax or nonexistent enforcement of environmental regulations.  It took years for the Texas legislature to close the loophole exempting refineries and power plants built before 1971 from regulation.  And in 2001 when the EPA was poised to impose ozone limiting restrictions affecting the Beaumont/Port Arthur area, the Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission (TNRCC) carried the water of the energy industry and convinced the EPA that the levels that were being measure represented pollution drift from Houston, not local refining.  Thus additional regulations were delayed until 2007.

The addition of the pipeline only adds to the risk of environmental degradation and related health consequences.  And Port Arthur is not unique in that there is nationwide pattern of the poor and people of color being far more likely to live close to environmental hazards and to bear negative consequences from that exposure.

So it is particularly disheartening to see Congressional Black Caucus members Sheila Jackson Lee (Texas) and James Clyburn (Florida) cross party lines to vote in favor of the pipeline.  I suspect their votes were influenced by big money energy constituents (particularly in the case of Lee) and by the promise of “job creation”… though as it has been noted, the State Department review shows that only 35 permanent jobs would be created by the pipeline.  Thirty five.  How many cancer deaths are those jobs worth?


Environmental racial disparity and Keystone