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Surrounded by Oil Refineries, Port Arthur, TX Faces New Environmental Crisis Following Harvey Floods

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Six days after Hurricane Harvey made landfall, the unprecedented storm is continuing to wreak havoc in Texas and parts of Louisiana. The death toll has risen to at least 38, but authorities expect it to grow as the historic floodwaters begin to recede. Early this morning, a pair of explosions rocked a chemical plant 30 miles northeast of Houston, sending thick black smoke into the air. The Harris County Sheriff’s Office says one deputy was taken to the hospital after inhaling fumes, and nine others drove themselves to the hospital.
Now a tropical depression, Harvey has moved inland, but many parts of Texas remain underwater or under flood watch. On Thursday, the city of Port Arthur, Texas, which is 100 miles east of Houston, was completely underwater. AccuWeather is now projecting the economic impact of Harvey might top $190 billion—exceeding the economic impact of Katrina and Sandy combined. Up to 40,000 homes may been destroyed and 500,000 cars totaled in the storm. According to the Red Cross, more than 32,000 people are in shelters in Texas. We speak with Hilton Kelley, the founder of Community In-Power and Development Association in Port Arthur, Texas. He is a former Hollywood stuntman turned environmental activist. In 2011, he was awarded the Goldman Prize, the world’s most prestigious environmental award, for his work battling for communities living near polluting industries in Port Arthur and the Texas Gulf Coast. Port Arthur is home to the largest oil refinery in the nation—the Saudi-owned Motiva plant, which has been shut down due to flooding.

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Transcript
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Six days after Hurricane Harvey made landfall, the unprecedented storm is continuing to wreak havoc in Texas and parts of Louisiana. The death toll has risen to at least 38, but authorities expect it to grow as the historic floodwaters begin to recede.

Early this morning, a pair of explosions rocked a chemical plant northeast of Houston, sending thick black smoke into the air. Officials had already evacuated residents within a one-and-a-half-mile radius of the Arkema plant in the town of Crosby. The plant produces highly volatile chemicals known as organic peroxides. The Harris County Sheriff’s Office says one deputy was taken to the hospital after inhaling fumes, and nine others drove themselves to the hospital.

Now a tropical depression, Harvey has moved inland and is now dumping rain on Louisiana and Kentucky. But many parts of Texas remain underwater or under flood watch. On Thursday, the city of Port Arthur, Texas, which is a hundred miles east of Houston, was completely underwater. Flooding even forced the city to evacuate one of its own shelters set up for people who had fled their homes. Meanwhile, a mandatory evacuation was also ordered this morning for several subdivisions west of Houston near the Barker Reservoir area, which has already reached capacity.

AMY GOODMAN: AccuWeather is now projecting the economic impact of Harvey might top $190 billion—that exceeds the economic impact of Katrina and Sandy combined. Up to 40,000 homes may be destroyed, 500,000 cars totaled in the storm. According to the Red Cross, more than 32,000 people are in shelters in Texas.

We go now to Port Arthur, Texas, where we’re joined by Hilton Kelley, the founder of Community In-Power and Development Association in Port Arthur, Texas. He’s a former Hollywood stuntman turned environmental activist. In 2011, he was awarded the Goldman Prize, the world’s most prestigious environmental award, for his work battling for communities living in the shadow of polluting industries in Port Arthur and the Texas Gulf Coast. Port Arthur is home to the largest oil refinery in the country—the Saudi-owned Motiva plant, which has been shut down due to flooding.

Hilton Kelley, welcome to Democracy Now! A lot of attention has been paid to Houston, as it should be. Now Port Arthur is underwater. Can you describe the scene for us where you live and work?

HILTON KELLEY: Yes. Well, first of all, I’d like to say thank you for inviting me to the show and for your listeners tuning in.

Yeah, well, right now, Port Arthur is somewhat of a ghost town. The mayor has declared our area a disaster area, and so has our governor. And the federal government has also declared it a disaster area. There has been a curfew put in place. And at this particular time, I’m downtown, Procter, on the 600 block of Procter, 617 Procter Street, right near the City Hall. And it’s like a ghost town here now, because most of the neighborhoods have been evacuated, and people have been sent to various shelters around the area, different churches, because all of the neighborhoods have been flooded.

Even my own home has taken on at least two feet of water inside the home. Outside my home, we have about four feet of water. It’s devastating to witness so many people being impacted by this horrible hurricane, that came in so quietly and stealthily and basically crept up on us while we slept, and flooded our homes. We woke up to having to step in four and five feet of water to try to make it to the door. Many people were stuck in their homes. People had to climb on their roofs. It was so—it’s devastating to a lot of these families and a lot of the elderly people that were trapped.

Some of the shelters that were open, particularly the Bob Bowers Civic Center, it started to take on water. And they had hundreds of people that went there for refuge. But yet, when they got there, they found more water, and they had to be evacuated from that shelter. People were then sent yesterday to Woodrow Wilson, which was a middle school here in the city of Port Arthur, where it was filled to capacity, and many people were stuck outside those doors with nowhere to go, with rain starting to pour down on them. I, myself, joined in in the rescue effort and had a van full of people, and I brought them to the Woodrow Wilson shelter, and they were told that they could not go in. And we just had to let those folks sit in the car, which kind of hindered me going back trying to help others. But eventually we did find some refuge for those folks, and we continued the rescue. You know, it’s very sad when the first responders are dumbfounded as to what to do. It seemed like the system had somewhat failed, but then they kicked into high gear, and things started to get back into motion about 10:00 last night.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Hilton, can you tell us what people in Port Arthur need most now, as rescue efforts are underway?

HILTON KELLEY: Wow! What they need now, people need clothing. People need basic amenities. People need FEMA to really do the right thing this time and not just give you a FEMA number and ultimately renege on actually coming through with the funding. I, myself, am a victim of FEMA not coming through. I had everything in place, receipts. I had the FEMA number. And this was during Hurricane Ike. And I have yet to receive a check from FEMA reimbursing me for what I spent, not only for myself and my family, but for about 18 other people that I had with me that had no money. They told me I qualified and everything. This is paramount that we get the proper paperwork on the proper people in place to make sure that people are filed through the system properly and that they are given what they’re due, due to this natural disaster that they are facing to no fault of their own.

As I stated earlier, most of the homes in our neighborhoods have been filled with two to three feet of water. People have lost clothing. They’ve lost their shoes. They’ve lost many of their electronics. And God knows what else that they’ve lost inside their dresser drawers and private papers and whatnot, and, in some cases, money. People had to flee with just the clothes they had on their backs.

And we have yet to return home, because the first responders are just starting to arrive in Port Arthur from places as far away as Lafayette, Baton Rouge. All these places are coming here to help us this morning. And I, myself, am at the Golden Triangle Empowerment Center, which is going to be the command center this morning for all of these first responders to come and get their coordinates together. I’m going to be assisting them with going through these communities so that they can do a search and rescue and recovery. In many cases, what you find in these situations is that there are still people stuck in their homes, particularly elderly people whose kids could not reach them. They have no communications. And in some cases, you’re going in to recover bodies, from people that have succumbed to the cold and the water.

It’s a very sad day here in the city of Port Arthur. And I am basically with very few words when it comes to this happening. I mean, it’s blowing my mind. I just don’t understand how this happened so quietly. We know that the rain came down, but we do suspect that some of the levees had to have been blown or overflowed. And water quietly crept up in these communities, even though it was raining. But I just don’t understand how that much water can come in with—so quickly and so quietly.

AMY GOODMAN: Hilton Kelley, you are not just organizing now. You’re a longtime organizer.

HILTON KELLEY: Yes.

AMY GOODMAN: You’re a Goldman Prize winner for your work back in your community, where you are, in Port Arthur, located among eight major petrochemical and hazardous waste facilities on the Texas Gulf Coast. The largely African-American west side community you work in has suffered long from the emissions spewing from these smokestacks. Now, speaking specifically now, looking at the Beaumont Enterprise, they write, “Motiva Enterprises, owned by Saudi Arabia’s Aramco, churns through more than 600,000 barrels of crude oil a day to produce gasoline and other petrochemicals. … Likewise, Paris-based Total said its large Port Arthur refinery was forced to cease operations from a loss of power late Tuesday evening. [And the] Valero Energy and Beaumont’s Exxon Mobil refineries also shut down their complexes.” The Saudi Arabian plant, the largest oil refinery in the United States, place us there, the kind of work you’ve been doing. So this is one storm on top of the daily toxic storm you’ve been organizing around.

HILTON KELLEY: Well, yeah, I mean, you’re absolutely correct. I’ve been working at this for more than 20 years now. And we have been fighting to get these plants to reduce their emissions, from startup and shutdown, also from basically having power failures and what have you. But because of the storm, the plants have shut down. And what you smell in the air is a very, very heavy, pungent odor of chemicals, volatile organic compounds. It’s almost like a thick tar and kerosene odor, if I could—if I could describe it to you. And when you inhale this very pungent air, you have a scratchy feeling in your throat, and your sinuses inside your nostrils, it feels as if, you know, it’s burning. And you have to really squint your eyes when you walk outside, because the odors and the chemicals are so strong in the air.

There’s flaring at the Motiva oil refinery, which is the largest oil refinery in the Northern Hemisphere. These guys put out 625,000 barrels of oil per day. And they’re looking to expand their operations. As a matter of fact, they have been celebrating their permit that was put in for the expansion. These guys have a responsibility, I believe, to do everything they can to protect this community and to help assist this community. But Port Arthur is home to a large population of disadvantaged folks that have been marginalized on those fencelines. If you come to Port Arthur, you would not believe that the amount of money that’s flowing through this community is here, because many of the buildings are dilapidated. The streets are in desperate need of repairs. Our schools are lacking in many of the supplies and amenities that they need to teach our kids.

And also, we have a huge, disproportionate number of people that are suffering with respiratory problems, with cancers, liver and kidney disease. And as a matter of fact, a good friend of mine by the name of Eddie Brown, he was diagnosed with cancer in December, and right now he is a state IV cancer, and he is dealing with the daily issue of going through chemo. Initially, he didn’t want chemo, like so many people here, because it seems like it just prolongs your life for maybe six or seven months, and then you die. But he has no choice but to go to chemo, because the other method he was trying is not working. And this story rings true for many people here in the city of Port Arthur, not just the elderly, not just our young men and women, but we’re talking about children, children that have acute asthma, children that have to use nebulizers to breathe on a daily basis, children that have to take breathing treatments before they go to bed at night, severe skin disorders. Some people—most people here are susceptible to some form of pollution. But yet, many people are very susceptible to the daily bombardment of toxic fumes coming from places like Motiva and places like the Flint Hills chemical plant and others.

It’s a sad day here in the city of Port Arthur. And with the shutdown of these plants, there is a foul stench of chemicals in our air. And I am personally disturbed by this. My granddaughter, who has been with us for the last three days because their home has taken on some issues—our home has been flooded, and we are about 15 or 12 blocks away from the Motiva refinery, and it’s really impacting our lives and our health.

AMY GOODMAN: Hilton Kelley, we want to thank you for being with us. And I want to ask a question of you on the ground there, something we’ve been talking about all through the week, as an environmentalist who’s been organizing for decades in your community of Port Arthur, home to so many petrochemical plants and the largest one in the United States, and that is the issue of climate change. It seems this hurricane, now—then tropical storm, now tropical depression, has hit at the epicenter of the fossil fuel industry in the United States. Can you talk about the issue of climate change and how it relates, you believe, to where you live, and how much understanding people have of that?

HILTON KELLEY: Well, I mean, anybody who don’t believe that climate change is real must be living in another universe, because what we’re seeing here on the ground is land erosion. There is a beach that we used to frequent when I was a kid here, and the surf sat back maybe about a good 50 yards from where it is now. Right now, that surf sits within feet, five or six feet, of the road, and you can no longer take portions of that road into Galveston from the Sabine Pass area, because the land has completely been eroded. Our wetlands and canals are breaking apart because the water is coming in from the Gulf into the marshy areas, and it’s also having a heavy impact on the natural wildlife that is there, such as the gators and other animals that need the wetlands and not necessarily salt water.

What we are also seeing is a severe disturbance in the climate here. As a matter of fact, Hurricane Harvey, this was the first of its kind that we’ve ever seen, where a storm danced in one place for so long due to high and low pressures. It just sort of went offshore, came back. The trail which this hurricane left, it was very erratic and unnatural. What we’re seeing here are severe temperatures when it comes to the heat during the summertime. And basically, the winters, as we know it, when the grass would usually freeze, and it would crunch under your feet, are no more. Most of our winters are filled with wearing flip-flops and T-shirts. So, it’s definitely having an impact here in our area, when we talk about climate change.

Here on the Gulf Coast, we have thousands of multinational rig companies that come out here to drill for oil, and our federal government has leased those lands offshore, which we believe they should leave it in the ground. If we can’t use it, why bring it above ground? Leave it in the ground, because these petrochemical industries are having a huge impact, we believe, on our climate and in our communities. It’s time that we do more to try to protect our [inaudible] communities and our environment.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, Hilton Kelley, President Trump came to the area, then he left. He’s coming back. Both Trump and your governor, Governor Abbott, are climate deniers. What message do you have for them today, as you speak to us with your entire city underwater?

HILTON KELLEY: I would love to have Trump and our governor to come to Port Arthur and spend just seven days here and take a tour of West Port Arthur, take a tour of these communities; talk to the cancer victims; talk to the kids in the Prince Hall housing project and the Louis Manor housing project, that are within five city blocks or half a mile of these huge mega-refineries; talk to the kids that are going to school within five blocks, not two miles, of these refineries; talk to the people that have to deal with the day-in and day-out noise of the trucks of the industries. This is what I would like for Trump and Governor Abbott to do—come to Port Arthur and stay for a while.

AMY GOODMAN: Hilton Kelley, I want to thank you for being with us, founder of Community In-Power and Development Association in Port Arthur, Texas. In 2011, Hilton Kelley won the Goldman Prize. I want to thank you so much for being with us, speaking to us from the home of the largest oil refinery in the country.

This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. When we come back, we go across the pond, another large body of water, to George Monbiot, the world-renowned environmentalist, talking about climate change not only in the United States, but, as we speak, in South Asia, one country, Bangladesh, a third of the country is underwater. There have been well over 1,200 deaths in Bangladesh, Nepal and India. Stay with us.

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George Monbiot: We Can’t Be Silent on Climate Change or the Unsustainability of Capitalist System

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