'Port Arthur should not look like this'
John Beard is a former Exxon Mobil oil refinery operator and city council member from Port Arthur, Texas. Like his father before him, he labored his whole life in the refineries that surround this city about 90 miles east of Houston.
When he retired after 38 years in 2017, he decided to make a radical change. He devoted himself full-time to fighting against the air pollution, chemical threats, climate change and coastal flooding caused by the fossil fuel industry that he saw devastating the predominantly Black community where he grew up.
Below is an excerpt, edited for clarity, from a podcast featuring my interview with him. To listen to the entire podcast, please click here.
Tom Pelton: You basically grew up across the street from a tank farm full of petroleum. Were there odors?
John Beard: You bet. All the time. A day didn’t go by you didn’t smell something. My dad had a saying: Don't turn up your nose on that. That’s the smell of money. But it was also the smell of death, too. Because it created a lot of problems for people with poisons and toxins in the air. People didn't know what they were breathing.
TP: Did you see people in your community suffer from those poisons and toxins?
JB: Oh, yeah. Ms. Scott lived next door to us. We were in California when she passed away. And she had asthma. A lot of people have conditions like asthma, COPD and other respiratory illnesses. Those people have value, but the system doesn't teach you to value people. It only teaches you to value money and what people can do to help you get money. And if they can't help you get money, they have no value.
I've lived all my life in Port Arthur. And you know, what it has done is made life more difficult for people. When I grew up here, the kids I went to school with either had parents who worked at one of the plants, or they worked for a company that did business in the plants. Well, the petrochemical industry after 1973 took a downturn. They've reduced manpower. Then, some of the policies changed where they weren't hiring as many people of color. And that's still an issue that we fight to this day.
It's reflected in the way the city looks now. Downtown didn't use to look like that. It's a ghost town. There are some signs of revival and revitalization, but it's not nearly what it was 40, 50 years ago when I was growing up. Life has changed significantly. A lot of people are still living here because they never worked in the petrochemical industry or made the kind of money that would allow them the ability to move and go somewhere cleaner, better and safer. They're stuck here, and they have nowhere to go. Hurricane Harvey hit this area and put 80 percent of the city underwater.
TP: So Port Arthur is being hammered by climate change, which is fueled in part by the petroleum industry that's polluting the air for residents, as well. You recently filed a petition with the EPA that was asking the Biden administration to investigate Texas for civil rights violations regarding air pollution from billionaire William Koch’s Oxbow plant, here in Port Arthur. It’s a plant that’s 85 years old. It’s one of the biggest sources of pollution in the state.
JB: We based this on the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Because people everywhere have a right to breathe clean, fresh air. And those whom we elect and the mechanisms of government are there to help and serve and protect people. When they don't do that, then the people have a right to redress by filing suit against them.
We filed suit against them for not enforcing the Clean Air Act and allowing the state agency, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, to continually re-up their permits without any restrictions. The plant has no scrubbers, no equipment to improve the air. It places over 11,000 tons of sulfur dioxide, sulfur trioxide and particulate matter into the air we breathe in Port Arthur every year. Eleven thousand tons. It's visible. You can see it on a clear day, on a cloudy day. Depending on the weather, you can even smell it. It smells like burnt matches. Oxbow is what I call a serial polluter.
TP: That’s a lot of a deadly air pollutant being released into a community. It's about 98 percent Black, about two-thirds below the poverty line. Talk about how refusing to put on air pollution controls is really an injustice.
JB: In 2010, the EPA declared Port Arthur a showcase city. There was a big meeting at city hall. One of the things they talked about was that Port Arthur had twice the state and national average for cancer. And not only cancer, but heart, lung and kidney diseases. We know that what you breathe affects all of those bodily mechanisms. We breathe all of this. And here we are a population that is economically disadvantaged, that has a poverty rate near 30 percent and people who have nowhere else to go, because they can't work in these industries, they're not hired by these companies.
TP: Billions of dollars are being earned every year by these very profitable refineries. Almost none of that comes back to Port Arthur.
JB: No, it doesn't. And then they get tax abatements, so they do not have to pay taxes like regular property owners do.
TP: That short shrifts local children, for example, who need the education. And you look around Port Arthur and there are businesses all around us making lots of money, yet there is so much vacancy. The sign says, “Port Arthur, All-American City.” What does it say about America that it allows such abandonment?
JB: What it says about America is that we are not a fair and equitable nation as we like to make people believe. We like winners and losers. Everybody loves a winner, but when you have winners, sometimes you're going to have losers. But, in the game of life, you shouldn't have it, because we all have the right to an opportunity to be able to live and do well. Port Arthur, where all of these jobs are created, where these companies are located, should not look like this. Everybody who wants to work should be able to be employed gainfully and paid well enough so that they can afford a better life.
Pelton is the director of communications with the Environmental Integrity Project. You can find them on Twitter @EnviroIntegrity.
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