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Fighting for Clean Air in the Shadow of Oil Refineries

Explosions, toxic clouds, chemical accidents–and the ill health effects they can cause—are a regular part of life for communities existing in the shadow of oil refineries. In 2014, the EPA finally began developing a plan to control these toxic time bombs. Learn more about the people fighting for cleaner air and stand with them!

  • Refineries Slide Show
    ERIC KAYNE / EARTHJUSTICE
  • Chrisangel Nieto, 3, rides his tricycle in Hartman Park, the Manchester neighborhood of Houston, Texas. The Valero refinery looms in the background and releases over 114,000 lbs. of toxic air pollutants annually. Some of the highest levels of benzene and 1,3-butadiene emissions in the nation have been found in this community. Children like Chrisangel, who live in this area, have a 56 percent greater chance of getting leukemia than children who live elsewhere, according to researchers from the University of Texas’s School of Public Health. Exposure to benzene and 1,3-butadiene is known to cause leukemia.

    Eric Kayne / Earthjustice
  • Oranges grow in the Manchester neighborhood in Houston, which abuts a Valero refinery near the Houston ship channel. The soil in the neighborhood is often contaminated and the fruit is covered in soot, according to reports from local residents. “We were having our home tested for lead by the city, and the scientist who came to test in our home said, 'Your soil is pretty contaminated and I hope you are not eating from those fruit trees outside your house.’ We have peaches and plums also but we stopped eating the peaches a while back after I started getting stomach aches,” said local resident Yudith Nieto.

    Eric Kayne / Earthjustice
  • A sign sits in the middle of a piece of property purchased by Valero in the Manchester neighborhood of Houston. Valero has bought multiple properties in the neighborhood that abuts its refinery. Residents have seen Valero either leave the land vacant or create parking lots. This has divided neighborhoods and isolated remaining residents.

    Eric Kayne / Earthjustice
  • Chemical plants as well as oil refineries surround the Manchester community. The EPA does not assess the full health impact of contaminants from different kinds of air toxic sources; therefore, residents do not have adequate information about how their health is being affected by the mixture pollutants being pumped into their air. Manchester is just one of many communities in America that face this situation. Map provided by T.E.J.A.S.

  • Activist Yudith Nieto holds an air sampler in the Manchester neighborhood of Houston, Texas. Nieto lives in the neighborhood and tests the ambient air anytime she smells something "funny" outside. It is nearly impossible to find out in real time what chemicals are being emitted by the facilities in Manchester from any data collected by regulators, so Nieto and others work to monitor the air as best they can. Citizen monitoring has become a way for people who live right next to these facilities to take action and hold these refineries accountable, where EPA and local regulators are failing to protect them. In Manchester the program is led by Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services.

    Eric Kayne / Earthjustice
  • Less than two hours from Manchester sits Port Arthur, Texas - another community that lives in the shadow of oil refineries. The community is surrounded by 8 major oil and chemical companies. Port Arthur is near the top of the list of offending cities in a state that records more than 2,500 toxic emissions events per year. Data collected by the Texas Cancer Registry indicates that cancer rates among African Americans in Jefferson County, where Port Arthur is located, are roughly 15 percent higher than they are for average Texans, and the mortality rate from cancer is more than 40 percent higher.

    Eric Kayne / Earthjustice
  • Teenagers play basketball in Port Arthur, TX. Much like Manchester, even the places to play in Port Arthur exist in the shadow of refineries and their emissions.

    Eric Kayne / Earthjustice
  • Activist Hilton Kelley points out the dilapidated, vacant buildings in downtown Port Arthur, TX. Kelley was born and raised on the west side of Port Arthur, an African-American neighborhood. At the age of 19 he joined the Navy and left town. After his service he lived in California for 21 years and became a stuntman for the television show “Nash Bridges”. During a trip back to Port Arthur in 2000, he was shocked by the total decline of his hometown. “I was disgusted with what I saw, lots of dilapidated buildings, no development, folks complaining about lack of jobs while living on the fenceline of $40-50 billion a year energy companies, large numbers of people dying or dead from cancer. I went back to California after being here for four days and I kept thinking about how someone needs to do something in Port Arthur.” Within a few weeks Kelley decided to give up his career in Hollywood and moved back to fight for his community.

    Eric Kayne / Earthjustice
  • After increased pressure from Kelley and his neighbors, the EPA fined the Valero refinery, resulting in a settlement agreement that required the company to reduce toxic emissions and give back to the community. A million dollars was provided to build the newly opened Gulf Coast Health Center. In addition, Hilton won a good neighbor agreement with Motiva, the largest oil refinery in the U.S. The agreement gives additional funds to the Gulf Coast Health Center and will further assist in redeveloping this town in decline. These victories chip away at the stranglehold polluters have on the communities like Port Arthur that live along their fence line, but still more health protections are needed.

    Eric Kayne / Earthjustice
  • Manchester and Port Arthur are just two of the communities across America that are dealing with refinery pollution. Across the U.S., 143 refineries pump out more than 22,000,000 lbs. of emissions that are known to cause cancer, birth defects, asthma and other health problems. People have been breathing these toxic fumes for decades, but now the EPA is finally proposing updated rules to reduce the pollution pouring into these communities.

  • Taking actions into their own hands, citizens who live near refineries have been drawing attention to their toxic neighborhoods by setting up "toxic tours" for elected officials, regulators and community members. These communities need people from around the U.S. to support their fight to force multi-billion dollar oil companies to stop freely polluting by contacting EPA and telling them to finalize strong new refineries rules.

    Eric Kayne / Earthjustice
  • Juan Parras founded Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services. The organization provides tools and support to community members fighting industrial polluters in Texas. “In our state, and around the country, the poor and communities of color are bearing more of the pollution burden, and that’s not right,” said Parras, who helps communities monitor the air they are breathing.

    Eric Kayne / Earthjustice
  • Air Alliance Houston Executive Director Adrian Shelley sits in the downtown office of the organization. Behind him is a map of pollution sources, including refineries, in Houston. Local organizations and activists like Adrian Shelley, Juan Parras, Hilton Kelley and Yudith Nieto have partnered with Earthjustice and brought their voices to the EPA to ask for rules that will clean up air pollution from refineries. Other local groups including the Coalition For A Safe Environment, Del Amo Action Committee in California, California Communities Against Toxics, and the Louisiana Bucket Brigadeare. They are joining together with communities across the U.S. to help push EPA to finally give all communities long-overdue protection.

    Eric Kayne / Earthjustice
  • Jesse Marquez in the southern California city of Wilmington.

    As a teen, Jesse Marquez and his family were caught in a oil refinery explosion. “It was just like you see on TV and war movies when they show an atomic bomb going off,” said Jesse. “There was chaos all over.” The explosion at the Fletcher Oil and Refinery Co. killed five and injured 154. Forty years after the Fletcher oil refinery explosion, Jesse Marquez continues to fight for the safety and health of his community. He founded the Coalition for a Safe Environment in Wilmington, becoming a crusader to clean up the oil refineries and chemical manufacturers that surround his neighborhood. Jesse and other local groups including the Del Amo Action Committee in California, California Communities Against Toxics, and the Louisiana Bucket Brigade are joining together with communities across the U.S. to help push EPA to finally give all communities long-overdue protection.

    Chris Jordan-Bloch / Earthjustice
  • Earthjustice attorneys James Pew (center) and Emma Cheuse (center right) stand with Environmental Integrity Project and some representatives of the organizations who brought the lawsuit that has compelled the EPA to update its long-overdue standards for regulating the approximately 22,000 tons of toxic air emitted by oil refineries. “It’s time for communities that have waited for years for clean air to get meaningful federal protection from refineries,” said Cheuse. “This is an important first step. Now, EPA must listen to the voices of fenceline communities in this rulemaking and finally set strong limits to cut refineries’ toxic air pollution.”

  • We need your help! Right now the EPA is updating its rules regulating the toxic air refinery can emit. Tell the EPA to adopt pollution limits and monitoring requirements that truly protect communities living in the shadows of oil refineries. Take action today!

    Photo provided by Andrea Hricko

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