On warm days, the playground is filled with children playing in the shadow of the towers and pipes that spew smoke and spread a sulfurous, rotten-egg smell over this mostly poor, mostly black city of 60,000 along the Louisiana state line.
For decades, Port Arthur residents have lived with the refineries and chemical plants that ring their neighborhoods and loom over their backyards. And they have tolerated the cancer, asthma, and liver and kidney disease that some blame on the pollution.
But when a company won a $49 million contract to incinerate chemical waste from the destruction of the deadly nerve agent VX, Hilton Kelley and others said enough was enough.
"It's disgusting to know that all across America, when you mention Port Arthur, Texas, that it's considered the toxic dump site of North America. It's disgusting to know people are turning their backs on little children and old people and letting them stew in toxic waste," said Kelley, 46, a community activist. "It's not right, and I am not going to stand by and let anyone come and dump toxic waste in my community."
Kelley has been holding rallies and meetings to protest the incineration, drawing about 100 people to one recent meeting. And one mother started a petition drive to halt the project. But so far, there is little reason to believe they will accomplish anything.
Jefferson County, where Port Arthur is located, is home to one of the country's biggest chemical- industrial complexes and has been ranked in the top 10 percent of America's dirtiest counties by the Environmental Defense Fund.
Port Arthur is encircled by major refineries and chemical plants run by such companies as Motiva, Chevron Phillips, Valero and BASF, and their properties abut the backyards and playgrounds of the city's poor and historically black west end.
The battle began in April when Veolia Environmental Services of Lombard, Ill., announced a contract with the Army to incinerate 1.8 million gallons of VX hydrolysate over the next three years. New Jersey and Ohio fought off plans to incinerate the waste there.
VX hydrolysate is caustic waste water created when VX is destroyed by mixing it with sodium hydroxide and water. The Army is destroying its entire supply of the Cold War-era nerve agent, which can kill with a single drop, at a chemical depot in Indiana. The waste water will be shipped in 4,000-gallon containers across eight states and nearly 1,000 miles to the Veolia plant.
"I know a lot of people have concerns, but we are not bringing in VX nerve agent. We're bringing in waste water," said Daniel Duncan, Veolia's environmental, health and safety manager. "We have all the permits, all the required equipment. We have safety procedures and trained personnel. We would not be managing the waste if we didn't think we could do it safely."
At the Veolia plant, which employs 191 people, the VX hydrolysate is unloaded with specially designed hoses, fed into a blending tank where it is mixed with other waste materials, then funneled into a 60-foot rotary kiln and incinerated at temperatures between 1,500 and 1,600 degrees.
The ash will be buried in a hazardous waste landfill in Carlyss, La. The first shipments of waste water began arriving in Port Arthur about two weeks ago, and the first batch was incinerated on April 22. By the end of last week, the plant had received 23 shipments and burned 15,000 gallons, Duncan said. Neither the reassurances from Veolia officials, nor an open house the company held last week, has assuaged the residents' fears. Environmental activists in Indiana and Kentucky opposed plans to transport the VX byproduct for disposal, saying the hydrolysate contains toxic compounds and more VX than the Army has acknowledged. Some have also suggested the waste water could erode the storage containers. In Port Arthur, Army and city officials did not announce the project until the deal was done. "We didn't even get a warning that it was coming," Kelley said. "We're being used as guinea pigs because we are the area of least resistance. How are you going to go out and protest for clean air when you are just trying to get food for your family to eat?" Mayor Oscar Ortiz said he saw no reason to warn anyone. "Why create a big scare thing if there's nothing there to be afraid of? Why do something about a project that's safe and creating a lot of work?" Ortiz said. A 2003 survey by researchers from the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston found that residents of the Beaumont-Port Arthur area had higher rates of a variety of symptoms, particularly respiratory, ear-nose-and-throat and skin conditions, than a group from Galveston. Moya Green is convinced that her children's ailments, her own recently diagnosed asthma and the respiratory problems of two nieces, one a newborn, are connected to the emissions from the refineries and chemical plants. "There is always a smell, always a spill. Pretty much every day, there is more smog, more fog than anything else," said Green, 35, who is in nursing school. "It has to be the refineries. This is not normal. This is crazy." Green is circulating a petition to stop the incineration project. "I had to see what I could do for my own children because help is not there," she said. While the mayor said the refineries and chemical plants are probably to blame for some health problems, he defended the companies as "good corporate partners" that contribute 64 percent of the city's tax base. But Port Arthur residents say they get little of the benefits. Instead, the money is going to developments sprouting to the west of the city where the more affluent have fled and where golf courses, hotels and homes are under construction. "For people to go around and blame the refineries and Veolia for this and that ... it's just something we have to live with," the mayor said. "I'm going to be 71 in May and I've been breathing this air for fifty-some years. I feel fine. Besides, we all have to die sometime." AP-CS-04-30-07 1634EDT