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Something in the Air

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Several years ago, a friend of mine was pursuing a hopeless marriage in rural Ireland, of all places. And early one morning, while wandering an emerald pasture and pondering her doomed romance, she paused to compliment a farmer’s stock. “Your cows are very beautiful,” she called out to him.

“Ah,” he nodded wistfully. “Very. But you can’t eat beauty.”

That might seem a peculiar start to an article about Corpus Christi and the eagerness of its local establishment to build Las Brisas, a petroleum coke plant that, in terms of its impact on the environment and public health, would resemble a coal-fired power plant. But I was reminded of my friend’s story during a visit in June to South Texas’ “Sparkling City by the Sea,” because it seemed to offer insight into why a place like Corpus—with its sandy beaches, its tall swaying palm trees, and a bay that shines a thousand shades of blue in the sunlight—might want to build a power plant with four 500-foot smokestacks on Nueces Bay. The reason is that you can’t eat beauty. The reason is money.

You might be asking yourself, “What in the Sam Hill is a petroleum coke plant?” If you are, you’re not alone. Petroleum coke, or “pet coke,” is a sandy residue created by the crude-oil refinement process that can be burned to create energy. And Las Brisas is a $3 billion, pet coke-fired, electricity-generating facility that Chase Power Co. proposes to build on the Corpus Christi Ship Channel.

Last fall, Las Brisas Energy Center LLC applied for an air-quality permit from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ)—a pivotal step in building any power plant—and received preliminary approval, with the backing of then-Mayor Henry Garrett, the Corpus Christi City Council (which unanimously passed a resolution in favor of Las Brisas, with two members absent), and the Port of Corpus Christi commissioners (also unanimous).

Then, over the winter, a grassroots movement developed against Las Brisas. The movement includes some usual suspects, such as local environmentalists. But it also includes some unusual suspects, like doctors from the Nueces County Medical Society, the San Patricio Medical Society, the Texas Medical Association, and the local chapter of the American Federation of Teachers.

Opinions diverge among these activists. Some don’t want Las Brisas built under any circumstances. Others want it built using gasification technology, which sounds scatological, but according to the Corpus Christi Caller-Times means “super-heating a solid fuel,” like pet coke, “to produce a synthetic gas that can be burned to produce power.” Gasification technology could, based on results from other gasification plants, reduce emissions at Las Brisas by as much as 60 percent. But Chase Power says gasification is too expensive, and if Corpus insists on it, they’ll pack up and keep walkin’.

In February, more than 50 Corpus residents and public-interest groups took their first steps to challenge Las Brisas’ preliminary permit. They requested what’s called a contested case hearing. Similar to a civil court hearing, a contested case hearing is overseen by a judge from the state Office of Administrative Hearings—the key difference from civil court being that the judge’s decision is subject to review by three TCEQ commissioners appointed by Gov. Rick Perry’s. Based on previous cases, Public Citizen, the health-advocacy group, believes that the commissioners are “likely to approve the plant regardless of what the judge says.”

Originally scheduled for August, the contested-case hearing has been delayed until early November. Whatever its outcome, the hearing will give opponents an opportunity to dispute the TCEQ’s initial findings—and, in the process, address concerns regarding Las Brisas’ potentially devastating impact on environmental safety and public health.

Despite those safety and health concerns, the pet-coke plant remains an attractive proposition to many. The Caller-Times, which has editorialized in favor of Las Brisas, notes that the city has a climbing unemployment rate, a per-capita income $5,500 below the state average, and “one-fifth of [its] population defined as living in poverty.” Whataburger Restaurants LP, one of Corpus’ largest homegrown businesses, recently packed up its corporate headquarters and 250 jobs and moved to San Antonio.

To combat the city’s economic incontinence, the Caller-Times‘ editorial board, which described itself in a recent editorial as “focused on growth and development,” endorsed a mayoral candidate, Joe Adame, in April’s municipal elections—largely because of his stated determination to “get something going … and make something happen.” Adame triumphed in the election, along with seven “pro-development, pro-business, and pro-get-it-done” City Council candidates, as the Caller-Times described them.

Now, it seems, the No. 1 “something” to get done is Las Brisas. Last fall, with grief over Whataburger’s departure still fresh, Caller-Times editor Shane Fitzgerald articulated the case for not just building the power plant, but doing it pronto. With “air quality standards getting tougher by the day,” Fitzgerald wrote, “there are all kinds of incentive[s] to build a state of the art facility right away.

“This community should hold this project to highest standards—after all, its health is at stake,” Fitzgerald continued. “But it also needs to work (beg, grovel) to make this plant happen here …”

What boons will this begging and groveling bring? Las Brisas has agreed to provide some pricey renovations for the Corpus port, build a water pipeline, spend millions on construction, generate millions in tax revenue, and create between 80 and 100 permanent jobs. The company says these jobs will be relatively well-paid (averaging $75,000 a year) and will “provide excellent healthcare and retirement benefits.”

That’s the good news. The bad news is that while Las Brisas would be “the largest single capital investment in Nueces County history,” as the Caller-Times proclaims, it would also likely be, according to TCEQ’s draft permit and the 2006 Nueces County Emissions Inventory, the largest single polluter in county history—increasing air emissions by a staggering 70 percent.

Las Brisas opponents paid for this controversial billboard along Corpus Crosstown Expressway

Even without Las Brisas, a visit to Corpus is not exactly a stay at Club Med. For all its loveliness, the city boasts (if you’ll forgive the expression) seven—count ‘em, seven—oil refineries.

Here are a few terrifying facts about Corpus Christi: The rate of pediatric emergency-room visits for acute asthma is double the state average. The rate of overall birth defects is the highest in Texas, and 84 percent higher than the state average. The rate of severe birth defects is 17 percent higher than the state average. The residents of a working-class neighborhood located near Refinery Row were recently found, in blood and urine samples, to have levels of benzene 280 times the national average. (Benzene is a chemical compound that’s been directly linked to leukemia.) And the list goes on.

Of course, as the refineries and their apologists are quick to point out, no study has yet been able to conclusively establish the causes behind the statistics. But what some studies have shown is that Corpus citizens living near Refinery Row are far likelier to suffer serious health problems.

Again, even without Las Brisas, the city is already in a state of “borderline non-attainment” of the Environmental Protection Agency’s ozone standards. A 70-percent increase in industrial air pollution could send Corpus into “non-attainment” status—which would mandate financial burdens on local businesses and private citizens for things like vehicle emissions tests. (Houston, Dallas and Beaumont have already reached non-attainment status, which means that Las Brisas could not be built in those cities.)

Las Brisas and the TCEQ insist that the rise in emissions would not cause Corpus to slip into non-attainment status. But environmental groups fiercely contest this claim. They also point out that already, on 34 days in 2008, Corpus Christi’s ozone reached levels that the American Academy of Pediatrics considers dangerous to children’s health. Because of their small, developing bodies, children are disproportionately affected by air pollution, a fact that helps explain why so many Corpus pediatricians have joined the opposition to Las Brisas.

In its preliminary approval of Las Brisas, the TCEQ struck a reassuring tone: “It is not expected that existing health conditions will worsen, or that there will be adverse health effects … as a result of exposure to the expected levels of emissions from this site.” But to some local medical authorities, that seems implausible. Last Feb. 15, the Nueces County Medical Society summarized its collective opinion in a Caller-Times ad: “Las Brisas—Health Care Disaster for Corpus Christi.” This disaster, says the society, would result from projected increases in Nueces County’s yearly emissions of nitrogen oxide by 34 percent, sulfur dioxide by 235 percent, and Pm10 (particulate matter) by 58 percent. (These calculations are based on data compiled by the TCEQ.)

As some of you might remember from a long-ago science class, nitrogen oxide creates ozone, and sulfur dioxide creates acid rain and can provoke asthma attacks. And particulate matter refers to tiny, sooty particles that get released into the atmosphere when stuff like coal or pet coke gets burned. Particulate matter is classified by its size, and in this case, size matters. Because if it’s teensy enough—2.5 micrometers or less (Pm2.5)—particulate matter can pass through your lungs and wreak havoc on your cardiovascular system, producing a plaque that leads to heart disease.

We know that Las Brisas’ projected rate of air emissions would increase levels of Pm10 in Nueces County by some 58 percent. But we don’t have any idea how much it might increase levels of Pm2.5, the dangerously teensy kind. TCEQ, according to its jurisdiction as defined by the Legislature, doesn’t require plants to provide that information. And Las Brisas has chosen not to tell us.

Which brings us to mercury, among the earth’s most toxic chemicals. A teaspoon, scientists say, is enough to contaminate a 20-acre lake. Researchers at the University of Texas Health Science Center in San Antonio recently concluded that there’s “a statistically significant link between pounds of industrial release of mercury and increased autism rates.”

Las Brisas plans to release between 215 and 300 pounds of mercury a year. By way of comparison, some “dirty coal” plant emit only half as much. But TCEQ maintains that, at this level, mercury will not cause “adverse health effects,” at least not through “direct inhalation.”

Waiting for Las Brisas: a mound of petroleum coke in the Corpus Christi Bulk Terminal, next door to the proposed site.

Now, there are some people in Corpus Christi who’ve proven immune to the sunshiney confidence displayed by those Pollyannas over at the TCEQ. The Caller-Times—doubtless motivated, as were our Sunday school teachers, by the belief that “doubt is easy, but faith is hard”—likes to refer to these folks as “foes” or “local opponents,” as in a March article titled, “Foes take power plant fight to Austin.” I had the pleasure of meeting some of those foes at the stately home of my friend Jeanne Adams during my stay in Corpus in June.

Jeanne is a rowdy, elegant broker of activism and hospitality, half Emma Goldman and half Perle Mesta. Along with two of her own grown children, she’s also received legal standing in November’s case hearing. It’s been my past experience that, like Humphrey Bogart’s café in Casablanca, “Everybody comes to Jeanne’s,” so you never know what you’re going to find there. And I didn’t know what to expect when she first started introducing me to Corpus’ community of environmentalists—most of them members of the Clean Economy Coalition, a group organized in direct response to Las Brisas.

Truth be known, I was wary. Partly because I’m from Houston, and tend to hold Neiman Marcus in the kind of holy reverence that Catholics reserve for the Vatican, I was afraid that, at any moment, someone might show up wearing hemp pants.

I don’t think I could ever take anybody seriously who wears hemp pants. And this, I had previously believed, disqualified me from joining the environmental movement. But the folks who piled into Jeanne’s parlor happened to be concerned citizens wearing perfectly nice pants—people who, quite understandably I thought, would prefer not to be poisoned.

Each had a subset of concerns about Las Brisas. Like Dr. Philippe Tissot, an associate professor of physics at Texas A&M-Corpus Christi, who told me that, according to its TCEQ permit application, Las Brisas “will be producing 10.4 million tons of carbon dioxide per year,” which would represent “about 10 percent of the increase in U.S. CO2 equivalent emissions from 2006 to 2007.”

Or like Roland Gaona, representative of a local LULAC (League of United Latin American Citizens) chapter, and Suzie Canales, founder of Citizens for Environmental Justice, who talked about the racial dimensions of Las Brisas’ safety and health risks.

Gaona’s LULAC chapter was responsible for a controversial billboard reading, “Las Brisas is committing Environmental Discrimination,” drawing public attention to the fact that the vast majority of residents living near the proposed site—those who will bear the greatest risk of health problems from its pollution—are people of color.

Canales, who gave me a lesson in Corpus’ appalling history of housing its non-white population near Refinery Row, is a heroic figure in the city’s progressive circles—partly because of her unstinting activism and partly because of what she’s suffered because of it. Three years ago, the FBI interviewed Canales as a potential terror suspect when Citgo Petroleum reported her to the authorities for taking photographs and collecting air samples outside its refinery.

She wasn’t the only person who mentioned being hounded for political activism, or for simply speaking out. This became, in fact, a frequent refrain as I spoke to the Las Brisas foes. Several people told me they were threatened and pressured by their university or hospital employers, but none was willing to speak on the record about it.

Corpus Christi, I came to realize, is a rather peculiar place—large enough to attract billions for development projects, yet small enough for its local power structures to overlap to a degree that can seem dizzying to an outsider. This can make life hard for an activist, but sweet for a developer. As John Kelley, the publisher and managing editor of Corpus’ plucky We the People newsmagazine, wrote last June, the community’s “ethics rules and other requirements are weak if not non-existent in many areas.” According to “foes” like Kelley, anything goes for a small band of real-estate and construction interests tied to local government.

This attitude was perhaps most charmingly illustrated by Mark Scott, one of the “pro-growth” City Council members elected last April. Councilman Scott is married to Carol Scott, who is not only the current president of the Corpus Christi ISD Board of Trustees, but is also employed by Las Brisas as a “local spokeswoman.” And recently, according to We the People, when Councilman Scott was asked at a public forum “if spouses of Council members should be allowed to contract with the city,” he replied with refreshing candor that being on the council shouldn
t limit his income.

Then ther
‘s John Longoria, the school board’s vice president, who appeared, along with his children and a Corpus Christi ISD school bus, in a television commercial supporting Las Brisas. And though there are people in Corpus who consider the presence of a school bus an unseemly touch in a paid advertisement regarding a sensitive public issue, there is, Longoria has reportedly insisted, “no policy that prohibits the use of school equipment in advertising.” So, as he explained to We the People, “They just showed up and kind of filmed it.”

Given the incestuous nature of Corpus’ power structure, it’s probably no coincidence that the Clean Economy Coalition’s most persuasive member—their spokesperson, in fact—is a pediatrician in private practice, Dr. Wesley Warren Stafford. Dr. Stafford specializes in allergy and immunology, inspires immediate confidence, and is an accidental activist if ever there was one. Everything from his haircut to the precision of his speech suggests a background in science and the army (from which he retired with the rank of major). And it’s no surprise to learn that Dr. Stafford voted for George W. Bush for president. Twice.

This I learned from his bright-eyed daughter, Grace, who joined us for lunch at the Water Street Seafood Company. “Do you mind if I bring my daughter?” Dr. Stafford had asked me over the phone. “She reads the Observer,” he said with a certain paternal indulgence.

There was something so endearing about this pair, who seemed somehow united by their political differences. “My father makes his living by treating children with allergies,” said the Observer-reading daughter. “So you’d think he’d want Las Brisas here more than anybody.”

“Not the kind of business I’m after,” Dr. Stafford said.

“But when he first started learning the facts about the plant’s emissions,” she continued, “he called me and said, ‘Honey, I want to start a protest. How do I do that?’ “

They didn’t say exactly what advice she gave him. But Dr. Stafford did proceed to organize local physicians around Las Brisas. Such activism might just be a harbinger of political stirring to come within Texas’ medical community. Over lunch, Stafford quoted the president of the Dallas County Medical Society: “Our air and our water are not the property of those who would guide our economic development.”

Lunching with the Republican doctor and his Observer-reading daughter reminded me of something I’d been thinking about ever since landing in Corpus Christi. Las Brisas seemed to have triggered a turning point in the life of this community. Debates about Las Brisas can’t be reduced to those familiar struggles between developers and environmentalists—something more is happening here, on both sides.

Business interests in Corpus seem strangely desperate (willing to “beg, grovel”) to entice Las Brisas to Corpus’ shores. This desperation is surely, to a profound degree, motivated by money or lack thereof. But there is, perhaps, also the fear of missing one’s last great chance, of ending up an old maid. “If the community says no to Las Brisas … it could affect industries['] decisions whether to invest in the area,” fretted refinery industry consultant Renwick DeVille in the Caller-Times.

On the other hand, the looming shadow of Las Brisas has brought together a grassroots environmental coalition of strange bedfellows. This alliance has been formed around a fairly universal concern for public health and safety, and a desire to preserve the natural life of a city. But again, there is another basic concern flitting about the conversation’s background: one of collective identity.

A place like Corpus Christi, which has attempted for the past 50-odd years to balance the interests of its tourism industry with those of its oil industry, is accustomed to contriving environmental compromises. These compromises may well have created the city’s current public-health problems. But they’ve also created jobs; Corpus’ seven oil refineries employ about 2,500 people. While Las Brisas would produce slightly more air pollution than all seven of those refineries put together, it would permanently employ, at most, only 100.

A lot of people in Corpus Christi seem to be realizing that, after a certain point in the negotiation process, all you’ve got left to compromise is who you are. After that, you’ve got nothing left.

Contributing writer Robert Leleux is the author of The Memoirs of a Beautiful Boy. His second book, The Living End, will be published next year by St. Martin’s Press.

Contributing writer Robert Leleux is the author of two books, The Memoirs of a Beautiful Boy and The Living End: A Memoir of Forgetting and Forgiving.