Something Smells

What happens when you refuse to use your nose to test for toxics?

In October 1997 William Hawthorne was making $72,000 a year working for a giant Port Arthur refinery called Star Enterprise when he received what he considered to be an unusual order from his boss: smell a water sample to test for the presence of chemicals. He declined. “One sniff of that,†he would later explain, “will put you on the ground and they can plant the tulips over you.â€

Hawthorne, now 58, says he lost his job as an assistant head operator overseeing the environmental unit at the refinery because he refused to sniff. On December 8, 1997—a day after the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) called Star to follow-up on his complaint about being ordered to smell water samples, he was fired. Since then he’s been fighting his way up and down the Texas court system. His wrongful termination case is currently being considered for review by the Texas Supreme Court.

To understand his case, a little background in chemistry is helpful. Among the byproducts of the oil refining process are hydrogen sulfide and ammonia, produced in a substance that employees refer to as “sour water.†Massive units at refineries are dedicated to “stripping†sour water of toxic components. Part of Hawthorne’s job involved running a daily test to see if the sour water was “overcharged†with chemicals, which could result in dangerous emissions or fatal explosions.

Capturing the sample required him to be in close proximity to the sour water. But on that day in October 1997 he was asked to go a step further—leave off the bottle cap and smell for the presence of hydrogen sulfide and ammonia—because the machine that usually performed the test was not working properly.

To Hawthorne, that was going too far. In its “Material Safety Data Sheet,†Texaco, his employer’s parent company at the time, explicitly warned that under certain circumstances exposure to the plant’s “sour†water could cause “respiratory paralysis, causing unconsciousness and death,†and “lung damage,†among other things. Moreover, Star provided its employees with “Danger†tags to affix to the samples. But now the company was claiming that the water that Hawthorne was being asked to smell had already been treated and was therefore safe. “That water off of there, there isn’t nothing treated about it,†says Hawthorne. “Anybody tells you different they’re lying.â€

After a corporate restructuring, Star Enterprise became Motiva Enterprise, administered by Shell and Saudi Refining, Inc. Motiva operates facilities in Louisiana and Delaware as well as Texas; its company headquarters is in Houston. Both Star and Motiva have been the subject of numerous environmental accidents and investigations. An Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) database cites 23 pollutant spills at Motiva’s Port Arthur facility between May 1998 and December 1999 alone. The Texas Commission on Environmental Commission (TCEQ) records reveal 111 investigations of the facility between 1997 and 2002, and 45 violations of the Health and Safety Code, including repeated failures to report problems and comply with emission limits. After a 2001 acid explosion in Motiva’s Delaware facility that killed one and injured eight, the company was charged in state court with criminally negligent homicide and six misdemeanor counts, inspiring the passage of a new safety law. Motiva, which settled the lawsuit last September for $36.4 million, pled no contest to the charges.

While the company’s environmental record has received some attention, far less has been paid to the kind of “whistleblower†workplace issues that Hawthorne raises. Hilton Kelley, director of Community In-power and Development Association Inc. in Port Arthur (See “Port Arthur Blues,†March 1, 2002) says Hawthorne’s situation isn’t surprising. “It’s so difficult to speak out,†he says. “There’s an unspoken fear whenever you stand up against the industry.†The fact that companies such as Motiva contribute monetarily to churches and other community organizations serves to keep people quiet as well, he says. As a result, employees are easily intimidated. “These guys live here, they have family here, they want to continue to provide food,†Kelley says. According to Hawthorne’s attorney, Joel Mallory, the smell order still stands at Motiva.

Chances are slim that the Supreme Court will actually hear Hawthorne’s case—it accepts fewer than 12 percent of the petitions it receives. Meanwhile, Hawthorne lives with his wife about 70 miles northwest of Port Arthur in Colmesneil. He now works hauling crude oil for a trucking company, making less than half of his former salary at the refinery where he worked for 26 years. He concedes that he had a reputation at his former job for his approach to safety, not hesitating to shut a unit down if he had a concern. But he points out that he was also recognized for his efforts. After all, he has a “Star Performer†watch with the black Texaco star on its face and a solid brass buckle that he received after helping secure the refinery as Hurricane Andrew approached the Texas coast in 1992. “I was,†he recalls, “a hell of an operator.â€

Observer intern Jessica Chapman lives in Austin.

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Published at 12:00 am CST