ENVIRONMENTAL OBSERVER Raw Deals in Point Comfort BY KATE MCCONNICO Point Comfort T HE WATERS ARE really dying. The chemical companies will kill the whole area if we let them.” In Point Comfort, the lament of local shrimper Diane Wilson seems to ring true. Signs posted along the water’s edge warn the few remaining sports fishermen to eat nothing they catch and, like the birds and fish, most of the tourists are gone. Homes are run down, old farmhouses are collapsing and the main street is a scattering of used car lots and a lonely Dairy Kream restaurant. Wilson and other environmentalists now argue that the economic cure for this town of 1,000 on Lavaca Bay could be worse than the disease. The cure the location of the Formosa Plastics refinery here and the plant’s expansion, the largest of any U.S. chemical plant in the past decade, has been encouraged and underwritten by the state. But recently Wilson and other environmentalists have drawn a line in the sand and vowed to fight Formosa, the world’s largest manufacturers of polyvinyl chloride, the toxic plastic that composes PVC pipe. PVC in its final state, as milk jugs or sewer pipe, for example, is an “inert” material. But the chemicals used to make PVC are not. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the Texas Water Commission, the Texas Air Control Board and Formosa’s own records, chemicals used to make PVC have been released at illegal levels for years into the air, Cox Creek, Lavaca Bay and unauthorized landfills around the plant. Toxic carcinogens such as methanol have been found by the Texas Water Commission in groundwater under the Formosa plant and in subsurface cracks that lead to drinking water sources. Formosa was brought to the economically depressed area in 1983, drawn by an estimated $225 million in tax breaks put together by then-Gov. Bill Clements and U.S. Sen. Phil Gramm. Formosa is not the only petrochemical company located on this part of the coast Union Carbide, British Petroleum, and Alcoa \(which has been blamed by fishermen and environmentalists for killing Lavaca Bay by merBut according to environmentalists and Port Kate McConnico is a Texas Observer editorial intern. 16 SEPTEMBER 18, 1992 KATE MCCONNICO Environmentalist Diane Wilson Lavaca area contract laborers \(who rotate from threat to the already degraded environment on this stretch of the coast. According to permit applications filed with state regulatory agencies, Formosa’s new plant will make 1.2 billion pounds of ethylene dichlochloride monomer and will melt metal, plastic and concrete. According to the EPA, EDC “is extremely toxic and has been shown to cause cancer in laboratory animals.” Formosa began its expansion before obtaining permits required by the Texas Water Commission and Texas Air Control Board, and, according the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, in possible violation of the endangered species and wetlands preservation acts. Now, Formosa is 85 percent finished with what Jan Werner of The Houston Press calls the “Big Daddy of chemical plants.” Environmentalists, who have cited Formosa’s poor record of compliance with state and federal regulations, pushed for private negotiations with the company. An environmental investi gation prepared by Texans United Education Fund and the National Toxics Campaign Fund found that in 1988, according to the Texas Air Control Board, total air pollution levels of methanol, ethylene dichloride and vinyl chloride from the existing plant were about 31,000 pounds. New permits will allow the legal emission of 420,000 pounds of VOCs, including ethylene, benzene, toluene, butadiene, hydrochloric acid and other toxic substances. Authorized water pollution and solid waste levels will also rise. As expansion got underway at Formosa, Houston environmental attorney Jim Blackburn and Diane Wilson of Calhoun County Resource Watch sued Formosa, demanded an environmental impact statement that would examine effects that the new plant might have on the area and a written agreement with the community groups and environmental leaders. What environmentalists were after, in Blackburn’s words, was “a legally-binding extra-governmental contract” that would cover such issues as environmental concerns, safety in the plant and the community and the public’s right to know. To even put such a contract on the table in a community where the chemical industry pays the rent and buys the groceries seemed impossible. Although some workers are critical of cost-cutting during the expansion and warn of possible dangers when the plant starts up, none would speak publicly because of the fear of loss of jobs. Criticism from local government is also unlikely because elected officials recognize that the chemical industry provides much of the area’s tax base. \(According to Texans United, a statewide network of environmental groups, expansion incentives given to Formosa included a seven-year waiver of school district, county and city property taxes, resulting in a $109-mi1lion loss for the community and a $26-million incentive provided by the Texas Legislature and Port Lavaca Navigation District to dredge and execute the docks and bulkheads used by Formosa at Port Lavaca. Formosa will make fixed annual payments in lieu of taxes to local But Wilson has a way of getting people’s attention. Her two hunger strikes have kept the public involved in the struggle between the plastic giant and the environmental community. And she has even forced government agencies to pay attention to what is going on in the Formosa plant. After Wilson was inter
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