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Port Arthur, continued from page 11 dards. The law not only specifies that every state citizen is entitled to air that will not “adversely affect human health,” but allows for the “aesthetic enjoyment of air resources” as well. It would seem, then, that causing serious harm to Port Arthur residents by enveloping them in stinky, toxic air would be against the law. But, alas, it is not so simple. Texas law is interpreted through the TNRCC’s general air quality rules, which, critics contend, are riddled with loopholes. The largest loophole is the upset clause. Ostensibly, refineries must methodically quantify and control all emissions. However, petrochemical facilities are allowed an unlimited number of “upsets,” which, in theory, are unplanned releases of pent-up pressure that, if left unchecked, could result in devastating explosions.These are allowable as long as the facility makes a report within 24 hours. Such accidents are assumed to be a rare phenomenon; if they occur regularly, the refineries are theoretically required to fix the problem. In reality, these toxic eruptions have become an integral part of doing business. Refineries and adjacent chemical plants use the upset clause to dispose of badly mixed batches of chemicals \(instead of investing in the means to monplace that one refinery worker described burning bad product as a matter of protocol. “We have to enter in all the data for a particular mixture,” said a Mobil worker who asked that his name not be mentioned for fear of retaliation. “After it’s all mixed up, we take a sample. If it’s not perfect thenwhooshwe send that whole brew of chemicals right up the stack to burn off. Happens all the time.” The chemicals are burned at the top of tall smokestacks, with a pilot light just like a stove, and they produce an open flame called a flare. In theory, all of the toxic gases are thoroughly incinerated and converted into carbon dioxide and water vapor. However, the material is rarely burned properly, contends Neil Carman, clean-air program director of the Lone Star Chapter of the Sierra Club. “If you see a column of black smoke rising hundreds of feet from a flare,” says Carman, that is not a clean burn. Those chemicals are escaping into the atmosphere intact. If there is no wind blowing, the gases can sink right down onto the neighborhoods to be inhaled.” In January 2000, Wilma Subra, MacArthur “genius” award-winning chemist came to Port Arthur to document the health effects of upsets. Before Subra’s visit, it had been easy for individual plants to raise doubts about whether the releases that made people sick were really from their stacks, or from some other complex \(or all the community to keep logs of when they experienced certain symptoms and smells, and matched them with the chemicals that industry admitted releasing to the TNRCC. She proved that the chemicals being released could be linked to symptoms and odors that people nearby were experiencing. Subra also armed residents with bucket samplers, devices that trap air inside a sterile container to be analyzed later at her lab. The bucket samples provided a chemical fingerprint that pointed to the guilty party \(certain facilities that air quality standards were being exceeded at ground level. “This is the first time communities have been able to take a simple snapshot of what goes into their lungs,” says Denny Larson, refinery reform coordinator of the Sustainable Energy and Economic Austin-based group that works closely with Kelley. “With just a few samples we can collapse the house of cards erected by industry that the air is safe to breathe.” In 2000, thanks to a bill passed by the Legislature, the TNRCC initiated a program to reduce upsets. While some accidents are unavoidable, new TNRCC regulations force companies to prove releases were not preventable, and, if so, how they will fix the problem. The new law also requires TNRCC to considerfor the first time–a company’s compliance history when granting new permits. “We are putting a lot of pressure on facilities that have repeated upsets,” insists Virgil Fernandez, a spokesperson for the TNRCC. “We are sending out investigators to make sure the necessary maintenance is completed.” There is one drawback to increasing the punishmentit might simply minimize reporting. In the past, the TNRCC has relied on the good faith of the plant managers to report releases accurately. In practice, some have done so, and many have not. It is particularly hard to tell what actually went into the air, because, previously, the TNRCC did not require managers to provide accurate measurements of what the flare burnedmaking it impossible to know whether the chemicals were pumped into the air for a few minutes or a few hours. New reporting rules changed this, but refineries still may simply decide not to report upsets since the possibility of getting caught is slim. A TNRCC employee reached by phone whispered conspiratorially from his cubicle that he had examined the data from a number of facilities that purported to have clean records. “They just weren’t reporting them,” he claimed, and then begged for anonymity. However, this same employee was optimistic that the new laws will change the culture at TNRCC. “Upsets are finally being prioritized by the top brass here, which will at last allow us to do our job,” he said. he Subra study helped focus the Tcommunity’s attention on the pollution issue, but it also provided Kelley with a challenge. While MODEL, the community group that had brought Subra to Port Arthur, advocated a conciliatory approach, others were angrier than ever. “I really didn’t know who to lean on,” Kelley recalls. “There is so much tension 311102 THE TEXAS OBSERVER 17