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Looking for environmental justice in Refinery Row




When state regulators, local leaders, and industry representatives sat down to commune with neighbors who say they've been poisoned in the shadow of Corpus Christi's Refinery Row for an EPA-prompted environmental summit last week, they did so in the midst of a growing GOP war on the federal regulator, one fueled by the Texas political establishment. Friday's summit at Corpus' Del Mar College aimed to mark a turning point for environmental justice in the Sparkling City by the Sea, a time for all parties to sit down and hash out tangible, but voluntary, steps to fix Refinery Row. It's a process the EPA would like to export to so-called fence-line communities across the country, said Al Armendariz, the EPA's top regulator in Texas. “EPA can't solve all the environmental issues or be the only person championing environmental justice and sustainability in any community. We just don't have the ability, the authority, and the resources,” Armendariz said Friday. So EPA has to engage local communities, as well as the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality and state politicos, even as they rail against EPA in public, he said. At the start of Friday morning's summit, Armendariz read through a series of headlines and comments from the anti-EPA wing, like that the agency champions “radical, extremist regulations” that destroy jobs. “Maybe it has a place in an election season, but I should hope that we keep that kind of language to the side,” he told the crowd. He then noted that big oil and gas has enjoyed years of record profits, saying it's time they step up and help fund community solutions to the problems they helped create — especially given that EPA's Region Six, which includes Texas, ranks number one in poverty among all other EPA regions. The comment drew quiet grumblings of “wealth redistribution” from industry reps, most of whom remained mum during Friday's summit. Can all play nice, even as the state sues to block new greenhouse gas regs and tightened air-quality standards? For some at the summit, confidence in voluntary industry-community-state-EPA steps toward environmental justice was clearly lacking, particularly considering a state regulatory climate that'll permit the new petroleum-coke burning Las Brisas power plant, which the TCEQ green-lighted early this year in clear defiance of the EPA and against the repeated advice of two administrative law judges, not to mention opposition from the Nueces County Medical Society. During a discussion on industrial air pollution and the associated respiratory problems Friday, pulmonary specialist Dr. William Burgin told TCEQ and industry reps, “This is why when Las Brisas came into the area, your physicians were one hundred precent against that particular project. And yet it was passed, and yet it's coming in. I hope you feel good about your tax base when your kid is in the emergency room and can't breathe.” Some environmental justice advocates admitted it's difficult to see what steps TCEQ and EPA can jointly take when both appear to be working from different playbooks — even in Corpus. An internal EPA “watch list” obtained by the Center for Public Integrity earlier this month shows the agency has flagged five out of the area's six major refineries for serious or repeat Clean Air Act violations. Billy Placker, who lives along Refinery Row, where residents for years have been clamoring for attention from the TCEQ, EPA, and industry to help explain the high number of birth defects and elevated cancer rates that mar the neighborhood, said he worries industry and state regulators might walk away from Friday's summit smiling, having engaged with the community but committing to nothing. “After all this, to me, this still looks like a system designed to fail. It's system designed to fail us,” said Placker. Apart from a select few steps, like insistence from Refinery Row residents that EPA and TCEQ bring in environmental health professionals to ensure that toxic exposure is properly diagnosed, much of the product of Friday's summit seemed mind-numbingly inconsequential given the gravity of problems plaguing Placker and his Refinery Row neighbors – like residents with benzene in their blood and the number of community surveys pointing to elevated birth-defect and cancer rates. After a forum on how to bring cleaner, greener industry to South Texas, Corpus businessman Paul Koepke concluded the working group had determined that, in reality, “There's no such thing as dirty business.” Another recommendation moving forward? “Consider and develop more regulations for wind farms.” - By Michael Barajas,


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