To see how the Koch brothers’ free-market industry utopia operates, look no further than Corpus Christi, Texas, where the billionaires own two oil refineries.
Until her son got sick, Latricia Jones never thought much about the air she breathes or who was polluting it. At 31, she’d spent nearly her entire life in Corpus Christi’s Hillcrest neighborhood, living next to two oil refineries, one owned by Citgo and the other by Flint Hills Resources, a subsidiary of Koch Industries, Inc. She didn’t know that Charles and David Koch — two of America’s richest men, with a combined personal fortune of $62 billion — owned the refinery two blocks from the small white house she rents in Hillcrest. The massive Flint Hills refinery, marked by smokestacks, jutting pipes and giant steel holding tanks, processes diesel, jet fuel, gasoline and industrial chemicals. The refineries release toxins into her neighborhood, including benzene, a known carcinogen; 1,3 butadiene, which can cause birth defects; and sulfuric acid, which damages the lungs. For Latricia, the dirty air was like Corpus Christi’s formidable humidity — you get used to it.
But the birth of her first child, Dre’vyon, opened her eyes. One night, a month after he was born, Dre’vyon had to fight for breath. “He was coughing and vomiting. He’d try to cry but he couldn’t, his chest was so tight,” she says. Frantic, she dialed 911. After 20 minutes the ambulance still hadn’t arrived. In tears, she begged a neighbor for a ride to the emergency room. One of the first questions hospital staff asked her was whether she had health insurance. She didn’t. The second was whether she lived near the refineries. This isn’t an unusual question in Corpus Christi hospitals. The city has six oil refineries — the largest such cluster in Texas. That night the ER doctor reported that Dre’vyon had asthma. “The doctor said [refinery emissions] could be a trigger … that as long as I live near the refineries, he’ll always have the asthma attacks,” she says.
Dre’vyon is nearly 2 years old now, and Latricia is fixated on getting him out of Hillcrest, but the economics are against her. She has no car, no savings, and her job as a certified nursing assistant at a nursing home across town pays just $10.75 an hour. Dre’vyon’s chronic asthma requires close supervision. Because of the severity of Dre’vyon’s asthma attacks, his grandmother is afraid to babysit him. “She gets too panicked,” Latricia says. So Latricia cut back her hours at work to stay home. Sometimes her sister or boyfriend, Lewis, Dre’vyon’s father, will watch him so she can take the bus across town to work. For six months she lived on the south side of town, farther from the refineries and closer to her work, but the rent was double what she pays in Hillcrest. Here she can pay $400 a month for a two bedroom house with no deposit. Latricia makes just enough to pay the rent and her bills. “If I could afford it, I would move away,” she says.
Latricia isn’t the only one. Homeowners like Jean Salone, who lives near Flint Hills’ East Plant, and Jim and Bobi Miller, who live near the company’s West Plant, seven miles west of Hillcrest, want to move, but no one will buy their homes at a price that would allow them to relocate somewhere else.
In 2010, the most current data available, the Flint Hills and Citgo refineries next to Hillcrest collectively released 26 different pollutants into the atmosphere, including more than 19,000 pounds of benzene, 25,000 pounds of toluene, 11,000 pounds of sulfuric acid, and 25,000 pounds of hydrogen cyanide. Residents living near the refineries say they can’t definitively prove that refineries like Flint Hills are making them ill, but they believe the pollution is causing cancer, birth defects, chronic asthma and other lung diseases. Some public health studies bolster their argument, documenting elevated rates of asthma, birth defects and cancer near oil refineries.
In response to an Observer query, Flint Hills Resources spokesperson Katie Stavinoha sent an email with links to independent health studies she says show no link between refinery pollutants and chronic illnesses. Stavinoha wrote, “Flint Hills Resources is committed to operating in full compliance with all laws and regulations. We work cooperatively and constructively with regulators, including the EPA [Environmental Protection Agency] and TCEQ [Texas Commission on Environmental Quality].”
Air quality isn’t the only concern. Residents also worry about accidents at the neighboring refineries. In July 2012, Flint Hills reported a leak at its West Plant containing hydrofluoric acid to the state environmental agency, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. Hydrofluoric acid can cause internal hemorrhaging and death. Afterward, Stavinoha told the Corpus Christi Caller-Times that only “trace levels” of the acid had been released, and had not traveled beyond the refinery’s fence line. In 2009, a near-disaster occurred when an explosion at the Citgo refinery, which neighbors Flint Hills near Hillcrest, released 4,000 pounds of hydrofluoric acid into the atmosphere (see “The Fire This Time,” Texas Observer, August 18, 2009). “Living here is like living in a death trap,” Jean Salone says.
Residents say living next to the refineries is not only a health hazard but a poverty trap, due to medical bills, missed workdays, and wages lost to illness. To make their situation more bearable, Salone and others say they would like to see more governmental oversight and tougher environmental regulations to reduce the pollution.
Koch Industries has a different agenda. The Koch brothers bought their first oil refinery here in 1981. They bought their second, next to Hillcrest, in 1995. They also own pipelines, oil storage tanks, and a dock in neighboring Ingleside. Despite a history of federal indictments for dumping toxins into the air and waterways of Corpus Christi, the Koch brothers have made a fortune from their refineries over the last three decades. With a sophisticated public relations team and millions spent lobbying Congress, local politicians and state lawmakers, they’ve benefited from lax environmental regulation and tax incentives and exemptions, while their refineries’ neighbors are mired in illness and poverty.
… Tired of the neglect, Salone joined the grassroots organization Citizens for Environmental Justice, started by local environmental advocate Suzie Canales. The two women went door to door asking residents if they wanted the refineries to buy them out. Of the 151 Hillcrest households they surveyed, 67 percent of homeowners wanted a buyout, and 77 percent of renters wanted to relocate. “People call this ‘cancer neighborhood’ because most of the people out here have died from cancer,” Salone says.
A lawsuit filed in the early 1980s by refinery-row residents claimed air and groundwater contamination had devalued their properties by 70 percent compared to other parts of the city. In 1995, Flint Hills Resources reached an out-of-court settlement with landowners and started purchasing the contaminated properties closest to its Hillcrest refinery. (Flint Hills would not say how much it paid for the buyouts). The company demolished dozens of homes, leaving the L-shaped buffer zone that runs between the refineries and Hillcrest. “They didn’t go farther because we couldn’t at the time show groundwater contamination had gone beyond the two blocks,” says Steve Hastings, the Corpus Christi lawyer who represented landowners. (In 2010, an independent review commissioned by Citizens for Environmental Justice did find contaminated groundwater beyond the buffer zone in the Hillcrest neighborhood).
… In 2005, Melissa Jarrell, having just finished her Ph.D. coursework at the University of South Florida, moved to Corpus Christi to study environmental crime for her thesis. She later turned her research into a book: Environmental Crime and the Media. Now a tenured professor on the Criminal Justice Program faculty at Texas A&M at Corpus Christi, Jarrell says of her arrival, “I had no idea what I was getting into. I was very naïve.”
“The city is the refineries, if that makes sense,” she says. “Our city councilman is Larry Elizondo, a spokesperson for Citgo, and . . . Lillian Riojas, she works for Valero [refinery], she’s running for City Council. When I first came here I thought that just speaking about Koch Industries or Citgo based on the data was OK. I thought, well, the data says they’ve committed these crimes. But I quickly learned that no one wanted to talk about the dirty side of industry. When I would go to the local media, they’d say, ‘Sorry, we don’t want to hear it because we get a lot of advertising from industry.'”
For her book, Jarrell researched civil environmental violations for every refinery in the country from 2000 to 2001, and found Koch-owned refineries to have the highest number of violations. “They had the worst environmental record. They paid the highest amount in fines for civil environmental violations,” she says.
In the first decade of this century, “record-setting” became a common adjective in news coverage of Koch Industries. The phrase was used to describe a slew of civil fines and criminal penalties levied against the company. In 2000, the federal government lodged a 97-count indictment against Koch Industries for violating federal clean-air and hazardous-waste laws at its West Plant. Koch employee turned whistleblower Sally Barnes-Soliz told the state environmental agency that Koch had falsified its annual emissions report, and had released at least 91 metric tons of benzene in its wastewater — 15 times the legal limit.
The 40-page indictment claimed Koch Industries lied to regulators about its ability to control emissions of benzene, which can cause leukemia and other cancers. The company lied, the government claimed, to avoid the expense of retrofitting its plant and complying with a new federal regulation to reduce benzene emissions.
Denying responsibility, Koch friends such as former Oklahoma Republican Congressman J.C. Watts, who received more than $16,000 in campaign contributions from Koch Industries, and former Texas Republican Congressman Dick Armey — House majority leader at the time — insinuated in the press that the Department of Justice indictment, which was handed down in the last days of the Clinton administration, was political payback for the brothers’ support of George W. Bush. “He’s concerned the timing is so fishy, coming at a time when this administration is playing political football with anything doing with Texas,” Armey’s spokesperson told the Associated Press. The former congressman now heads a tea party organization called FreedomWorks, partially funded by the Koch brothers.
After the 2000 election, the Bush Department of Justice reduced the indictment from 97 counts to 9. Rather than face a jury in Corpus Christi, Koch Petroleum Group pleaded guilty to covering up environmental violations in a plea agreement the day the trial was scheduled to begin. The company was given five years probation and ordered to pay $10 million in criminal fines and another $10 million for environmental mitigation in Corpus Christi.
Already, earlier in 2000, Koch Industries had paid the largest civil environmental fine in American history to date: $35 million for oil spills in Texas and five other states. In one incident, a damaged pipeline spilled nearly 100,000 gallons of oil into Nueces and Corpus Christi bays, causing an oil slick 12 miles long. A year earlier, a jury had imposed a $296 million penalty on the corporation for the deaths of two teenagers in a pipeline blast in Lively, Texas. In 2002, Koch Industries changed the name on its Corpus Christi refineries from Koch Petroleum to Flint Hills Resources.
In seven years in Corpus, Jarrell says, she’s learned a lot that can’t be derived from books. For one, just having facts and studies to back your claims doesn’t mean anyone’s going to listen. “You have 1,000 homes that are in close proximity to the refineries. They’re victims of air pollution, soil contamination and water pollution. It’s all well documented, that’s what’s amazing to me. It’s not exactly a secret,” she says. “I always compare it to street crime. Homicide, right? They die instantly, everybody understands that. But environmental victimization isn’t immediate. In a community that’s poisoned, it might not manifest itself for decades.” ..