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A Tale of Two Houstons: Inequality in America’s Fossil Fuel Capital

This article is brought to you by the International League of Conservation Photographers (iLCP). Read our other articles on the National Geographic Voices blog featuring the work of our iLCP Fellow Photographers all around the world.

ILCP Fellow Garth Lenz shares about his investigative photojournalism experience in Port Arthur, Texas, and the Greater Houston area, bringing us insight into the refineries and their adjacent communities. 

After a week of exploring and photographing fossil fuel infrastructure and impacts in and around Houston, its 52 mile long ship channel, and the neighboring gulf coast, I am excited to finally get up in the air. Along with my other International League of Conservation Photographers (iLCP) colleague Karen Kasmauski, I am working on the Environmental Integrity Project’s (EIP) Human Cost of Energy Production initiative. What began as a collaboration to explore the impacts of fracking in southwest Pennsylvania last June, has now taken us into the heart of the world’s greatest concentration of oil and gas refining.

Houston Ship Channel refineries and Houston in the background.

Our chief objective is to explore and document the connection between the residential communities that border these industrial installations and the resulting health risks and impacts. From the ground, it can be difficult to find clear perspectives to show this. As would be expected, residents of these communities have done what they can to create a visual barrier between them and the looming refineries, smoke stacks, storage tanks, and other massive installations. What can’t be hidden is the constant throb of machinery and the smell of toxic fumes, elements that are all hidden in the still images.

Residential area and Motiva refinery. Port Arthur, Texas.

As we takeoff and head towards Houston’s Ship channel and world’s greatest concentration of oil and gas production, what was difficult to see from the ground now becomes painfully evident. Far from the industrial areas, the wealth of Houston is plain to see. Houston is home to more Fortune 500 company headquarters anywhere in America outside of New York and Chicago, and bankrate.com recently named it as the best city in America to get rich in. Much of that wealth is both reflected in and a result of the fact that, somewhat contradictorily, Houston is home to both the world’s largest concentration of healthcare and related research institutions, and the world’s greatest concentration of oil and gas and petrochemical refining and processing.

Houston Ship Channel and Baytown with downtown Houston in the background.

That wealth is immediately visible in the leafy suburbs and luxury residences far from the industrial core. As one nears the industrial ship channel area however those toney residences and leafy suburbs quickly give way to far less enviable neighborhoods, many of which extend to the very fence lines and no trespass signs of the many refineries and petrochemical plants. While some of these areas might be described as “lower middle class” others are quite clearly examples of extreme poverty.

A home adjacent to the Valero oil refinery in Hartmann Park, a very low income neighborhood in Manchester county, Houston, Texas.

In my home of Canada, we often lament the disappearance of the middle class and the ever greater concentration of wealth to a small percentage of the population while more and more fall out of the middle class. This division seems particularly marked here and is borne out by the statistics. According to a Rice University 2016 study, high poverty areas have quadrupled since 1980. During the same period, the GDP of the Houston Metropolitan Area rose to 450 billion by 2010. It is pretty clear to see where that wealth is concentrated and where it is not. Although that disparity cannot likely be laid solely at the feet of the oil and gas industry, it is a tendency in communities reliant on heavy industry and boom and bust economies whose market value fluctuates widely.

Port Arthur with a Petcoke plant in the foreground and the Motiva oil refinery in the background looking toward Beaumont and distant petrochemical refineries.

Nowhere is that boom and bust economy more evident than in nearby Port Arthur, North America’s oldest petrochemical community, adjacent to Texas’s first “gusher” (the LUCAS) at Spindletop and described as “one of America’s most polluted places” by NBC news. In Canada, Port Arthur is most closely associated with the Alberta Tar Sands and the proposed Keystone XL pipeline proposal which, if built, would deliver tar sands crude to Port Arthur’s (formed in 1902) Valero refinery. Tar sands crude would potentially replace crude from Mexico and Venezuela as part of the refinery’s 300,000 barrels of oil produced per day. The neighboring Motiva refinery is North America’s largest and the world’s third largest, processing 600,000 barrels per day. A full 40% of the paychecks in the area come directly from these two refineries in a town where 25% of the population lives below the poverty line.

Youth from the local housing project play basketball in Port Arthur with the Valero oil refinery in the background.

As Goldman award winning local activist Hilton Kelley takes me on a tour of Port Arthur, his love of the town that lured him back from a career as a Hollywood actor and stuntman is evident. As we drive through the dilapidated downtown section years of decline in the oil and gas industry have left their mark in the desolate streets and many boarded up buildings. The scene Hilton describes of the town where he grew up is far different than the one I see. “This place used to be a bustling center with beautiful homes,” he says. “It was on the Chitlin Circuit” – a network of entertainment halls which hosted black entertainers during the period of racial segregation – Hilton explains, and regularly played host to entertainers like James Brown, Aretha Franklin, B.B. King, Ray Charles and many others.

Port Arthur downtown in the early 1900’s.
Port Arthur downtown today.

As I wander the downtown on my own a few days later, the present day reality is a stark contrast. In the middle of a weekday the old downtown is completely deserted and eerily quiet. I can hear the shouts of a group of young men from an abandoned parkade while a siren wails faintly in the background. Other than that and the distant sound of the thrum of the refineries, all is eerily silent. It is a disconcerting scene and I feel a bit like I have wondered onto a set of the “Walking Dead.” I feel a bit silly about my sense of trepidation but later learn that Port Arthur and its conjoined twin Beaumont have the highest murder rate in Texas.

While some here hope that there will be an expansion of oil and gas and the associated economic benefits, others worry that it comes at too high a cost. Hilton describes a childhood growing up with the constant smell of Sulfur dioxide and laments for the Westside residents and the toxic foul smelling air, cancer, asthma, skin irritations, and respiratory ailments. Port Arthur sits in a corridor ranked as one of the countries most polluted regions. It has been sited for levels of ozone and benzene and residents have the highest rates of progressive pulmonary diseases in the state. If bankrate.com has concluded that Houston is “the best city in America to get rich in,” I wonder if this might be “the best city in America to get cancer in.”

Residential neighborhood in Port Arthur Texas and a small section of the adjacent Motiva oil refinery.

Later that evening as the sun goes down, I walk along the border of the Valero and Motiva refineries to make images at night and try to covey the toxic pollution emitted by the refineries. As I photograph the massive plumes of toxic clouds from the smokestacks, I can identify that acrid bite of Sulfur Dioxide alternating with the sickly sweet smell of Benzene. Before long I am feeling nauseous, and have a headache and can’t imagine what it would be like to live under that cloud.

Valero oil refinery, Port Arthur Texas.

Wandering the residential areas bordering the refineries over the following days, I chat with some of the local residents. Protective of their community and cautious of why I am photographing, they quickly relax and demonstrate that easy openness and warmth that I think of as a hallmark of the South. I tentatively inquire about their concerns living so close to sources of so much toxic pollution. It’s not really a fair question, and I feel guilty asking it. These are clearly hard working families doing the best for their children in a very challenging situation, and I know that they likely do not have the finances to leave the area and move to a more desirable and less polluted location. With a sense of resignation, more than a few of them echo a statement also made by a former mayor and supporter of the oil industry, “We all got to die of something.”

Texas City residential neighborhood with Praxair Petrochemical refinery in the foreground and Marathon oil refinery in the background. Texas City, Texas.

©Garth Lenz May 2017.

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