BY STEFANIE HERWECK
When we arrived on the west side of Port Arthur we didn’t just smell the pollution, we saw a sickly brown stripe across the sky streaking its way over the marshes and beach to the south.
There are refineries here, including Motiva, the largest oil refinery in the nation, smack up against neighborhoods. There are piles of coke and coke-fired power plants belching black smoke. The Veolia incinerator is here burning, among other things, toxins which were manufactured for Syrian chemical weapons.
The combined emissions from these sources mean that cancer mortality rates in Port Arthur are 25 percent higher than the state average. Long-term exposure to a stew of chemicals punctuated by intense individual releases that trigger warnings has wreaked havoc on the families who live in West Port Arthur. And the oil and gas industry here hasn’t been an economic boon to the residents—more than a quarter live in poverty.
This is a sacrifice zone.
Like many other areas along the Gulf Coast, and inland in the shale gas frack zones, Port Arthur has been given over to the fossil fuel industry. The air and water, along with the health and safety of the residents, have all been sacrificed for big oil and gas.
Petrochemicals and profits are shipped out. Pollution and poverty remain.
As we passed over the ship channel bridge, the latest industry conquest loomed on the horizon. Across the Sabine River which divides Texas from Louisiana, cranes moved like an insect’s legs around Cheniere’s Sabine Pass LNG facility. The plant was originally built to be an import facility, but when the practice of hydrofracking increased domestic gas supplies and drove prices down, Cheniere began the process of converting Sabine Pass into an export terminal.
The best view of the 1,000-acre Sabine Pass LNG facility is from the Texas side of the river, as tall impoundments obscure much of the plant on the Louisiana side. They look like the levees that line the Rio Grande, but instead of blocking the advance of flood waters they were raised to corral a pool of liquefied natural gas or other flammable liquids should there be an accidental release. LNG is extremely hazardous, because once ignited, it burns so hot that firefighters cannot approach, and people a mile or more away must be evacuated due to the risk of deadly thermal radiation.
When construction is completed later this year, the plant will purify and then liquefy fracked gas by cooling it to minus 260 degrees Fahrenheit, which condenses it down to 1/600th of its volume. The liquefied gas will be loaded onto ships for export to countries where gas prices are higher. When all six of its refrigeration “trains” are complete, the facility will be capable of exporting 3.6 billion cubic feet per day of LNG.
Mercury, carbon dioxide, sulphur and water will be removed from the gas in these scaffold-like “trains.” Propane, ethylene, and the methane itself will be used as “cryogens” to cool the gas. Because natural gas is continually warming and “boiling off,” Cheniere will relieve pressure by intermittently burning excess gas from a flare tower 377 feet tall.
Cheniere is not the source of the toxic soup that Port Arthur’s residents currently breathe, of course, because the facility is not yet online. But when it begins shipping gas it will add smog and carcinogens to the mix. In fact, in its environmental assessment documents, Cheniere reports that the facility will be a major source of nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxide, volatile organic compounds, particulates, and greenhouse gases.
The Brownsville Navigation District is currently courting 5 proposed liquefied natural gas export facilities that, if built, would line the Brownsville ship channel just outside of Port Isabel.
Together their expected output could be as much as or greater than Sabine Pass LNG, which means that they could emit similar levels of toxins, including 5,790 tons of nitrogen oxides, 8,837 tons of carbon monoxide, and 305 tons of volatile organic compounds each year. All three of these will have serious impacts on human health. They could also emit millions of tons of greenhouse gases, and pump ton after ton of smog-causing, asthma-attack-inducing particulates into the air.
By inviting these LNG facilities into the Rio Grande Valley, we are sacrificing the very air that we breathe.
We may also be sacrificing our existing economy. Imagine how the sight of burning flares amid a brown cloud will impact tourism on the island. Will people still come here to go birding when the air burns their throat?
And when those “clean” economic drivers decline, will we, like Port Arthur, court dirtier and dirtier industries to fill the void?
We have seen in Port Arthur that fossil fuel companies do not make good neighbors. They will transform Brownsville, Port Isabel, and South Padre Island, both through direct emissions of toxins and smog, and indirectly, as our economy and quality of life come to mirror Port Arthur’s. And as fracking to feed these export facilities ramps up in South Texas and Northern Mexico, they will have a similar, devastating effect on our region.
Valley residents have a choice: we can stand up for our clean air and reject the LNG export facilities, or we can become the next sacrifice zone for big oil and gas.
Concerned citizens are meeting regularly in Brownsville and in McAllen to fight LNG. Find out more at Save RGV from LNG on Facebook or email firstname.lastname@example.org.