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Port Arthur, Texas: American Sacrifice Zone

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If you splinter off the interstate from Houston into the inky dark of the sloughs and bayous surrounding Texas State Highway 73, you will eventually emerge on the outskirts of Port Arthur and into the otherworldly light of one of the world's largest oil refinery complexes. To the north and east is the 3,600-acre Motiva plant, a joint project of Shell Oil and Saudi Aramco; to the west is a 4,000-acre plant owned by Texas-based Valero. Together the two facilities refine more than 900,000 barrels of crude per day. Shrouded in billows of smoke and bathed in the radiance of round-the-clock floodlights and the molten glow of gas flares, their towers seem to rise on clouds of fire, suggesting a floating megalopolis that sprawls in all directions toward more refineries and petrochemical plants, toward the lighted cranes and petroleum coke conveyers that line the shipping channel, and away to hazardous waste incinerators and dump sites in the distance.

On one side of Terminal Road, the long, angling track that borders these facilities, is a chain-link fence and a berm made of buried pipelines that occasionally sprout from the hillside into above ground shutoff valves and standpipes. Overhead, cameras placed atop a straight seam of street lamps provide a constant feed to guards in their nearby trucks, ever alert for signs of vandalism or trespass. On the other side of the road is West Port Arthur: an overwhelmingly African American community of churches, shotgun shacks, and several complexes of low-slung, barracks-like brick row houses-public (or public-assisted) housing meant for those who can't afford to live anywhere else.

The oldest and closest of these complexes is Carver Terrace. In 1952, Port Arthur's white town fathers took public housing dollars from Washington and erected these apartments directly on the refineries' fence. They followed up soon thereafter by building two more projects. Within five years, roughly a third of West Port Arthur's 1,500 households were in public housing, and there were only seven white families in the whole community. To this day, it remains roughly 95 percent African American. And as West Port Arthur's enormous refineries have spewed forth benzene, carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, and other pollutants-permitted or unpermitted-for more than six decades, the effects of these emissions, then, have been experienced disproportionately by African Americans. 


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