Odessa, Texas: is it the most polluted city in America?

Click to follow
The Independent Online
When David Moton coughs - which he does often - it feels as though his chest is erupting. There are terrible pains, then a tightness, and shortness of breath.

When David Moton coughs ­ which he does often ­ it feels as though his chest is erupting. There are terrible pains, then a tightness, and shortness of breath. Some nights he cannot sleep and sits up, fighting for breath, longing for the pain to ease. Twelve years ago he had a triple heart by-pass operation. It was a success. Afterwards he led something of a normal life; yet now, aged 57, he cannot walk more than a few yards.

"At one point he was in the hospice because they thought he was going to die," said his wife, Irene. "At that time he was using an oxygen mask all the time. Now Medicare say he is not going to die, so they have stopped paying for the oxygen."

But in the west Texas city of Odessa, Mr Moton is not alone in his suffering. Thousands of people in the south of the city complain of respiratory problems: chronic asthma, tightness in the chest or just being short of breath. Like Mr Moton, they all date the start of their problems to a two-week period three years ago when a petrochemical plant on the edge of town released clouds of dark, poisonous gas, choking people and stinging their eyes. At times the air was so thick with filth that drivers had to use their headlights at midday.

Three years on, those residents have won something of a victory. Last January, the company, Huntsman Polymers ­ the largest privately owned petrochemical firm in the US ­ paid more than $3m in an out-of-court settlement when it was faced with a group damages claim by 4,000 residents.

But the story of Odessa is more than just the struggle of residents winning belated compensation for an industrial "accident". Rather, say campaigners, it is indicative of how the US's most polluted state allows big businesses with deep pockets to disregard environmental concerns. And central to this horror story is Odessa's most famous son: former state governor and now US President, George W Bush, the man who last week let it be known that he was pulling out of global efforts to reduce the emission of greenhouse gases.

Odessa sits in the so-called Permian Basin, one of the US's most important oilfields, responsible for a large percentage of domestic production and home of the market benchmark, west Texas crude.

It is not a pretty city. The scruffy streets, laid out in a monotonous grid, have little to offer the visitor other than the odd fast-food takeaway or car sales yard. Compared to Midland, 20 miles away across the flat semi-desert, it is distinctly down at heel.

But this was never meant to be Eden. As any of the 95,000 residents will tell you, what matters here lies deep beneath that flat desert, and the companies that produce or use it.

Huntsman Polymers is one such. In 1997 it bought a Fiftiesbuilt petrochemical plant on Odessa's so-called southside. When it moved in, it said that much of the plant would need to be upgraded, which would involve the burning off of certain excess materials. In the first three days of this, the newly expanded plant burnt off 61,014lbs of ethylene and 32,981lbs of propylene as well as hundreds of pounds of benzine and butadine: known and suspected carcinogens.

"It was awful ... the smell ... it was hard to breathe properly," said Florence Dominguez, 68, a southside resident, recalling those days at the end of 1998. She said that ever since, she and her husband, Melguiadez, have used bottled oxygen to help them breathe. "And it is just getting worse ­ it hurts my chest to breathe, it feels tight."

That episode was one of several, and residents began collating examples of what became known as the "Odessa syndrome": sore throats and eyes, headaches, nausea, bloody noses. It also emerged that there was a higher than normal rate of kidney cancer.

Though Hunstman settled rather than face a court action ­ the company's vice-president, Don Oulsen, told The Independent on Sunday it paid out "in order to get on with business" ­ many say it has got off lightly. For all its admitted release of toxic substances into the atmosphere, it was fined only $7,500 by the state environment watchdog, the Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission (TNRCC).

How can this have been allowed to happen? Gene Collins, a businessman, minister and local president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, says it is an example of "environmental racism". "Environmental racism is the idea that you put the factories and polluters where people with no power ­ usually the ethnic minorities ­ live," said Mr Collins, who organised the group action against Huntsman.

But there is more to it than that. In 1971 Texas introduced regulations so that industries operating before then ­ known as "grandfathered industries" ­ could continue to do so while new ones required permits, granted only to firms which could comply with certain environmental requirements.

By 1996, under public pressure, the TNRCC began looking at ways of making these hugely polluting grandfathered industries more accountable. But instead, a deal brokered by the Texas state administration created a "voluntary" code which allowed grandfathered industries to comply with the regulations only if they wished. The state governor who oversaw the deal? George W Bush, a man raised in Midland and who briefly lived in Odessa.

Campaigners point out that grandfathered industries have been generous to Mr Bush, both when he was running for Governor and when he was running for President. According to a survey by The Los Angeles Times, they gave $1.5m to his state campaign and almost $1m when he ran for President. Huntsman Polymers was one of these donors.

On the southside, residents are angry and cynical about the relationship between politics and big business. Although pleased to have won some compensation, they point out that for many, including Mr Moton and Mrs Dominguez, it amounted to a few hundred dollars. Meanwhile, they say, the vast plant continues to pump out its poison: the desert skies regularly lit up by the flares that burn off the unwanted chemicals. And still, they complain, the TNRCC appears to want to do little about it.