A skyline of smokestacks appears on the horizon before the rest of Corpus Christi does. Approaching Texas’ “Sparkling City by the Sea” on I-37, a palm-tree-lined highway running from San Antonio to the Gulf Coast, it’s tough to tell where the billowing exhaust from oil refineries ends and the rain clouds begin. Massive storage domes, tangles of pipes, and burning flares reach into the sky, and a potpourri of gasoline, sulfur, and unidentified chemical-burning smells fill the air.
In Texas, it’s normal to see an oil refinery or a petrochemical plant as big as a football stadium, with another one behind it, and another one behind that. And it’s just as normal to see a neighborhood in the shadows of those massive polluters.
“It’s kind of a surreal landscape,” says Kathryn Masten, who retired with her husband to the Corpus Christi area in 2017, and is executive director of Ingleside on the Bay Coastal Watch Association. “We’re surrounded by these monstrosities. Just smoke stacks and flaring and construction.”
To Corpus locals, it’s a way of life. Industry means work — a third of jobs in the Corpus Christi area are in energy and manufacturing. Since the 1930s and the Texas oil gusher age, most of Corpus’ industry has been concentrated in refinery row, a 10-mile strip of facilities butting up against the edge of Corpus Christi Bay. But since the rise of fracking and the 2015 lift of the ban on crude-oil exports, industry has been sprawling beyond refinery row and into surrounding communities, transforming farmland and quiet seaside towns in ways that residents there never bargained for. “The whole landscape has changed,” says Chip Harmon, a professional fishing guide who has worked in Corpus for decades. “And I’m not talking about over the last 45 years, which it has, by hurricanes and stuff. I’m talking about in the last three years, dude.”
The fracking boom that rocked American economics and politics over the past decade has been accompanied by a plastics and petrochemicals boom. As the long-term prospects of fossil fuels are looking increasingly unstable in the face of worldwide efforts to decarbonize the economy and stave off catastrophic climate change, companies like Exxon, Shell, Chevron and others have all doubled down on the waste gases of fracking and the global demand for plastics as a source of continued revenue.
Corpus Christi, sitting on a major Gulf port, with a growing pipeline and rail system, in an “ozone attainment area” (where it’s cheaper to build because air-pollution regulations are easier to meet than in bigger industry cities that have smog problems, like Houston), sits in the crosshairs, perfectly situated to host the industry’s creeping expansion.
Just in the past few years, a host of new projects has been built in towns around the bay. In 2018, Cheniere opened a $15 billion, 1,000-acre liquified-natural-gas export facility in Gregory. In 2019, Moda Midstream converted a 900-acre former naval base and crude-oil-storage facility in Ingleside into a major hub for crude-oil exports. In 2017, Koch Industries expanded its crude export terminal in Ingleside so it could route oil from its Flint Hills Resources refinery to Mexico. Occidental and Mexichem opened a $1.5 billion plastics plant in Ingleside in 2017.
But a broad coalition of scrappy community organizations from all around the bay have come together to try to stop the excessive industrial buildout. In 2018, several of them banded together to form an umbrella group known as the Coastal Alliance to Protect Our Environment, or CAPE. “We’re trying to counter the narrative that these [industries] are good for the Coastal Bend,” says Errol Summerlin, who founded Portland Citizens United, which is part of CAPE. Other members include Port Aransas Conservancy, San Antonio Bay Estuarine Waterkeeper, and Del Mar College Green Team, as well as bigger statewide and national groups like Earthworks and Texas Campaign for the Environment.
Another member group is Indigenous People of the Coastal Bend, co-founded by 38-year-old Love Sanchez, a single mom of two boys who grew up in Corpus Christi. Sanchez is part of the Karankawa tribe, but her organization also represents Lipan Apache and Mexica members. Sanchez points to “the seventh generation” prophecy, that a time would come when indigenous people from many tribes would come together under a common cause. She sees their struggle as part of others around the U.S., like the Dakota Access pipeline protests at Standing Rock.
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“We are a part of the prophecy that the ancestors had so long ago, that there would be a generation of our people who would come back together. I can’t believe I’m a part of it,” says Sanchez, holding back tears.
The members of CAPE were first galvanized to join forces amid the development of a petrochemical facility the likes of which the area has never seen. In the North Bay, smack between the tiny cities of Gregory and Portland, ExxonMobil and Saudi Basic Industries Corporation (SABIC), under the local banner of Gulf Coast Growth Ventures, is nearing completion on what will be the largest ethane steam cracker plant in the world. The $10 billion plant will turn ethane, an odorless, colorless gas that is a byproduct of fracking, into monoethylene glycol (used to make things like polyester clothing and antifreeze), and polyethylene, a building block of plastics. According to the plant’s air-quality permit, it will also pump about 3 million tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere every year.
The ethane will be morphed into billions of “nurdles,” or small plastic pellets. Smaller than a black eyed pea, the nurdles will likely be exported to Asia, melted down into resin, and molded into anything from single-use plastic cups to construction materials. Essentially, the plant will monetize the waste of one unsustainable energy process by building another unsustainable product, much of which will be used once before ending up in a landfill or an ocean.
But the residents living in the shadow of the massive plant will face other dangers. “This is a very dirty manufacturing process,” says Neil Carman, the clean-air director at the Lone Star Chapter of the Sierra Club. Carman was also an inspector for 12 years with the state air-quality regulator that preceded the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ), the agency that granted Exxon SABIC the permits to build the facility. “The people living in the community are going to be exposed to a toxic soup of carcinogens, mutagens that change the DNA, teratogens that cause birth defects and many, many other health effects,” he says. “The people in the area are going to be guinea pigs. It’s a sacrifice zone.”
Volatile organic compounds, nitrogen, carbon monoxide, sulfide, sulfuric acid mist, and sulfur dioxide will all be released into the air, according to Exxon SABIC’s air quality permit. But TCEQ says that they conducted a review of the possible health impacts on people living nearby and on sensitive subgroups such as children or the elderly and that they expect no adverse short-term or long-term effects. “These concentrations were evaluated against guidelines established by toxicologists that assure no expected health impacts and, where concentrations were higher than the guidelines, toxicologists reviewed the potential impacts to confirm no adverse effects would be expected,” TCEQ says.
A spokesperson for Exxon SABIC, aka Gulf Coast Growth Ventures, touts TCEQ’s approval as proof that the project meets health and safety standards and adds that the company has installed community air monitors at two Gregory-Portland Independent School District locations, the results of which will be viewable by the public online.
But the opponents of the plant don’t believe Exxon SABIC is prioritizing public health. “Whatever risks the folks who live nearby and downwind of this plant, whatever the risk that people have from all the other factors out there, this plant increases their risk of cancers,” says Ilan Levin, associate director of the Environmental Integrity Project, which worked with CAPE and fought at the state level for stronger environmental protections at the Exxon SABIC plant. They didn’t have much success, “because the state pretty much rubber stamped the permit,” Levin says.
In Texas, industry will generally get the permitting it’s looking for, says Carman. “I’m still shocked to this day with what these companies get away with,” he says. “[The TCEQ is] there to basically issue permits, and to hell with the public and to hell with public health.”
While behemoths like Exxon SABIC are in a strong position to push their projects through, the local activists think they may have found a weakness in the industry’s plans. The Exxon SABIC plant itself is set to be completed this year, but there are still many pieces that need to come together for it to be operational: It’s own rail corridor, pipelines, port expansion — and a reliable water supply, which, in drought-prone South Texas may be harder than it sounds.
“It speaks to both the numerous links in the chain that these companies have to connect properly to get facilities operating, and it speaks to the ultimate vulnerability of installations like this,” says Carroll Muffett, president and CEO of the Center for International Environmental Law. “The system that they’re facing is engineered to push projects like this through regardless of what affected communities think about it. But we have seen over and over again that affected communities can, and do, fight back very, very effectively.”
Errol Summerlin stands on a long, straight paved road in Portland that leads directly to the main entrance of the Exxon SABIC site. Two rows of neat brick homes sitting on spacious lots line each side, and a white-painted plywood sign reads, “COME BUILD YOUR DREAM HOME.” Massive cubes of piping, flanked by cylindrical towers and cranes, tower over the community.
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“Portland was a sleepy town. It used to be, you know, horse and buggy,” says Summerlin, 69, who lives about two miles from here. A retired Legal Aid attorney with a history of standing up to industry, Summerlin spent the early part of his career representing Native American tribes in Oklahoma and North Dakota, before diving into legal work in the Corpus Christi area, notably representing residents facing displacement in the historic black neighborhoods of Hillcrest and Washington-Coles.
Black and brown communities have bore the brunt of industry pollution in Corpus Christi for generations. Hillcrest and Washington-Coles experienced waves of rezoning and creeping industrialization that came to a head in the 1960s, as the construction of I-37 meant the neighborhoods were squeezed between a highway and refinery row, physically closed off from the rest of the city.
There are about 1,000 people living within a mile of the Exxon SABIC site, mostly in Gregory, where 93 percent of residents are minorities and 34 percent are low-income. Resident Carlos Garcia says he can see the tops of smokestacks at the Exxon SABIC site a half mile down the road from his home. “I understand people gotta work,” says Garcia, who spent his career building oil refineries in Texas. “If you’re a family man and you have a family you have to feed, you’ll do anything.” But he says he’s concerned that the allure of jobs have prevented people from thinking about the long-term. “Those construction jobs, they go away. And now you’re left with the environmental impact,” he says. “Some people around here see [the project] as a good thing. But they see the now, they don’t see the after.”
The Exxon SABIC plant initially was promised to create 11,000 construction jobs (and 600 permanent jobs once the site is built), but much of the plant ended up being built modularly off-site. The number of construction jobs was reduced to 6,000, and permanent jobs were reportedly reduced to 400.
To fight the plant, the member groups of CAPE have staged protests, testified at TCEQ’s public hearings, challenged tax abatements, challenged air permits, challenged water permits. You name it. Each time, they’ve lost.
But a key remaining avenue to challenge the Exxon SABIC plant is how it will get its water. The facility will need a whopping 20 million gallons of fresh water a day to operate. Corpus Christi’s current reservoirs at Lake Corpus Christi, Lake Texana, Choke Canyon Reservoir, and the Colorado River are almost pushed to the breaking point as it is, and the region has been in stage 1 drought since December.
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The city of Corpus Christi manages the water supply for seven counties, and about 500,000 residents. In 2017, Corpus’s then-city manager sent a letter to Exxon SABIC stating that “we feel that we have sufficient water supplies to meet your needs today and into the foreseeable future.” But according to Amber Oetting, strategic communications director at the City of Corpus Christi’s Water Utilities, the city’s water supply needs to be expanded by next year to meet the region’s needs. In 2022, she says, the city anticipates that “population trends, historical water use, and economic growth to our region” will surpass the demand for 75 percent of its current water supply, thus hitting a “trigger point” in which they will need new water sources to keep up.
“The Coastal Bend is uniquely situated where traditional, affordable and quality drinking water is not found in copious supply,” says Oetting. “Further, our region statistically battles persistent and recurring droughts. These factors, coupled with our continued growth, are what make the matter time sensitive. The city can meet the water needs we have been tasked with today, but time is of the essence.”
Currently, the city of Corpus Christi supplies 95 million gallons of water per day to the region. Exxon SABIC’s needs, at 20 million gallons per day — roughly equivalent to what 120,000 residents use — would represent a 21 percent increase for the entire system.
To increase the regional water supply, the city is applying for permits for two desalination plants, one in the Inner Harbor and one in the La Quinta Channel. The plants would suck up ocean water from Corpus Christi Bay, remove the salt, and discharge the brine back into the bay. Combined, they would use up to 250 million gallons of seawater a day, and discharge up to 130 million gallons of brine a day. Plus, there are four more permits from other industrial facilities that have been submitted, for a total of six potential desalination plants in the Corpus Christi Bay — which could have a huge ecological impact.
“Our best resource is our beautiful bay here,” says Patrick Nye, president of the Ingleside on the Bay Coastal Watch Association, a member organization of CAPE. “If you grew up around it, you know it’s a sparkling gem. There’s a lot of great fishing and seafood that comes out of it. I think people are surprised that they may lose that opportunity to preserve it.”
Chip Harmon owns a bait and tackle shop adjacent to the only public boat ramp in Ingleside on the Bay. And while he supports the advancement of industry in the area, he says, there’s a limit. “South Texas don’t believe in climate change, and I personally think that climate change is hogwash,” he says. “But what I do believe in is protection of our God-given natural resources.”
Harmon says the fish he’s used to catching in the area, like trout and redfish, are already changing in size and behavior due to the increased ship traffic. “They’re working harder to chase the forage,” he says.
Ingleside on the Bay Coastal Watch Association is starting to work with Texas A&M University–Corpus Christi to monitor seagrasses, marine life, and air pollution in the area.
“Extremes of salinity, as well as very rapid changes of salinity, can cause stress on seagrasses,” says Kirk Cammarata, a biologist at Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi. “Seagrasses are at the base of the food chain, and pretty much all of the seafood we eat at some point depends on what happens in seagrass beds. It’s a critically important habitat.”
Larry McKinney, chair of Gulf Strategies at the Harte Research Institute for Gulf of Mexico, believes that desalination can be an inherently beneficial process for the environment by providing fresh water to ecosystems that can benefit from decreased salinity. But he says that the locations of the proposed desalination plants in the Corpus Christi Bay are far from that.
The bay and its surrounding inlets and channels, like Nueces Bay and Aransas Pass, do not circulate much water. This is common to most bays on the Texas coast, which have minimal inflows from other water sources. “If that water is not moving and exchanging with other fresh water and other sea water, you’re just constantly adding very incremental, small amounts of salinity to that bay,” says McKinney of the potential discharge from desalination plants. “That begins to have all kinds of ecological effects on oysters and shrimp and fish, and the whole structure of the ecosystem.”
According to McKinney, a solution could be to move the proposed desalination plants offshore, where dumping the salty brine into the open ocean would have a negligible impact compared to doing the same thing in a more closed ecosystem like a bay. But that would be more expensive, because it would mean adding a pipeline to the desalination plant. If the two new desalination plants are not issued permits by the TCEQ, says Oetting, the city would then look at other desalination plant locations, and then groundwater, and then reusing or recovering water as options to meet the new needs. But as Oetting says, “time is of the essence.” The city is reaching its “trigger point” next year, and the desalination plants would take till 2026 to be built.
In February, CAPE got the first indication that the desalination plants weren’t a sure thing. The Texas State Office of Administrative Hearings recommended to the state TCEQ that it deny the Port of Corpus Christi’s draft permit for its proposed Harbor Island desalination plant, stating that “the proposed discharge will adversely impact the marine environment, aquatic life, and wildlife” of the local environment.
The TCEQ still needs to make a final decision, but according to Rick Lowerre, an attorney with Perales, Allmon, & Ice, who represents the opponents of the desalination plant, it would be unlikely that the state would act against this recommendation. If the permit is ultimately denied, it could have a domino effect on the other plants’ permitting applications.
“[The desalination plants] all have a really uphill fight because we have all these experts that have been studying these systems, and they understand that both the intakes and the discharges will have major impacts,” says Lowerre. Ingleside on the Bay Coastal Watch Association has hired Lowerre’s firm, and intends to challenge the permits for all the proposed desalination plants in Corpus Christi Bay.
According to Lowerre, even if they lose any of their challenges through the Texas State Office of Administrative Hearings, the permitting process could still end up taking years. “What the city and the port have to recognize is even if they get their permits, the opponents can appeal to the district court and above,” says Lowerre.
“Desalination plants are like the chokehold of all the industry,” says Sanchez. “Just like The Art of War, if you cut off the supplies, the enemy can’t move forward. And that’s their supply. The water is their supply.”
But others are not so optimistic.
Masten, from Ingleside on the Bay Coastal Watch Association, found the industrial sprawl to be too overwhelming. “I’ve got asthma and with the diesel fumes, I can’t sit out on my front porch because I can’t breathe. It goes right to my lungs and to my head. When the particulates are out, I just get a headache right away,” she says. She and her husband are moving to the Chesapeake Bay instead. “It’s too scary for us. This is not what we wanted.”
“Exxon’s gonna get their water,” says Summerlin. “We don’t have any hopes on Exxon. They’re here. We know they’re not going to go away. The margin of profit on plastics is so great that Exxon will proceed with their operations. What we’re going to have to do at this point is just make certain we don’t get any more of those industries here.”
Currently, CAPE is challenging permitting for a number of expansions, including from Lone Star Ports, Axis Midstream, Bluewater, MODA Midstream, and Steel Dynamics. Last November, for unknown reasons, a major plastics facility referred to as “Project Falcon” withdrew its plans to build in Aransas Pass. CAPE hopes to make development difficult enough for industry that more companies will decide to pull out.
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“The more [industry] that comes in, the more damage there is done and the more encroachment on not only communities, but on the estuaries and on the wildlife,” says Summerlin. “The entire ecosystem is being threatened by all of this.”
“We’re not going to sit down without a fight,” says Sanchez. “We’re caretakers of this land. You have to take care of the land and water or in 50 years it’s gonna be gone.”