Dow’s Polymer Center, known locally as Plant B, consists of fifty distinct plants. In her book Plastic: a toxic love story, Susan Freinkel writes that each plant produces a different plastic resin or chemical ingredient: polyethylene, polycarbonate, polypropylene, polystyrene.
The plastic comes in the form of rice-sized pellets known as “nurdles.” Millions of pounds of nurdles leave the Dow Freeport plant every day, filling up railcar after railcar. The trains take them to trucks or ships, which take them to manufacturing plants across the world.
All those nurdles come back to us as cell phone cases and car parts. Toothbrushes, toy soldiers, and pace makers. Frisbees, fleece, dental floss. Those tiny, flexible tubes that deliver nutrients to premature babies.
But the largest proportion — almost 40% of all plastic — goes into packaging: grocery bags, milk jugs, blister packs. Stuff made to be thrown out.
The other product that comes from the plants: pollution. The single largest component of chemicals released into the air in Brazoria County in 2012 was ethylene, a raw ingredient of plastic created by heating up oil or natural gas to “crack” apart their molecules.
Dow Chemical accounted for nearly half the ethylene released in Brazoria County. Ethylene is volatile. It reacts readily in the atmosphere to create ozone smog.
During a heat wave in June of 2012, an ozone pollution monitor in Brazoria County hit 136 parts per billion, nearly twice the level the Environmental Protection Agency considers safe over the long term. The region has never met the safety standard EPA set in 2008.
The American Medical Association and a bunch of other doctors’ groups have called for that standard to be set even higher, because smog attacks the lungs. It can lead to asthma attacks, and, over time, cause permanent lung damage.
Children are most vulnerable to smog, because they breathe more per pound of body weight than adults do. New science has also found links between ozone and heart attacks and strokes in adults.
But when I visited Melanie Oldham a few weeks ago, she wasn’t thinking about smog. She was worried about chlorine. That’s what she traveled to Houston and waited six hours to speak about to Environmental Protection Agency officials.
Dow recently completed construction of a new “world-scale chlor-alkali facility” in Freeport. The plant creates chlorine by running an electrical current through salt water.
Chlorine is produced in very high volumes in the U.S. for a bunch of industrial purposes, including treating drinking water and creating pesticides and polyvinyl chloride plastic. The trade group EuroChlor has created a lovely chlorine tree showing all its uses.
The problem is that chlorine is also incredibly dangerous. It was used as poison gas in World War I. When a person breathes in chlorine, it breaks down into hydrochloric acid, burning the lungs and causing them to fill with liquid — death by drowning.
A U.S. Department of Transportation report found chlorine among the most dangerous substances to transport. A Dow worker at Freeport died in 2006 when a valve cap blew off, sending chlorine into his face.
Last year Dow announced it is selling off its chlorine plants in Freeport, with a buyer yet to be identified. Among Melanie’s requests to EPA: require the new owner to make chlorine only as needed so it doesn’t have to store large quantities, and transport the chlorine using the safest rail cars available.
At dinner that night, I noticed that Melanie’s black-and-white plaid suit jacket had a rhinestone cross on the back, with angels’ wings above it. I asked her about this later—whether the jacket was supposed to help make her case to the EPA.
But Melanie didn’t have time to discuss fashion with me. She texted that Dow had just published its application for a new ethylene plant at Freeport, its largest ethylene plant anywhere, and her group had thirty days to comment on it.
Dow Chemical’s plastic plant in Freeport has a visitor center. The sign out front, on Chlorine Road, doesn’t provide too much welcome, though. On a Saturday morning, the visitor center was locked up tight anyway, the parking lot deserted. I wandered around, stopping to look at a steaming pipe, and some graffiti.
The writer Susan Freinkel toured this plant for her 2011 book Plastic: a toxic love story. She told me she lucked into it because she interviewed someone who had once worked there. When I called the Dow Freeport public affairs office, Cindy Watson returned my call with a response that was friendly, but unequivocal: no site tours.
This is a common refrain from plastic and chemical plants post-9/11. It could be a convenient cover for a place like nearby Gulf Chemical, which a whistleblower revealed kept two sets of books on polluted waste water it was dumping into the Brazos River.
By comparison, people consider Dow Chemical a good corporate citizen. The company has won awards for its efforts to protect the environment. It launched a project with The Nature Conservancy in 2011 to explore the potential for planting trees, which absorb pollution.
The company says that it employees 7,000 people in the county, with more jobs on the way as it expands production thanks to cheap natural gas. Melanie Oldham told me the Motel Six and area trailer parks are filled with construction workers. The local paper reported employment in the county just reached an all-time high.
Dow says it distributed $1.5 billion in the county in 2012, in salaries, pensions and purchases. Much of that largesse seems to concentrate in Lake Jackson to the north, where 41% of Dow’s employees live. According to City Data, the median household income in Lake Jackson in 2011 was $68,000; in Freeport, surrounded by the plants themselves, it was half that, $34,000.
The sign for the Dream Center stood out on a stretch of road mostly occupied by industrial plants. I pulled into the parking lot, but the door was locked.
I looked online later and found a website for the Brazoria County Dream Center. Its mission: “provide avenues of healing to the souls of hurting humanity in Brazoria County.” It has a food pantry, fills children’s backpacks with meals to last them for the weekend, gives away free clothing, and houses a five dollar medical clinic.