Plastic land, part 4

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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.

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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.

Plastic land, part 3

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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.

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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.

Chemical plants in red. (Map by Jen Coleman.)

Chemical plants in red. (Map by Jen Coleman.)

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.

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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.

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Plastic land, part 2

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“We call this Chemical Alley,” Melanie Oldham informed me as I climbed into her car at the Holiday Inn Express, where she had agreed to pick me up and show me around Freeport. She waved to the row of budget hotels built for plant visitors across the highway from Dow and BASF. Because of prevailing winds, pollution tends to settle here, she said. I’d been noticing an acrid, sweet smell since I arrived.

Freeport sits at the southern end of Brazoria County, which regularly ranks among the top in the state for smog pollution, despite its small population—325,000, compared to 4 million in Houston’s Harris County directly north. Twenty percent of all the toxic chemical releases in Texas happen here, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), from 42 facilities.

Melanie had driven directly here from Houston, where she spent the day at an EPA “listening session” on improving the safety of chemical plants. She waited for six hours to say her piece.

I expected her to take me past the factories, but she headed in the opposite direction, north ten miles to Lake Jackson, the town Dow built for its employees in the 1940s as it ramped up production of magnesium for the war.

At the historical museum that afternoon, I learned that Alden Dow, son of the founder, designed the town’s wandering, tree-lined streets as a “city in a park.” It took a massive effort to clear the wet, bottomland “jungle” of live oak and Texas palm.

The town of 24,000 had a feel of sleepy prosperity, like a thin skin of timelessness kept it separate from its surroundings. It reminded me a little of my hometown, Los Alamos, New Mexico, another place born of war. Lake Jackson’s tagline even echoes the New Mexico state motto: “City of Enchantment.”

Melanie drove me past the Brazos Mall, biggest in the county, to Lake Jackson Farms, an exclusive subdivision where chemical company executives live in neo-colonial mansions along a horseshoe shaped lake. Nearby lie the ruins of the Jackson plantation.

Abner Jackson built a fortune here in the nineteenth century, exploiting the labor of slaves to produce sugar. Around the time the Jackson plantation reached its zenith, an expedition of Texans set out to murder the last of the Karankawa Indians, who had survived three hundred years of colonization and warfare in the region. They were declared extinct in 1858.

Melanie took a quick loop along sweeping lawns and gated drives lined with live oaks, then headed south on 288, also known as the Nolan Ryan Expressway. We drove past chemical plant after chemical plant as the sun began to set.

I pointed to a great blue heron slowly flapping across the road. Birds abound in the region’s salt and freshwater marshes. A Dow parking lot is home to one of the largest black skimmer colonies on the coast. The birds nest on the ground, undisturbed inside Dow’s gates. Once a year the company opens the lot for public viewing.

As Melanie drove, she talked. About the problems the town faced from pollution. About her history. She was married to a Dow chemical engineer for twenty-three years and raised three children in Angleton, another bedroom community north of here.

Things she heard about pollution from the plants nagged at her, and over the years she started to get involved. In 2006 she formed Citizens for Clean Air & Clean Water in Brazoria County. In 2012 she moved to Freeport, where the plants’ blue collar laborers and contractors live, many of them immigrants.

We exited the highway and entered the town. She pointed out Brazosport High School, which a USA Today study ranked among the worst schools in the nation for exposure to toxic air pollution. Boys in football gear practiced on the field as we passed.

She talked about the long struggle with Gulf Chemical, a Freeport company that illegally dumped toxic waste into the Brazos River for decades. The company faced a $1.3 million fine, but a week before I arrived, the state ruled that a loophole in Texas law required capping the penalty at $300,000.

Map by Jen Coleman. Locations of chemical plants are in red.

Locations of schools in Freeport. Chemical plants are in red.
(Map by Jen Coleman)

We wound up at a restaurant called On the River eating shrimp and catfish from the Gulf. “I hope you’ll mention us in your book,” Melanie told me more than once. “We could use some help down here.”

By the time she dropped me back at the Holiday Inn Express in Chemical Alley it was dark, but I felt like I still hadn’t gotten a sense of the plants. Even here, in the heart of the petrochemical industry, it all seemed inaccessible, abstract. So I got in my little rental car and started driving.

The Nolan Ryan Expressway was designed to speed the commute from workers’ homes in Lake Jackson to the plants, and there were few exits. The old road went directly past the plants, but it had no shoulder; the only side roads led into the plants themselves, toward floodlights and security gates.

There seemed no safe place to stop, so I found myself driving the same highway clover leaf over and over, looping slowly past them, like massive ships alight in the dark, steam and flame billowing out of their stacks.

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After several loops I happened onto a side road that led past Rambo’s Furniture (no credit check, 24 month financing).

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The far side of the parking lot, partly flooded, seemed like the best vantage point across the highway. I sat for a long time in the cold with the window down, just looking, breathing, listening.

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Plastic land, part 1

The first hint that I was getting close to Freeport was the steam. Big billowing clouds rose into the cold, grey skies above Highway 288 south from Houston.

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Then I came over a rise and got a glimpse of it — a vast chemical complex, the largest in North America — less individual facilities than entire landscapes, pipes and towers and stacks smoking and steaming and shooting columns of flame into the sky. This is the land where fossil fuels turn into plastic.

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I arrived in the middle of an ice storm — a rare event in this Gulf Coast town, where the average annual temperature is 70°.

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Houston had been a tangled mess of accidents and closed roads, the highway south largely deserted. In Freeport, the weather seemed not to have registered. Cars and trucks flowed in and out of factory gates, and the plants hummed on, as they do, twenty-four hours a day, every day. They hummed, literally. A low roar overlaid by a high-pitched machine whine permeated the town.

I veered off the highway and found myself at a gate to Dow Chemical’s Oyster Creek Division.

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Aside from manufacturing plants, only two other buildings appeared on the main road past the plant. Eros, a Lovers Boutique and the Eagle’s lodge.

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In Freeport, 12,000 people live amidst bays, marshes and bayous at the mouth of the longest river in Texas. The Spanish, who showed up here in the 1500s, called it Los Brazos de Dios, Arms of God. Today it is just the Brazos, pronounced with a flat Texas a and a short o.

Chemical complexes curl around the town to the north and east. Dow arrived first and remains the largest, seven thousand acres of plants producing billions of pounds of chemicals and plastics every year—nearly half the company’s U.S. production. And Dow is expanding, building a chlorine plant, a new “world-scale” propylene plant and increasing capacity at an existing ethylene cracker. This is part of a larger renaissance in the chemical industry across the Gulf, fed by cheap natural gas fracked out of rock.

It was difficult in Freeport to just wander. The roads kept dead ending at factory gates or water. I took another side road and found myself on a narrow gravel drive on top of a levee, no place to turn around, surrounded by bayou. I decided to abandon wandering and head to the local historical museum ten miles north to orient myself.