By Eli Poore
Eli is an UU young adult, a seminarian at Starr King School for the Ministry, and member of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Corpus Christi.
It was December 13th, and I stepped into my shower before heading to bed. As someone who is fond of a nice hot shower before bed, I took my time, letting the hot water run over my skin, warming me up after a cooler day in my usually warm South Texas coastal city. I recall noticing a slightly odd chemical smell, but brushed it off, attributing it to the less-than-ideal state of our city water system and some recent rains. Nothing out of the ordinary, really.
The next day, I awoke to find that the night before, our city government leaders had issued a city-wide tap water ban, and as we heard the news, a collective groan arose from my family members and I. “Not again!”, we all grumbled. We prepared to purchase bottled water, as it had become something of a ritual by now- over the past 18 months, our community had endured a series of water boil notices, beginning in July of 2015 when a sample site near our residence tested positive for E. Coli. A few months later in early September, yet another boil was issued due to high bacteria levels that stretched on for three weeks, followed by a third in May of 2016, due to another issue with disinfectant levels, which lasted for nearly three weeks as well.
This time, however, the situation was different. We were informed by city officials that our water was not safe to use to drink, bathe, or wash any clothing. The reason for this? A suspected contamination of a “petrochemical material” due to a back-flow issue at a local refinery. At that point in time, the name of the chemical was not released, nor the name of the company involved. A couple of days later we find out the company was a contractor with Valero energy, a company named Ergon Asphalt and Emulsions. The chemical name, Indulin©-AA86. A quick scan of the MSDS widely available online shows that coming into contact with this chemical can cause respiratory tract, eye and skin burns, as well as target organ failure, and was particularly dangerous to children, the elderly, and those with immunodeficiencies. Now, we were really concerned.
A Gulf Coast city with a population of around 300,000, Corpus Christi has an economy and job market that is heavily dependent on big names in Big Oil- Citgo, Valero, Flint Hills, and other refineries and petrochemical companies are scattered along the coastline, the flare stacks lighting up the skyline in the port, downtown, and northern areas at nightfall. When standing on the beach at night, in addition to the lovely moon and night stars reflecting on the waves, you also can see lights in the distance from offshore drilling operations. Many of our residents are employed by these companies, and our country as a whole is dependent on the gas and oil produced here. Contrary to the numerous PR efforts on the part of these companies, the safety record in our city, and in others across the country, are dubious.
In 2007, Citgo Petroleum Corporation was convicted of environmental crimes in a Federal court for illegally operating chemical storage tanks at the Corpus Christi location. More specifically, Citgo knowingly operated uncovered storage tanks containing highly toxic chemicals such as benzene for a ten year period, allowing the fumes to drift into the coastal air and community causing untold environmental damage to delicate ecosystems and wildlife, as well as human suffering that will continue to unfold in the form of cancers and respiratory issues for the individuals and families who lived near the refinery, a poor part of the community consisting of mostly African American, Latino/a, and elderly residents. Despite this abhorrent violation of environmental regulations, and frankly, ethics and human decency, the multi-billion dollar company was ultimately fined a paltry two million dollars in 2014 despite a two billion dollar lawsuit, which amounted to little more than pocket change and a slap on the wrist for them.
Now again, in 2016, we found ourselves at risk for the negligence of another petrochemical company, left in the dark about what we had been exposed to and for how long. Connected with groups of local activists through social media, my partner and I got out our markers and poster board and joined in a demonstration jointly organized by groups called For the Greater Good and the Corpus Christi Solidarity Network at City Hall. Among our number were also some First Nations Water Protectors, and the intention was to not only draw attention to the current issue in our community, but tie this to larger environmental concerns taking place at Standing Rock, in Flint, Michigan, and numerous other cities and towns across the nation and the world who are affected by policies and practices by companies who put profits over the health and safety of people. City Hall is located directly across from a major public transit station and in an area with a large number of homeless and working poor, and For the Greater Good purchased bottled water to hand out to passerby- a rare find at this point as store shelves had been emptied — not to mention many families were unable to purchase the amount of water that it was necessary to have to drink, cook, and bathe. Stores had not been able to keep up with the demand, and at that point the city had not yet implemented distribution centers. In the middle of our chants of “Water is Life!”, we discussed among ourselves what we could do to help those who were homebound or could not afford bottled water. Several of the organizers were interviewed by the media, and eventually we filed in to council chambers to join the council meeting.
Upon entering, there was immediate shock when rather than a panel discussion, the City Leaders opted to meet behind closed doors and hold a press conference afterwards. Our newly elected Mayor, who incidentally ran a series of campaign ads targeting the water issues that had occurred under the leadership of of his predecessor, refused to mention the name of the company or chemical, though both had circulated through news outlets at this point, calling it a “soap-like substance”, stating that only between 3 and 24 gallons were released and that he believed the contamination had been limited to the industrial district. The city was seeking help from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) in developing a test, and had to sign a confidentiality agreement from the chemical’s patent owner to receive information on its chemical makeup. Questions were asked surrounding the source of the contamination, what action the city was taking to get water to homebound residents or those who couldn’t afford bottled water, and what the city planned to do to prevent future incidents, to which there were few answers given. We left the council chambers, unsettled, our questions unanswered, uncertain and concerned about the people in our community that had been potentially poisoned by this contamination and might be unable to obtain water as at this point, store shelves had been emptied.
The next day, we found that our story had reached more than just those passerby who had seen our signs and heard our chants, or the local news stations who were with us at city hall when my partner was contacted by a family member out of state who had seen us on CBS morning news. The story began to unfold nationally, and we saw our faces alongside the faces of our new activist and Water Protector friends on numerous news outlets, our signs reading “No More Toxic Taps”, “#NODAPL”, “Serve Citizens not Industry” and “Water is Life” held proud. We were so glad that people were paying attention, and several of the stories did indeed connect the dots to the larger issues that we were also trying to call attention to.
Within a few days, the city had set up distribution stations, and eventually, the ban was lifted. Since then, we have learned that there were three different reports of a possible contamination dating back to as early as November 23rd, all of which had been investigated by the city, and there are allegations of negligence on the part of city leaders that the public was not notified immediately. While there have been no officially confirmed reports of illness due to tainted water, but there have been claims by citizens who reported to clinics and emergency centers with burning eyes and skin rashes and there are several class action suits in the making. No doubt that the effects of this are long-reaching. We are still here, still working, and we are still angry.
“Water is Life” was our chant, not only ours, but also that of the Water Protectors at Standing Rock and the people of Flint, Michigan who have been without safe water since 2014. It echoed through our streets, originating from the Oceti Sakowin camp in Standing Rock, and from Flint, Michigan, from other people and communities who have been harmed by the negligence and greed of Big Oil. It rose up and out, ringing through the ears of those who heard all of our voices on the nightly news across the country. We do not live in the same communities, but we share a common cry. We believe that we have the right not to be poisoned in the name of profits, and believe that unfortunately it’s not a matter of if, but when and where this will happen again. We see the intersectionality of environmental justice and systemic oppression manifested in the disregard of the voices and sacred land of our First Nations people in Standing Rock — and in the presumed disposability of an entire neighborhood in Corpus Christi comprised of elderly residents and People of Color who never received compensation for the health issues that they experienced as a result of an oil company’s intentional act of environmental terrorism: benzene vapors filling their lungs and the lungs of their children for over ten years. Our story is not unique, and it has not yet come to a close.
Our fight is not limited to Standing Rock, to Corpus Christi, to Flint, Michigan. We are not the only people who are affected, and our fight will not likely end in this generation or the next. Just as we inherited the earth of our great-grandmothers and great-grandfathers, so will our great-grandchildren inherit ours. We will not stand idly by and watch as companies rape our land, poison our water, and destroy ecosystems that our survival as a species depend on. Now is the time to act, and act we will. Now is the time for courage, commitment, and community. May we all be blessed to see this through, and may we all use our voices to speak out for justice, and may we all find strength in one another.