Fossil fuel plant run by William Koch at heart of EPA investigation into racism in


There are over 2,600 people living within three miles of Oxbow
Corporation’s industrial plant in Port Arthur, Texas, a community that’s
almost entirely people of color. And for 85 years, the Oxbow
Calcining’s 112-acre plant has been processing
oil and gas products into “petroleum coke,” which is commonly used to
make steel and aluminum — all the while releasing sulfur dioxide into
the air of Port Arthur. From 2016 to 2019, the plant pumped an average
of over 22 million pounds of sulfur dioxide, which can cause lung
disease, coughing, and eye irritation, into the air each year.

Oxbow’s founder and CEO is billionaire William “Bill” Koch, a member
of the Koch family who has historically maintained a lower profile than
his politically active brothers Charles and David, who passed away in 2019. Charles and David notoriously poured fortunes
into funding organizations and projects designed to prevent fossil fuel
regulation, often by obscuring the role that fossil fuels play in
causing climate change. The Koch Family Foundations, which are linked primarily to Charles and David, have spent more than ExxonMobil in that effort, DeSmog’s database shows. 

Over the years, most other Texas fossil fuel plants that emitted
large amounts of sulfur dioxide have been required to install so-called “scrubber” equipment,
which reduces that air pollution. But Oxbow Calcining appears to have
escaped the same sort of attention from the Texas Commission on
Environmental Quality (TCEQ), whose policies generally allow older
plants to emit more than newer plants.

Community advocates say that the way the TCEQ has overseen the Oxbow
site has left the residents of Port Arthur at risk, raising issues of
racial discrimination and injustice. This summer, the Port Arthur
Community Action Network (PECAN), represented by attorneys at Lone Star
Legal Aid and the Environmental Integrity Project, asked the U.S.
Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to investigate whether Texas’s
oversight of Oxbow Calcining violates federal civil rights laws, which
prohibit racial discrimination in the way that the nation’s
environmental laws are enforced.

Last week, the EPA’s External Civil Rights Compliance Office accepted that complaint, writing in a letter
that it would launch an investigation into whether the “TCEQ
discriminated on the basis of race in violation of Title VI of the Civil
Rights Act of 1964.”

“My hope is that they will thoroughly investigate their emissions and
their impact on the community and draw what we believe to be an
inescapable conclusion that Oxbow is an eminent danger to the life and
health of people in Port Arthur and southeast Texas,” John Beard, Jr.,
founder and chairman of the Port Arthur Community Action Network, said
in a statement after the EPA agreed to investigate their complaint.

TCEQ will have 30 days to prepare a response to the complaint, according to
local newspaper the Beaumont Enterprise. In an email, a representative
of TCEQ said the commission had received notice of the investigation
from the EPA “and is carefully reviewing the complaint.” 

Advocates who filed the Oxbow complaint welcomed the EPA’s
investigation when it was announced. “This decision will directly
benefit the residents of Port Arthur,” Amy Dinn, managing attorney of
Lone Star Legal Aid’s Environmental Justice Team, said in a statement,
“and it is a first step towards appropriately regulating this facility
to control its excess sulfur dioxide emissions that are so harmful to
this environmental justice community’s health and well-being.”

An odor like ‘burning garbage‘

Port Arthur, Texas, sits on the Louisiana border midway between Houston and Lake Charles, Louisiana. Its Gulf Coast location puts the small city (population 54,000) in an area prone to hurricanes, which scientists say have become more intense and unpredictable with climate change. 

When President Joe Biden entered the White House, he had campaigned on environmental justice issues, citing
as an example his personal experiences growing up surrounded by
refineries in nearby Marcus Hook, Pennsylvania, along the Delaware
River. But nearly a year into Biden’s time in office, environmental
justice advocates have expressed frustration with the administration’s
performance so far. “The administration wants the benefit of the doubt,”
Erika Thi Patterson, campaign director of the grassroots organization
Action Center on Race and the Economy, told Politico this summer. “The reality is they haven’t earned it yet.”

John Beard, Jr. spoke about Port Arthur, climate
change, and Oxbow’s air pollution in front of the Biden White House in
October 2021. Video Credit: Julie Dermansky.

In Jefferson County, where Port Arthur is located, 92 percent of the sulfur dioxide air pollution comes from Oxbow Calcining.

You can smell sulfur dioxide in the air, said Colin Cox, an attorney
with the Environmental Integrity Project. Hydrogen sulfide’s smell is
often compared to rotten eggs, he added — and sulfur dioxide is produced
when you burn hydrogen sulfide. That means the smell of sulfur dioxide
is “a little different,” than a rotten egg smell, Cox said. “Most people
describe it to me as burning garbage.”

“The people in that community have been surrounded by refineries and
industry for their entire lives, breathing that stuff and smelling that
stuff,” said Cox. “And they know it’s not healthy because they’re sick,
their kids are on breathing machines. They don’t have a lot of faith,
and understandably, right, in the EPA or in the TCEQ and in the people
that are supposed to be protecting their air and water because those
organizations have historically not protected their air and water.”

“So there’s a hope there, that if we have an EPA that says it’s
committed to environmental justice,” Cox added, “that this is an
opportunity for them to demonstrate that.”

The ‘other’ Koch brother

The Koch name is indelibly linked to Koch Industries,
a sprawling, privately held, fossil fuel–based corporate empire that
was founded by Bill’s father Fred Koch nearly a century ago. 

In the early 1980s, Bill unsuccessfully moved to wrest control of
Koch Industries from his brother Charles, kicking off a legal battle
that ultimately resulted in Bill selling his 21 percent stake in the
family empire, according to a dossier
compiled by Greenpeace. Bill used his settlement money to found Oxbow,
focusing it on coal and petroleum coke. Meanwhile, various legal battles
between the brothers continued for years.

Today, Forbes lists Bill’s current net worth at about $2.2 billion.

Oxbow refers
to its operations as “recycling” refinery and natural gas byproducts,
saying that…


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