Reporter David Leffler was on assignment for Public Health Watch in Port Arthur, Texas, on July 14, 2021, when his phone rang. It was Juan Flores — a clean-air activist he’d met the day before. Flores talked fast. There was a bad chemical leak in his hometown of Galena Park, east of Houston. People were sick and stuck in their homes. Leffler drove 80 miles to see for himself.
What follows is Leffler’s account of what happened that summer night, and how it laid the foundation for Public Health Watch’s investigation on pollution, power and politics in Texas. The project was co-produced and published by the Investigative Reporting Workshop.
The call came in at 9:45 p.m. on Wednesday, July 14, 2021. It was Juan. The day before, he’d driven me around Galena Park and other East Harris County towns surrounded by oil refineries and petrochemical plants. It was the kind of “toxic tour” he often gives visiting reporters. The sea of concrete, smokestacks and chemical tanks abutting homes and playgrounds shocked me. But Juan’s demeanor was matter-of-fact. He’d come to grips with these realities long ago.
“I usually don’t even smell the chemicals. I’ve become so desensitized to it,” he’d told me during the tour.
But now Flores sounded frantic. A chemical stench had settled over his community — the worst he could remember. People were hiding in their homes. Mothers were caring for sick children. Nobody knew what was in the air, or which of the nearly dozen nearby petrochemical plants were responsible. Friends had texted Flores, who works for Air Alliance Houston, a clean-air advocacy group, and tagged him in Facebook posts, hoping he had answers. He had none.
“Oh God, dude… It’s been a while since I’ve smelled anything like this,” he said on the phone between bouts of coughing and spitting. “This is a real bad emission, and nobody’s saying anything.”
Here’s a recording of that conversation.
I was an hour-and-a-half away when I got Juan’s call — researching a different story in Port Arthur, Texas, where billionaire Bill Koch’s Oxbow plant was legally pummeling communities of color with sulfur dioxide.
I jumped into my car and sped back to Galena Park. I caught up with Juan at 11:15 p.m., outside his childhood home, where he’d gone to check on his mother. The strong odor of synthetics hung in the dense summer air. Residents would later say it stunk of garlic and chemicals, but at the time, I couldn’t put my finger on what it smelled like. All I knew was that it was overpowering. My eyes watered. My lungs burned with every breath. My mouth dried up, as if I’d inhaled smoke straight from a fire.
Flores greeted me with a handshake, a nod and a smile, as if to say, Well, you wanted to see what it’s like to live around here.
The odor had rolled in around 4 p.m., he told me. But more than seven hours later, residents hadn’t heard anything from local or state authorities, even though people were posting messages online asking, “What’s that strange smell?”
Juan and I got in his black Ford Fusion and started searching for the source. Galena Park is a small place — less than five square miles — encircled by train tracks, highways and pipelines. About 11,000 people live there. But with everyone hiding inside their homes, it looked like a ghost town. After 45 minutes, the only people we saw were some teenagers playing pickup basketball who seemed oblivious to the odor.
Juan turned onto Clinton Drive, a busy road that separates the city’s southern edge from the Houston Ship Channel. In the distance, he spotted a flame flickering above Houston Refining, one of the largest refineries in the country. The facility was flaring — burning off excess chemicals and natural gas. A hazy yellow plume from another plant swirled above the street ahead of us. The odor got stronger as we approached it. I pulled out my phone and began filming.
(Click play below for video clip of Juan and David while driving during the chemical leak.)
That was a pivotal moment in what would become a year-long investigative project for Public Health Watch. The noxious odor that filled my lungs, the sense of lawlessness that accompanied the chemical leak — all of it planted the seeds for a larger story about the state of Texas’ failure to protect its people from pollution.
A lot has happened in the 11 months since.
A few days after I left Galena Park, Houston Refining — and the multibillion-dollar Dutch corporation that owns it, LyondellBasell — owned up to the garlic-like leak. Less than two weeks later, an accident at another of the corporation’s plants in Harris County killed two workers and injured dozens more.
By early August, I’d met Hannah Molina and other residents who’d been plagued by chemical releases. I’d also spent time with Harris County Attorney Christian Menefee and other local officials — a new generation of leaders of color pushing back against the billion-dollar petrochemical industry and the state politicians who protect it.
My co-writer, Savanna Strott, sifted through hundreds of pages of government documents acquired through Freedom of Information Act and state open-records requests. She unearthed statistics and studies that corroborated residents’ experiences. She also analyzed thousands of illegal chemical releases in Harris County and pored over data that gave us the facts we needed to write statements like the following:
LyondellBasell facilities reported 1,378 illegal releases of toxic chemicals between 2002 and 2021, but the $34.9 billion company paid only about $5.2 million in TCEQ fines. That’s just a third of the $15.5 million in salary and stocks it paid its then-CEO, Bhavesh “Bob” Patel, in 2020 alone.
Many stories have been written about how communities of color are being subjected to industrial pollution. But our editor, Susan White, demanded that we do more. We had to explain why so little had been done in Texas to address these longstanding problems. We had to show how powerful Texas politicians like Gov. Greg Abbott — who is up for re-election in November and has championed laws that make voting more difficult in places such as East Harris County — benefit from this broken system. And we had to highlight the efforts of those who were trying to fix it.
When Juan Flores dropped me off that night last July, I wasn’t thinking about the story that lay ahead of me. I was thinking about the last thing he said before he drove off.
“Yeah, it just sucks, man… When it smells like this, you can’t do nothing. You can’t even leave. You gotta take it, man — like I’m taking it right now.”
Read the full story here.