Toxic Communities of Color: Reparation and Rebirth

A Story Told in Black and White: Segregation and Injustice in Port Arthur

By Sharon A. Croisant, Hilton Kelley, and Krista Bohn

Photograph of a “shantytown” on the outskirts of Port Arthur, Texas. A group of African Americans stand in a group beside a row of dilapidated houses.
Photo From: Museum of the Gulf Coast

This piece is a part of our Spark series: Environmental Racism and Justice

A Story Told in Black and White: Segregation and Injustice in Port Arthur

Port Arthur, Texas is a small city in East Texas on the shores of Sabine Lake which straddles the Texas/Louisiana border. The town was established in the late 1890s as a potentially important port city, literally at the end of the line — i.e., of the proposed Kansas City, Pittsburg, and Gulf Railroad. With the discovery of oil at Spindletop in 1901 only 13 miles from Port Arthur, the oil industry exploded, expanding southwards, and by 1901, Port Arthur had become the 12th largest port in the U.S. While this created an enormous industrial complex and economic gain for many, minority communities most impacted were denied economic, financial and health benefits. Today, based upon lack of opportunity, high crime, natural disasters, blight, and addiction rates, Port Arthur is ranked #2 on the list of the most miserable cities in America. Nowhere is this more evident than in the heavily industrialized West Side of Port Arthur (WPA).

WPA is on the fence line of two massive oil refineries, one of which recently doubled its capacity to 600,000 barrels of crude per day, making it the largest in the nation. Five more petrochemical plants and an incinerator facility are close by, which currently accepts waste solvents, solvent/oil mixtures, organic and inorganic chemical wastes, pesticide and petroleum wastes, contaminated soils and sludges, PCBs and capacitors, infectious wastes and containerized gases, among others. WPA is also the terminus of the Keystone pipeline, which pumps tar-sands to production facilities. Emissions, upsets, and other toxic events related to these industrial facilities are common, as are high rates of illness including asthma and cancer. Cancer rates for Black residents of WPA have been and continue to be significantly higher than for rates among Texans in general. Cancer mortality rates for Black residents of Jefferson County are ~40% higher than for Texans in general. Unemployment in this community is high (16.4%) compared to state rates (8%) despite the numerous industry jobs. Discriminatory practices have resulted in the outsourcing of most positions and the few locals who do work in these facilities seldom choose to live in WPA’s blighted and increasingly abandoned historic neighborhoods. The resulting lack of employment has worsened lack of access to health care, social services, and healthy foods. Collectively, these conditions have led to the evolution of WPA as a community fraught with social and environmental injustice issues.

The current state of WPA is not a historical accident. Following the Civil War — and particularly when troops were withdrawn from the South with the ending of Reconstruction — a devastating system of oppression began to take shape for freed slaves in small East Texas towns such as Port Arthur. The right to vote was repressed, with many who tried subject to beatings, arrest, or even lynching, facilitated by organizations such as the KKK. People of color were forced by law to live in undesirable areas, and in Port Arthur were precluded from living within the city limits, resulting in segregation and concentration of poverty. The WPA population is largely African American, due to “Jim Crow laws” that forced people of color into less desirable neighborhoods. Such racist policies including “redlining” have had longstanding — and ongoing — toxic impacts on WPA’s communities of color and have been exacerbated by the impacts of climate change, manmade and natural disasters, and most recently by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Worse than the lack of choice was the lack of voice. Individuals from these communities had no representation in the making of policies that drastically influenced their environment, their health, their freedom of choice in employment, and ultimately their future. And no issue was more contentious — and more evident of deep racial divides — than school desegregation. In response to the Brown v. Board of Education of 1950, the Port Arthur School District proposed a grade-a-year integration of classes beginning in 1957. Local and state opposition to desegregation derailed these plans until 1970, at which time the Federal Department of Justice filed a formal complaint against the state and the local district for failure to desegregate the schools. An acceptable plan for integration was not filed until March 2003 and was not successfully implemented until 2007.

While the Environmental Justice (EJ) movement has evolved nationwide and globally from protests in isolated, toxic communities exposed to environmental hazards to integration of EJ policy into national and international regulations, surprisingly little has changed for many communities such as WPA that continue to search for Environmental Justice and social equity. For this reason, Hilton Kelley (a former resident of WPA) returned to his home in WPA in 2000 to found the Community In-Power & Development Association (CIDA), a grassroots community advocacy and EJ organization. Through CIDA’s efforts Port Arthur was designated in the top ten of EPA’s EJ Showcase Communities. CIDA has engaged in projects including community forums focused on improving the quality of life for residents, sought and obtained a $1,000,000 award for a construction of a Health Clinic, conducted Healthy Home trainings and health outreach, supported air quality and job training and education of over 100 families, and supported revitalization by leveraging $329,598 worth of Brownfield assessments on 1,300 properties. Kelley and CIDA are now partnering with the Houston Advanced Research Center (HARC) and the University of Texas Medical Branch (UTMB) for additional technical expertise to address systems change and further revitalize the community.

Positive outcomes for WPA have benefited from increased communications and relationships established between industry and communities. In this community, as elsewhere, the focus on climate change is emphasizing reduction of greenhouse gases and priority pollutants, but much more remains to be done if real, lasting, and holistic change is to be achieved. Recommendations for effecting such change include tax incentives for pollution reduction in communities and by industry and reduced use of high-emissions fuels to reduce impact on communities near ports, highways, or heavily industrialized areas. Most importantly, we must ensure that communities are represented in decisions that impact them. EJ leaders are often the experts in the issues that affect their communities — lifting them is a first step in ensuring that they are heard.

WPA has a long history of resilience in the face of adversity. What has changed recently is a transition from withstanding and recovering from adverse events to building a community that is not only resilient but thrives. The path forward is long but built upon a solid foundation of partnerships that build and sustain community trust and understanding and drive informed policy. To increase clean air and health equity in places like WPA, state regulatory agencies and local governments must play key roles in assisting communities fighting for EJ. This includes doing requisite due diligence when it comes to enforcement of Clean Air Act laws and regulations, working with communities on the fence line of big polluters in reducing emissions, collecting and using citizen-gathered evidence, and responding to emergency calls in a timely fashion. The culmination of these efforts will greatly improve the knowledge of State regulatory agencies and increase compliance from industries. Unity is paramount in the Environmental Justice fight.


We gratefully acknowledge the partnership of the Houston Advanced Research Center and its executive leader Mr. John Hall for their efforts in supporting WPA through independent analyses of air and water issues and in helping our community to find solutions for a sustainable future.

Sharon Croisant, MS, PhD, is a Professor in the UTMB School of Public and Population Health, and she directs the Community Engagement Core for the Gulf Coast Center for Precision Environmental Health as well as the Baylor-Rice University Superfund Research Center, both of which were funded in recent years by the NIEHS. She has established long-standing, collaborative relationships with environmental and social justice communities across the Gulf Coast, including those impacted by Hurricanes Katrina, Rita, and Ike as well as those impacted by the Deepwater Horizon explosion and subsequent unprecedented oil spill.

Hilton Kelley is an environmental and social justice leader who has fought tirelessly for his own community of Port Arthur, Texas and other Gulf Coast cities impacted by pollution, poverty, and inequity. Winner of the Goldman Environmental Prize, he has helped to establish West Port Arthur’s redevelopment by fostering cooperation between industry and his community, leading to reduced emissions and better lives for people living in the shadow of industry. He continues to advocate for stricter environmental regulations on the Texas Gulf Coast and served on the EPA’s National Environmental Justice Advisory Council.

Krista Bohn, MPH, is the Program Director for Health Education and Translational Research Engagement at The University of Texas Medical Branch’s Institute for Translational Sciences. She has extensive experience in community engagement, working with local, regional, and statewide stakeholders to drive bidirectional communication, evidence-based outreach, intervention, and dissemination efforts related to translational research and policy development.



Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store