Burning Gas: Port Arthur, Texas

Black and white photo of Black family seated on couch smiling at camera

Kevin Sidel

This article originally appeared in Southern Exposure Vol. 8 No. 4, "Winter's Promise." Find more from that issue here.

The old downtown of Port Arthur, Texas, stretches for five blocks north and one mile east-west along a broad street near Lake Sabine. The main street was once decorated with impressive Spanish-styled buildings adorned with brilliant tiles. The coffee shop and telegraph office of the crumbling central hotel still provide refuge from the Texas sun, and the Trailways bus station and baggage depot remain in their original location across the street. 

On the rest of this once-busy street the buildings stand empty amid increasing numbers of rubble-strewn lots. The real center of Port Arthur has literally moved 10 blocks north — not to a new array of hotels and businesses, but to a six-lane highway, the Gulfway. The Gulfway runs through the new center of Port Arthur, past restaurants, movie theaters, gas stations, shopping centers; it leads, eventually, to the Gulf and Texaco refineries, and from there to the Gulf of Mexico and down to Galveston. 

The teenagers of Port Arthur come to the Gulfway every evening to speed in their fast cars. This evening ritual of horizontal mobility in many ways symbolizes the ironies and frustrations of life in this refinery city, where upward mobility is nil. Late at night during the midnight-to-seven “graveyard” shift at the refineries, the Trans-Ams and the Corvettes and the Camaros line up at Burger King, down on the other side of Twin City Highway. The young drivers rev up their motors and dry their hands on their jeans in anticipation of speed. The cars burst forth onto Gulfway Drive in first gear, pass the lights at Twin City Highway, and jump into second gear as they zoom by the closed Texaco station. Third gear means they are rapidly approaching Pizza Inn, a favorite spot for beer drinking and hustling the opposite sex. If the parking lots look empty, the low-slung, road-hugging, custom-painted, factory-ordered-option-laden cars hit fourth gear at Dunkin Donuts. After that, there is nothing left to hold back the cowboys of the asphalt, and they gun their horsepower loud and whip their gearshifts hard and fill the summer streets with their dust, their smell and their residue. 

Port Arthur has 50,000 residents, most of whom are descendants of men who left the fields of Louisiana to work in the oil fields of Texas. For many Texas families the big oil discoveries during the early years of the twentieth century were the keys to the American Dream; the oil industry provided steady hours and steady pay — a decent living, financial security and money for consumer goods. 

For many white families 50 years ago, the new industry also brought an unusual degree of upward mobility. Since those days the lines of class and social status have frozen. Parents and children in Port Arthur today can make few choices, either economic or social. The only steady work in the area is still in the petrochemical industry. And the refineries are where most of the young Gulfway hotrodders will end up, too, after their high school rubber-burning days and a year or two of sitting around Port Arthur, filled with futile dreams and unspecified frustrations. For them, the highway seems the closest approximation to freedom. 


Exacerbating the lack of social and vocational choices in Port Arthur is the fact that the jobs in the oil refineries are dangerous, frustrating and confining. An explosion on March 17, 1977, demonstrated to Port Arthur’s workers the grim reality of the perils and indignities forced on them at their workplace. 

As dawn broke on that St. Patrick’s Day, black workers from the blighted downtown area joined their white suburban co-workers at the gate of the Texaco refinery, the largest single employer in the city with 5,400 employees. Some drove alone to work, others arrived with co-workers. Wayne Dennis was driven to work by his wife. She kissed him goodbye at 6:10 a.m., and watched as he and the others walked through the plant gates to another day’s work. Barely two hours later, Wayne Dennis left the Port Arthur refinery in an ambulance. His body, like those of 19 other men, was burned almost beyond recognition. Eight of the men died; the other 12 are scarred and crippled for life. 

The 20 men had been assigned to repair a unit, and while they were setting up for the day’s work, a gas line on a unit next to theirs gave way, spewing butane gas in a 300-foot-wide cloud. The workers were caught in the cloud of gas. The cloud ignited. 

The 12 “lucky” men who survived are still going through the long and horribly painful recovery process that follows severe burns. They, their families, the families of the men who died, and the city of Port Arthur will never be the same. 

Occupational safety and health has been an issue in Port Arthur for as long as there have been refineries and chemical companies. Only in the last 10 years, however, has an organized and effective fight been waged for better conditions in the workplaces there. 

At the center of this fight has been the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers Union (OCAW), a 180,000-member organization that represents workers in refineries, chemical companies and atomic energy-related industries throughout the United States. The Port Arthur local, 4-23, is the largest in OCAW, with some 6,000 members. 

At the local level, much of the impetus behind the drive for better occupational health and safety has come from Larry Stefflen. Stefflen has worked for 20 years in the Texaco garage, and sometimes serves as chairman of the Texaco Group Workers Committee of Local 4-23. Local elections are held every year, and individual events or incidents are extremely important in the voting. In recent years, elections in the local have swung on victories or setbacks in the local’s efforts towards better safety and health regulations. 

The first real hope for better working conditions at the Texaco plant was born in 1970, with the signing of the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA). The past 10 years have brought many improvements, but they’ve come slowly and only after relentless effort. 

“In those early years, and up to 1977,” remembers Larry Stefflen, “our contact and work with OSHA was limited to inspections based on imminent danger complaints. We would see a door falling off a truck, or see an open gas line, or some other life-threatening situation, and call OSHA in. They would do an inspection, give the company a small citation and fine, and then leave. It amounted to OSHA slapping the company on the hand. 

“When OSHA wouldn’t do much, and when we were just getting to learn how to use the system, some of the workers were getting discouraged. They would never see any real results. Some of the workers began questioning whether it was worth going through the hassle of going out on a limb to make a complaint if the results were not going to be worthwhile.” 

A number of things came together in 1977, according to Stefflen, that changed occupational safety and health in Port Arthur. “Our local, in 1976 and 1977, began spending some money to back up our complaints. With the OSHA complaints, a local has to send witnesses, testimony; a local really has to want to follow up on a complaint to get some action. We started to do that in 1977. “Then, in March of 1977, we had the explosion on the stabilizers. This had two effects on our work. First, it was a terrible example of the dangers in our workplace. But second, it was an event for the local members to rally around.” 

In Port Arthur, only a limited number of people, even in the union, had seen occupational safety and health as a major issue. The St. Patrick’s Day explosion “was definitely the turning point for us,” says Stefflen. “We had been dealing with occupational safety and health as an issue, not as a real thing that was happening day-to-day. But when the men were caught in that cloud, and when the men died, occupational safety and health became vital. We had meetings at the hall, and where 50 people might have come before, we had hundreds. Sometimes it really does take a tragedy to get the workers aware of the dangers. It’s terrible that men had to die before health and safety became such a big issue.” 

In other places, a worker may choose to switch jobs in order to escape the working conditions. Not in Port Arthur. Because the refinery and chemical industry jobs are the only positions that offer the steady work and wages needed to raise and feed a family, workers are trapped in their jobs. The explosion at the Texaco refinery made many workers in Port Arthur feel that no one was protecting them and their lives. 

OSHA, the federal agency with responsibility for enforcing adherence to safety and health standards, is severely underfunded — its budget is less than three cents per worker — so that spending for prevention of occupational illness and injury is less than two percent of the cost of workers’ compensation payments alone. 

A bill currently in Congress would further reduce the ability of OSHA to do its job. The proposed bill, sponsored by Senator Richard Schweiker (Rep., Pennsylvania) would, in brief, eliminate random safety inspections in 90 percent of workplaces and severely limit the scope of inspections; it would also cripple the complaint process when workers attempt to receive prompt safety inspections. 

OSHA’s director, Eula Bingham, has stated that, “Under this proposal, OSHA’s presence would generally be permitted only after injury or death had occurred.” 

A study by the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers Union shows that a large proportion of U.S. oil refineries would be exempt from random safety inspections if the Schweiker OSHA bill is enacted. A severe reduction in the power of OSHA will only increase the body count. 

To many workers in Port Arthur, a further erosion of OSHA would eliminate the skimpy protection they’ve won in their workplaces. Many are already resigned to a life of work in dangerous conditions; they feel helpless and sometimes even attempt to block the situation out of their minds. 

Linda Frazier, a security guard at the Texaco plant who has served as a social worker for the Workers Assistance Program (a Texas labor-sponsored organization in the Port Arthur area), claims that workers have become “selectively blind” to conditions in the Port Arthur refineries and chemical companies. “With limited ability to change the conditions, the workers, in many cases, have chosen not to see some of the conditions. It’s the only way to go back to work every day. 

“After the explosion, attendance soared at the union meetings, but that dwindled down after a little while,” says Frazier. “You see the effects in various ways. At our program we have seen constant increases in emotional trouble, alcohol, drug abuse, marital and family problems in the past three years. And both the workers and our program believe that some of this can be traced to the changes in the Texaco workplace since the 1977 explosion.” 

Stefflen, Frazier and other union members and officials claim that Texaco has gone out of its way to harass workers since the 1977 explosion. They say the company concentrates on picky details in the safety rules, while ignoring the important issues. Says Stefflen, “Workers are supposed to wear protective glasses when they are near a machine that is running. Texaco now cites workers for a violation if they are in the shop, with no machines on, without glasses on. They told a man that even when he is taking a nap during a break he better wear his glasses.”

Stefflen says the company has also spotlighted a safety rule about beards, hoping to turn workers against OSHA and its regulations. “In order to have a proper fit of the respirator, you have to have a certain limit to facial hair. The Texaco people have used the beard standards to send men home, and the decisions about the beards have been left up to individual supervisors, rather than one standard. While everyone in the refinery is supposed to be available for fire-fighting, the office people are allowed to wear beards, and the workers in the plant can’t.” 

Regulating a man’s right to grow a beard is a touchy issue for these Texans, and there are other complaints that workers inside the plant are treated as second-class citizens. One story told frequently after the explosion: “A man who works in the office, in the front, had cancer. It was totally unrelated to working at Texaco. But the company, when he came back to work in a wheelchair, built him a special parking space, a ramp for his wheelchair and gave him easier work at the same pay.” 

“They kill eight workers and injure a dozen others with 30-year-old pipe,” one worker commented. “And what do the 20-year workers and widows get? A year at quarter pay. And then they get cut off.” 

Other workers believe that Texaco’s double standards are designed to make the plant workers feel that they are merely hired hands — hands which can be replaced. They see this as another company tactic to frighten the workers and force them to back down from their support of OSHA standards. Texaco’s harassment of rank-and-file workers sharply affects the local union leadership, too. If workers are unhappy with the extent of health and safety harassment in the plant, they can vote out of office those union leaders who call for health and safety regulations and enforcement. Anger over petty rules harassment, along with the fear they might lose their jobs, can turn workers against aggressive union leadership. 

“Texaco has started reducing the number of jobs or positions as a way of eliminating health and safety violations,” says Larry Stefflen. “For example, instead of cleaning up the paint shop to prevent workers from overexposure to fumes, Texaco has just reduced the number of painting positions. In the garage, where OSHA found a lift unsafe, Texaco eliminated the lift, subcontracted the job out of the plant, and they eliminated one worker. The workers blame the union for some of the jobs that we lost, they say we are pushing too hard for health and safety and we’re losing jobs. That doesn’t help you in a yearly local election.” 

In Port Arthur, health and safety has developed into more than an issue between workers and management. The economy of the city, the union leadership, the priorities of the workers and even the courts are involved. Widows of the men who were killed and some of the survivors of the St. Patrick’s Day explosion have filed suit against Texaco and some contractors in order to recover damages from the explosion. The widow of a man who, in a later accident, suffocated in a closed oxygen vessel has also sued. It is not easy, in a one-industry town, to sue a major employer. But a sense of community exists in Port Arthur that has enabled some workers to sue the company that their neighbors depend upon. This sense of community sometimes surfaces very dramatically. 

“When those men died,” said one wife of a Texaco worker, “we all felt it. It could have been anyone’s son, or father or brother. It was as if everyone’s relatives had died in the blast.” 

The mother of a 24-year-old man who died spoke of his friends and co-workers. “The people who called and came by made us realize how many friends we had and what they meant. All those men who had to go back in to the plant the next days, now I worry about them. If the death of my son can in some way keep it from happening to others, then all this will have come to some good.” 

There may never be another butane gas leak and explosion at the Port Arthur refinery. But there are plenty of other hazards. At a recent hearing before the Occupational Safety and Health Administration Review Commission, OCAW charged that Texaco had not provided proper working conditions and equipment for men who were handling benzene, a known carcinogen, in the dock area at the Port Arthur plant. Sworn statements by workers allege that Texaco did not provide sufficient numbers of respirators on the docks, and did not train the workers to use them properly. One worker was assigned to peer into open vats of benzene on barges to determine when the vat was filled. A co-worker recalls, “He said he was dizzy, which I could tell by his appearance. He first stuck his head over the tank and he began to get a strong smell and get dizzy. Therefore he said he would just hold his breath and make out the best he could.” 

Another man claimed that Texaco had never informed him that benzene causes cancer. (This claim was repeated by many other workers.) Said the worker, “I think the Texas company [Texaco] was wrong, very wrong, in not informing an employee that it was changing his white or red corpuscles. Had they told us, possibly we could have got something done about it. Maybe it is too late, who knows? But we are going to get some medical help some way or another. That is all I have got to say.” 

Another worker recalled, “They said we might want to put the mask (respirator) on. But I didn’t think it was important to wear the thing, nobody else had any on.” 

When questioned about instruction manuals for the few respirators that were provided, one man replied that he “might have read it, depending on how long it was and how big printing they use.” 

The OSHA Review Commission ruled in July, 1980, that the Texaco operating procedures with benzene were faulty, and that the conditions needed some correction. But, said one of the two ruling members of the commission, the violations were not serious, and the cost of changing the workplace conditions so that the men would be protected from the carcin- ogen would cost more than one million dollars. This commissioner ruled that the amount of overexposure did not warrant forcing Texaco to spend the money to protect its workers. 

According to the published record of the commission, “While affirming the citations (exposure to benzene) Judge Blythe refused to order the installation of proposed engineering controls for containing the benzene vapors. The judge found that the Secretary [of OSHA] had established the technological, but not the economic, feasibility of the proposed controls.” In other words, protecting workers from a carcinogen is not cost-effective. 

The United States Supreme Court ruled on July 2,1980, against strengthening the standard for exposure to benzene. The OSHA Review Commission ruled against making Texaco pay to ensure a safe workplace, free from carcinogens. Senator Schweiker’s amendments, as of this date, are still being brought up in the U.S. Senate. The answer to the question “Who will protect the workers?” is still unanswered. 

Workers in Port Arthur can only hope that the question will be answered soon. Those who peer into open vats of benzene, who handle benzene in their bare hands, who have no idea of what a respirator is or how it is to be worn, must continue to work under these conditions. Workers who have breathed benzene for 20 years must now wait to see the results: will they develop leukemia or other forms of cancer? 

There is, however, some reason to believe that if these workers are not better protected than their colleagues of three years ago, at least they are better informed. Larry Stefflen says that during the past three years “good strides have been made in safety and health. With the assistance of Anthony Mazzocchi [former vice president of OCAW and now its Health and Safety Director] and others in the union, we have had the backup that we needed. 

“In the past three years, workers have begun to know their rights and use them. Following the explosion, some workers have refused to do jobs they felt were dangerous.” 

The future for workers at the Texaco plant — and for Port Arthur residents in general — is fraught with both hope and danger. Will the company succeed in frightening its workers away from their demands for better health and safety provisions? Or will the workers, individually and collectively, exert their right to a safe and humane workplace?