Refinery Contamination

Data collected by the Environmental Protection Agency, the Texas Commission for Environmental Quality, and other regulatory bodies demonstrates that oil refining and processing facilities produce a significant amount of air and water pollution. After the establishment of the EPA in 1970, regulation increased significantly and regulatory agencies were charged with reducing oil’s environmental footprint  in Texas. Records from these agencies, along with industry statistics from the American Petroleum Institute and the Mid Continent Oil and Gas Association, can be used to understand the historic environmental impact of oil production in West Texas.

The map below demonstrates that, despite a regional low population, in 1965 West texas was a significant location of natural gas processing in Texas.

 

 

Hydrocarbon processing and refining increased significantly in West Texas after World War II. Expanded pipeline networks, improved roads, and growing urban centers made refining at the source of oil extraction a lucrative option.

The largest source of oil and natural gas processing in the Permian Basin was the Odessa Petrochemical Plant, advertised as the “largest inland petrochemical plant in the world” and located five miles southeast of Odessa, Texas. Plant construction began in 1955 and expansion projects continued through the 1970s. By 1970 the plant encompassed ten separate production facilities on two separate campuses, spread over 640 acres, and was valued at over $300 million dollars.

Below is a contemporary aerial photograph of the plant, courtesy of the Center for Land Use Interpretation.

 

 

The Odessa Petrochemical Plant was one of the largest employers in Odessa. Workers at the plant used lucrative contracts to buy homes in the city’s expanding residential neighborhoods. The map below compares the expanding Odessa city limits in relation to the Odessa Petrochemical Plant. Odessa’s original footprint hugged either side of the Texas and Pacific Railroad. The city’s downtown was located just north of the railroad. Echoing patterns of racial segregation throughout Texas, the city’s black and Latino residents lived exclusively south of the railroad tracks.

 

 

Between 1937 and 1974, the city expanded rapidly in the opposite direction of the plant. South of the railroad tracks became increasingly industrial even as it remained the only available neighborhood for nonwhite residents.

The migration of city officials, elites, and white collar workers further north reflects existing segregation. It also suggests that they did not want to live near a significant source of industrial air pollution.

Although a significant local employer, the plant also had stark environmental consequences. Internal reports from the TCEQ reveal significant air and water pollution coming from the plant. Samples taken from the nearby Monahans Draw showed elevated pollution levels. Below is a historic map, preserved on microfiche, recording the location of different machinery and chemical storage facilities within the plant.

 

The Petrochemical Complex was a significant source of city employment and a source of continued regional pride. It was depicted on postcards advertising the city of Odessa and advertising region-wide.

 

Photographs taken by Texas Water Commission inspectors paint a very different picture of the plant. They show chemical spills and a dead landscape.

 

 

The plant continued to operate until 2013, when it became a victim of globalization and was shut down. It has since been listed as a hazardous waste cleanup site by the EPA.

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