As a boy, our house was not blessed with air conditioning. Most of our neighbors’ homes were the same. Our families were mostly refinery working-hand dads and stay-at-home moms. Most of us have long since become immune to the pungent odors produced by the various industries surrounding Port Arthur. Some, however, did not.I recall many nights when smells of the “pogie” plant came drifting through our windows left open to try to stay somewhat cool. These odors were so foul smelling they literally caused people to become so sick they would throw up. It was one of the odors to which we never became accustomed. Strangers and out-of-town visitors would invariably remark on the refinery odors, to which most of our Chamber of Commerce members would simply reply, “That smells like money.” Unfortunately, the odors had more dramatic effects and represented more than simply a bad smell. My dad’s younger brother, a plant employee, fell victim in his 20s to leukemia, probably contracted while working in the benzene plant at one of the refineries. Two of my cousins would almost die because of some of the discharges of a nearby refinery that was less than five blocks from their homes. They were suffering from asthma. When seeking help from the local medical folks, they were told to live with it or move. Eventually, because of other circumstances, they did move to northern Louisiana and amazingly were never bothered with symptoms of asthma again.
Worker safety was non-existent in too many of the surrounding industries. I recall handling one case where workers were forced to do sandblasting with no protective gear whatsoever. When they began falling ill with an ailment that turned out to be silicosis, it was simply dismissed as tuberculosis and two of the workers were placed in the TB hospital in Beaumont. Another of my uncles was blown up on a unit in one of the largest refineries by being forced to continue working on the unit after the so-called safety man questioned its operational safety. At that time, in the good old fashioned justice system of Texas, it was cheaper to kill a worker than injure him badly.
The justice system then, as it was called, was tilted even more in favor of insurance carriers. When I first began practicing law, plaintiffs’ attorneys were saddled with the contributory negligence rule, which barred any recovery whatsoever if a plaintiff turned out to be negligent to any extent. In other words, if a driver was killed at an intersection by a drunk running a red light and the jury determined the victim failed to keep a proper lookout for a car coming the wrong way on a one-way street, the victim lost. Zero recovery. The same people who now claim to be tort reformers, mostly paid by insurance companies, were the same folks who lobbied against changing the contributory negligence rule.
The point of these remembrances is not to prove the old times were bad in early Port Arthur. The point is to remind us all that government can and does quite often serve useful purposes. Because of the EPA ,we are not saddled with disease bearing, obnoxious odors emanating from industry. Because of OSHA, we do have the safety police who, if operating properly, can prevent tragic mishaps in the workplace. Our justice system, although being slowly eroded, still works better now than it did in the 1950s and early ’60s. All of this makes me wonder how people can swallow the conservative line that all of these regulations are killing jobs. I’m all for jobs, but at what price? I am not for one willing to sacrifice a healthy environment for my children and grandchildren simply to get a consortium of rich folks to build another plant, and certainly I’m not willing in the name of building a Rick Perry good business environment to sacrifice my constitutional right to a jury of my peers when I have been wronged.Carl Parker has practiced law in Port Arthur since 1958. He is a 1958 graduate of the University of Texas School of Law. Elected to the Texas House of Representatives in 1962 and the Senate in 1976, Parker continued to practice law while writing and sponsoring hundreds of bills that became laws relating to every aspect of life in Texas, including many regarding consumer safety.