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Worst Welfare Recipient: Valero Corporation

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By Ethan Nuss
Photo by Bryan Parras
Pancho Claus brings holiday gifts to children living in the shadows of Valero’s Manchester Refinery.

 

It was the week before Christmas and Houston City Council was approached by an old friend seeking a meager gift for the holidays. In the spirit of the season the Council voted to give their buddies at Valero Corporation a gift-wrapped welfare tax break of $17 million dollars. Of course, the City’s magnanimous gesture wasn’t pure altruism; after all, the friendly neighborhood oil company promised to create a whopping 25 (Yes, you read that right: TWENTY-FIVE!!!) permanent jobs in exchange for the humble gift. Wow! Thats almost as many jobs as the Hard Rock Cafe down the street from City Hall.

But Valero wouldn’t have asked if they didn’t really need the money, right? I mean, how else were they going to come up with the cash to expand their eastside oil refinery in Houston’s Manchester neighborhood and boost its refining capacity by a quarter million barrels of oil a day? It was a tough year for the struggling oil giant. They only made $138 billion in profits in 2013. Come on Houston, have a heart!

Sure, you could dredge up some inconvenient facts like how the State and the City already approved a $1.6 million tax rebate for the exact same facility. Or how Valero already announced to its shareholders a year ago that they were going to expand the facility regardless of tax incentives. Or how this corporation has sued 150 Texas school districts to return millions in tax revenue to their corporate coffers instead of seeing it wasted on frivolous investments in our children’s future. But come on, every good corporation deserves a little double dipping in the holiday gravy. Tis’ the season!

Speaking of the children, what do those living next to the refinery have to say about this heartfelt $17 million gift? After all, they’re the ones who have the unique privilege of breathing seven known carcinogens from the Valero refinery and other petrochemical facilities that completely surround the Manchester neighborhood. The majority of residents I’ve interviewed expressed grave concern with the refinery’s pollution and its detrimental impact on their health and home property values. It seems like almost everyone has a family member or a neighbor sick with asthma or cancer and stricken with premature deaths. These accounts aren’t surprising considering the fact that children there suffer a childhood leukemia rate of 56% higher than their counterparts living just 10 miles away.  Fifty-six percent!

Some would say that this kind of pollution in a low income community that’s 98% Latino/a is another textbook case of environmental racism and corporate greed. Fortunately, our vigilant councilmembers were on the lookout for this kind of exploitation and raised some serious concerns about the lack of community consultation in the process. In an attempt to stay off of Santa’s naughty list, Mayor Parker and Council Member Gallegos — whose district includes Manchester — engaged in some quick political finger pointing about who dropped the ball on the community input process. Mr. Gallegos, who knew about the proposal since September and ultimately voted against it, had initially trusted Valero at its word that the community was cool with it. Fortunately, at a critical moment in the Council’s vote, two old white guys from Valero were called forth to express the communities’ views and clear up any misunderstandings. After hearing that the Valero rep had attended informal meetings with 6-12 members of the neighborhood’s pro-industry civic club, a majority of councilmembers, including C.O. “Brad” Bradford, Michael Kubosh, and Jerry Davis (to name a few), were pacified and voted 11-6 in favor of the measure. Phew! It would be a shame to let all those asthmatic Scrooges from the community ruin a lovely present.

So, on behalf of all the hard-working Houston taxpayers who struggled to put gifts under the tree this year, let’s all rejoice in wishing Valero Corp. a Happy New Year. May this $17 million present from the City be a symbol of our friendship and goodwill toward your billions in profits for the coming year. May your expanded facility process this precious glut of domestic crude and bring more pollution to poor communities here at home and to good little boys and girls across the globe. After all, who needs more money for struggling schools and social services when we’ve got a friend like Valero who has all of our best interests at heart? Happy New Year, Houston!