Dow Chemical Brought Growth, Regrets to Freeport, Texas
Jan. 19FREEPORT, Texas James Seidler's family tree is one of the few in this small coastal town with deeper roots than Dow Chemical, a company that has dominated the pancake-flat horizon, and a lot else here, since the 1940s.
Seidler has seen Freeport with and without Dow, and after 76 years of living here, he says the city would have been better off without the company.
"I was so glad when I heard Dow was coming here, because I thought there would be more kids to play with," said Seidler, who was born in 1928, when Freeport consisted of a few streets in a mosquito-filled marsh.
Dow gave Seidler one of his first jobs, working in the company's cafeteria during summer breaks in high school. After stints in the Navy and Coast Guard, he worked for a time on the plant's painting crew. But Seidler grew suspicious of the company as more and more people along his street began to die of cancer, and the company's pollution, he says, began to take its toll on nearby water and the air.
While the water has gotten cleaner, the air still smells like chemicals whenever the wind blows from the north.
"I regretted it later," he said of the company's arrival. "There's a lot of things over there that make your health bad, I know that. Far as I know, back when I was a kid you didn't have those chemical plants. Now there are chemical plants all over."
In a place that likely would have sunk into the muck without the economic underpinning of Dow, and where the company is omnipresent, even in the street names the plants' entrances are on Chlorine and Glycol roads Seidler represents a slow but steady sea change in the tide of public opinion in company towns up and down the Texas coast.
No longer do chemical plants and refineries provide the only jobs in town. Rising energy costs have forced the companies to cut jobs and crimped their contributions to local communities.
Fueled in part by increasing awareness of the environmental and health risks plants can pose, residents have begun to question the companies' legacy something that would have been unthinkable years ago.
"People say, 'What would we do without Dow?' I always say, 'What would Dow do without us?' " said O.D. Kenemore, who moved to Freeport in 1951 to take a job with the company and became one of the company's most vocal critics.
Kenemore worked for Dow for 22 years, leading its workers union and starting the Citizens' Survival Committee in the early 1970s to clean up the polluted Brazos River.
Recently, he assisted several Freeport residents who filed a lawsuit against the company over groundwater contamination. Kenemore, 77, spoke to the Chronicle before his death from cancer last fall.
"There was a time when I couldn't say a bad word about Dow on the streets of Lake Jackson without getting bumped off," he said. "Now, if I say a good word about Dow, I could get bumped off. Dow doesn't have a good reputation around here anymore."
A company spokesman said such opinions do not reflect the community at large.
In an opinion survey conducted for Dow in 2002 by a private pollster, 85 percent of 600 people queried in nine towns in the surrounding area, including Lake Jackson, Clute and Angleton, said they had a favorable opinion of the company. That rating was up 25 percentage points from 1998.
Still, the company says, some people wish it could do more.
"We hear from people from time to time that wish it was like in what they refer to as 'the good ole days' when Dow sponsored every event in the area, gave money to every organization in the area and so on," spokesman David Winder said in a written statement. "Because we are not able to do that anymore because our financial situation has changed, some people believe we've turned our backs on this community which is not true."
Winder cited recent contributions to Brazosport Memorial Hospital and the Brazoria County Association for Citizens with Handicaps. A total of 19 nonprofit groups split $200,000 in grants this year alone, he said.
"We are still proud to support this community when and where we can," Winder said.
The Dow Web site describes Freeport before the company arrived as "a small village in the middle of marshland with little to offer in facilities and services." Back then, it was surrounded by wetlands, with a couple of hundred residents and four downtown streets.
But Freeport offered Dow a location with access to water transportation and plentiful magnesium (which it extracted from seawater to produce magnesium oxide, used to fabricate steel for World War II airplanes). Freeport was also close to low-cost natural gas.
Nowadays, the city covers 18 square miles and is home to 13,000 people, many of whom are part of Dow's 4,600-employee work force.
The company and its employees contribute hundreds of millions of dollars to the local economy. Dow is predicted to provide 41 percent of this year's budget for the local United Way, for example.
"They've really made a significant investment in the community," said Stephanie Cone, executive director of United Way of Brazoria County.
With the jobs and money, however, came pollution. In 2002, Dow's Freeport facility ranked 39th out of the 1,062 companies in Texas that reported releasing hazardous air pollutants. That year, the company said, its sprawling complex emitted 640,640 pounds of the chemicals.
In 2003, the facility was second-worst in the Houston area for pollution coming from accidental releases.
These so-called upsets have prompted a nearby day-care center, where the director says several of the staff have gotten sick, to begin negotiations with the company for a change in location. The day care receives 14 percent of its funding from the United Way.
Still, some residents say the good outweighs the bad.
"If it weren't for the chemical plants, the only thing that would be here is the port, American Rice and the shrimping industry, if that survives," said Wallace Tippen, who retired from Dow this year and remains one of the company's defenders.
"Whenever you have industry and people living in an area, it's a trade-off."
But even the company jobs have been disappearing of late.
Modernization, increased use of contract workers and a global reorganization in 2001 and 2002 in response to volatile energy prices have halved the Dow work force in the past 20 years, according to the company. In July, the plant Dow Texas Operations, the largest Dow chemical plant in the world announced it would eliminate 200 to 225 jobs, about 4 percent of its work force.
"If the demand for the product lessens, then sometimes the decision is made and unfortunately people lose their jobs," the company said in a written statement.
Freeport Mayor James Barnett said layoffs have made people feel the company is turning its back on them.
"There was a time, not too many years ago, when you worked at the plant for your whole working life," Barnett said. "Here in recent times... a lot of people that have been with Dow a long time, suddenly they are finding themselves replaced or faced with retirement."
Working at the plant, he added, is "viewed as a devalued service."
NEIGHBORHOOD FOCUS: FREEPORT
Primary ZIP code: 77541
Most prevalent ethnicity: Anglo, 48 percent
Percent with high school education or above: 36
Median household income: $33,993
Number of large facilities emitting toxics in vicinity: 13
Total pounds of toxic air pollution, 2002: 2,536,043
Total number of accidental releases from major facilities, Jan. 31-Dec. 31, 2003: 91
Pounds of air pollution from accidents, same time frame: 1,045,891
Sources: Toxics Release Inventory; Texas Commission on Environmental Quality's Air Emission Event Report Database; U.S. Census
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© 2005, Houston Chronicle. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News.