To see how the Koch brothers’ free-market utopia operates, look no further than Corpus Christi.
by Melissa del Bosque and Jen Reel Published on Wednesday, October 24, 2012, at 9:57 CST
Until her son got sick, Latricia Jones never thought much about the air she breathes or who was polluting it. At 31, she’d spent nearly her entire life in Corpus Christi’s Hillcrest neighborhood, living next to two oil refineries, one owned by Citgo and the other by Flint Hills Resources, a subsidiary of Koch Industries, Inc. She didn’t know that Charles and David Koch—two of America’s richest men, with a combined personal fortune of $62 billion—owned the refinery two blocks from the small white house she rents in Hillcrest. The massive Flint Hills refinery, marked by smokestacks, jutting pipes and giant steel holding tanks, processes diesel, jet fuel, gasoline and industrial chemicals. The refineries release toxins into her neighborhood, including benzene, a known carcinogen; butadiene, which can cause birth defects; and sulfuric acid, which damages the lungs. For Latricia, the dirty air was like Corpus Christi’s formidable humidity—you get used to it.
But the birth of her first child, Dre’vyon, opened her eyes. One night, a month after he was born, Dre’vyon had to fight for breath. “He was coughing and vomiting. He’d try to cry but he couldn’t, his chest was so tight,” she says. Frantic, she dialed 911. After 20 minutes the ambulance still hadn’t arrived. In tears, she begged a neighbor for a ride to the emergency room. One of the first questions hospital staff asked her was whether she had health insurance. She didn’t. The second was whether she lived near the refineries. This isn’t an unusual question in Corpus Christi hospitals. The city has six oil refineries—the largest such cluster in Texas. That night the ER doctor reported that Dre’vyon had asthma. “The doctor said [refinery emissions] could be a trigger … that as long as I live near the refineries, he’ll always have the asthma attacks,” she says.
Dre’vyon is nearly 2 years old now, and Latricia is fixated on getting him out of Hillcrest, but the economics are against her. She has no car, no savings, and her job as a certified nursing assistant at a nursing home across town pays just $10.75 an hour. Dre’vyon’s chronic asthma requires close supervision. Because of the severity of Dre’vyon’s asthma attacks, his grandmother is afraid to babysit him. “She gets too panicked,” Latricia says. So Latricia cut back her hours at work to stay home. Sometimes her sister or boyfriend, Lewis, Dre’vyon’s father, will watch him so she can take the bus across town to work. For six months she lived on the south side of town, farther from the refineries and closer to her work, but the rent was double what she pays in Hillcrest. Here she can pay $400 a month for a two bedroom house with no deposit. Latricia makes just enough to pay the rent and her bills. “If I could afford it, I would move away,” she says.