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The Toxic Breezes

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This is nuts, and it has nothing to do with the name of the Texas county where it takes place -- Nueces (Spanish for "walnuts") County -- where the city of Corpus Christi sits.

It turns out that Corpus Christi is one of the country's most polluted cities, specifically the Latino barrios and African-American communities, where the toxic bombardment is relentless.

These communities, located in an industrial area called the Coastal Bend, include 23 refineries and chemical plants -- the country's biggest concentration of such facilities -- as well as 46 landfills, an incinerator and a car battery recycling plant.

"The refineries are the first thing you see driving into the city and the last thing you see leaving," says Danny Lucio, a 26-year-old activist and one of the founding members of the local Clean Economy Coalition. "They are the main reason why Corpus Christi is the leading city in birth defects and asthma in Texas."

Incredibly, the polluters won't take pity on the Coastal Bend and are determined to increase the residents' suffering by building a power plant that would almost double the city's toxic emissions.

The Las Brisas (Breezes) Energy Center, LLC (LBEC) -- a name as ironic as it is cruel -- would generate electricity by burning petroleum "pet" coke, a residue of oil refining.

"This one new plant would increase the city's emissions output by 82 percent, by itself more than all the refineries combined," says Lucio. "There is only a certain amount of pet coke available in the region, and once that is gone, they will burn coal."

According to health studies conducted in the Coastal Bend regarding the plant's polluting effects, it would spew 220 pounds of mercury, one of the most toxic substances known to humankind, as well as a lethal brew of pollutants that each year would cause 79 premature deaths.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, seven schools in the Coastal Bend area already rank in the top 10 percent in the U.S. for exposures to toxins and carcinogens.

But if there is something that stinks worse than pet coke or coal, it's the political scene in Corpus Christi that has opened its doors to the construction of this new monster. This includes a contract that would permit the $3-billion Las Brisas project -- which says it would only create 80 jobs -- to consume up to 7 billion gallons of water annually during one of the worst droughts in Texas history.

The mayor fell in love with the project just by attending an LBEC presentation, where there were no residents in attendance. In fact, the only thing the plant still needs to get started is an EPA permit.

This massive support, however, has ignored two non-biding decisions by the courts, which rejected approving the permits, and the equally massive opposition from the very people these politicians are supposed to represent.

"Anyone in the community you talk about this, or even refinery workers, are completely against it," says Lucio. "The medical community also opposes it," including the Texas Medical Association, which for the first time ever has refused to back a business venture.

"I do this for my family and the community," said Lucio. "I love South Texas because it is truly my home, and I want to protect it."

Ironically, the planned facility would be built close to a major wind turbine facility that is already feeding clean power into the Texas grid.

The EPA now faces the stark contrast between going for clean, renewable breezes or for the toxic fumes of Las Brisas.

Javier Sierra is a Sierra Club columnist. Follow him on Twitter @javier_sc.

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