The Center for Land Use Interpretation Newsletter

A Tour of Houston’s Water and Oil


This spring the CLUI led a public boat and bus tour through the petrochemical artery of Texas. The tour, entitled Downstream: A Tour of Houston’s Water and Oil, took place twice, on March 20 and March 21, 2009.

THE TOUR WAS ABOUT HOUSTON, as oil city, and Bayou city; its past, its port, its drainage, and its existence as the epicenter of the World of Oil. The tour was about how the history and infrastructure of the city’s water preceeds and supports the economy of petrochemicals: how oil floats on water. It combined a water journey, downstream, on the city’s primary drainage corridor, with a land journey, by bus, snaking through the petrochemical production zones that are clustered along the south side of the bayou, the downstream end of the oil industry. Down on the water, and up on the land, fueled by oil—the product that made the modern city of Houston.

The journey was historic for other reasons too. It was the first public tour—in a long time and possibly ever—to travel the length of the Buffalo Bayou from downtown Houston, to its confluence with the San Jacinto River, traversing the entirety of the Buffalo Bayou portion of the Houston Ship Channel. Security measures along the Ship Channel, one of the world’s largest petrochemical ports, prevent casual visitation, and restrict public access. Permission for the group’s tour boat to pass was obtained only after months of negotiations with local officials and the Coast Guard.

The route connected two historic anchors of the region, Allen’s Landing, where the tour boat departed, and the San Jacinto monument, where the boat landed, three hours later. Both these sites are regional loci, moored in 1836, when the Allen brothers established the city of Houston at the landing that now bears their name, and when the 18 minute long battle of San Jacinto took place, at the other end of the bayou, winning Texas from Mexico.

Traveling down the bayou, we also also moved through levels of scale, from the local and municipal, to the regional, statewide, and international, mirroring the rise of Houston from a southern cotton town, to global oil titan. Temporally, from the historic core, we move backwards—from the beginning, to the present.

Houston tour boat

CLUI photo
The chartered tourboat, called the “Houston Party Boat,” arrived to pick up passengers at Allen’s Landing, the historic core of Houston, in the shadow of the county jail. Based out of Kemah, the boat normally plies the corporate and wedding party trade in the open waters of San Jacinto Bay, far beyond the Ship Channel and Houston. This tour was the first time a commercial tour boat came up the Bayou, maybe ever. CLUI photo

Point of Embarkation
The tour began with people boarding the Houston Party Boat, which had been chartered for the event. A 50-passenger pontoon vessel, the Houston Party Boat was the largest tour boat that could be found in the water within 100 miles, with a small draft, capable of navigating the shallow and debris-strewn waters of the upper bayou.

“Captain Jim” let people on board one at time, checking names off a passenger list that had been submitted to and cleared by the Coast Guard, the week before. On departure, the tour guide, Matthew Coolidge, of the CLUI, welcomed the group, and began the narration.

They call Allen’s Landing the “Plymouth Rock” of Houston. Like most river cities, Houston began at a confluence, where one river flows into another (in this case White Oak Bayou, flowing into Buffalo Bayou). It was here, in 1836, where the Allen Brothers laid out a grid and started selling 50 foot by 100 foot lots, for $25. They had just purchased the land, 6,000 acres, for less than a dollar an acre. The lots sold, and the city grew, replacing the more established community of Harrisburg, 6 miles downstream, which had been burned the previous year by the Mexicans.

Though this historic core has been recognized as such by the City, which rebuilt the landing as a park some years ago (which enabled our tour boat to land), development has historically turned its back on the area—many of the old warehouses surrounding the historic turning basin at the confluence have been turned into jails. The Harris County sheriff’s department (third largest in the nation), maintains beds for 10,000 prisoners in three adjacent buildings overlooking the Bayou here. We imagine the prisoners watching through the slitted windows, as we escape downstream.

Passing under the prison bridges of downtown, we transcend interpretive layers, launching from the historic progenerative interpretive site, surrounded by public art, plunging into the midst of the unmarked perils of the present, going with the flow down the dirtiest river in Texas.

Houston is all about watershed. It is flat, and much of it a drained swamp. Getting the water off the land, so it could be developed, meant shedding it of water—making the landscape dry, meant intensifying the waterscape. The drainage corridors that condense and move the billowing rains that douse the area are now engineered superhighways for shedded water, under ideal conditions.

The Bayou of the Bayou City
The Buffalo Bayou is the trunk line for the city’s drainage, capturing the flow from several other major bayou watersheds (Brays, White Oak, and Sims, to name a few). For over 300 square miles of hardscape—parking lots, streets, highways, and roofs—Buffalo Bayou is the only way out.

The Bayou technically begins twenty miles west of downtown, in the suburban prairies near Katy. From there the bayou flows to the “energy corridor” along Interstate 10, where so many of the major oil companies have their corporate offices, and it enters one of the largest rain runoff holding structures in the nation, the Addicks Reservoir. On the opposite side of the Interstate is the Barker Reservoir, a similar dammed retention area, containing the sacrificial lands of George Bush Park. The Interstate energy corridor is a narrow isthmus hemmed in by these regional catchment basins. As the water flowing overland into the city is captured, the corporations escape to the suburbs through the narrowed gap.

The federal government paid for much of these extreme flood control structures following a particularly disastrous flood in 1935. And they have been fairly effective, with notable exceptions in 2001 (tropical storm Allison) and last year’s Hurricane Ike. During both of these, the water level of Buffalo Bayou was more than 20 feet above normal levels, high enough to flood several buildings downtown.

The Sunset Coffee Company building, former psychedelic club called the “love street light circus and feel good machine,” future Bayou visitor contact station, and occasional island (seen here after Hurricane Ike in 2008.)

CLUI photo
The Sunset Coffee Company building, former psychedelic club called the “love street light circus and feel good machine,” future Bayou visitor contact station, and occasional island (seen here after Hurricane Ike in 2008.) CLUI photo

One of these buildings, the former Sunset Coffee Company building, is a battered, green, brick hulk right in the middle of the Landing. During these storm events, it was a flooded island. The building, which many a Houstonian has fantasized about turning into loft space, is currently owned by the Buffalo Bayou Partnership, which plans, someday, on turning it into their offices and the visitor center and access point for the Bayou, where people can get information about the Bayou and its recreational offerings, rent kayaks, and buy maybe coffee, too.

The Sunset Coffee Company Building is an emblem of one aspiration for the land and buildings along the upper bayou: redeveloped post-industrial, part of a retooled recreational residential inner city. Some lofts and townhomes have taken root in the area. It is also a reminder of the international port which looms a few miles to the east, where proximity to Mexico, and Central and South America brings commodities like coffee through this city first, and in large quantities.

Cotton was of course the main commodity for Houston for the 19th and early 20th century, not just the fluffy part, but cottonseed, and the oil it contains. The port was along the upper bayou, where rail met the water. The bayou at that time was dredged to 9 feet, and continued to be developed eastward, as downtown densified. After the 1900 hurricane in Galveston, Houston became the region’s inland port, and by 1915, the bayou was dredged to a depth of 25 feet. Industry thrived, and the oil refineries began appearing. But the deep dredging stopped at the end of the newly created Ship Channel, further downstream. This, the upper industrialized bayou, began its transition into an early 20th century relic.

Caroline Street water outfall, Houston

CLUI photo
The Caroline Street waterfall. CLUI photo

Onward, Downstream 
The tour flows out of downtown, and passes a Euclidean waterfall otherwise known as the Caroline Street Gully. This was once a natural ravine, that became a drainage gully, and was eventually filled in to create level land, and become a submerged storm drain, with geometric pipes to move the storm water to this outfall. The Bayou here is a chaotic gouge through the city, providing a cross sectional cut where layers of time and infrastructure are exposed. The shores here have high walls, that in storms accommodate rushing water.

Unlike the other bayous of the city, which were straightened and recontoured to move more water, faster, the Buffalo Bayou downstream of downtown, was allowed to run a little more wild. Partially, at least, because this was a less affluent part of Houston, with industries and immigrants. The sides of the Bayou crumble on the outer curves, undermining asphalt, exposing layers, like buried railroad beds.

The convergence of layers of the city reach the point of poetry at a bend in the Bayou a mile downstream from Allen’s Landing, at a place called Frosttown. The name comes from a small community that predates Houston (it was here that the Allen brothers stayed when they were buying the land that would become Houston). Next to Frosttown is the abandoned Houston Belt and Terminal Railway Bridge, a lift bridge built in 1912, representing Houston’s period as booming cotton and rail center. The curious thing about this lift bridge is that it is stuck tucked underneath the highway 59 flyover, never to rise again (its massive concrete cantilever counterweight lopped off, and placed out of the way on the shore). This represents the postwar, modern Houston, the 1950s flight out of the city and into the suburbs, via one of the most systematically designed freeway networks in the world. On the shore, on Nance Street, a large nondescript building houses switching equipment for one of the main electronic networks in the city, operated by Level 3 Communications. All these stratigraphic temporal layers visible from one point on the bayou, itself the waterway that created the city, and keeps it drained, to the extent possible.

On shore, the tour passes James Bute Park, much of which covers the 15 acres of undevelopable land under the freeway, where the missionaries come to feed and proselytize to the legions of homeless that collect at this forgotten corner of the city. The best way to a person’s soul, they say, is through their stomach.

By the 1950s, the bridges over the bayou were not required to lift, as little commercial traffic came up this far. One of the few remnants of large scale industry on this part of the bayou is a concrete grain silo, now owned by the Buffalo Bayou Partnership, another future park, connected to the sporadic bike trail that is growing along the edge of the bayou. The bayou by now is leaving the zone of the potential condo, and is entering into a medium industry zone. On the shores are contaminated industrial grounds, plating companies, former metal fabrications shops, warehouses being torn down to become brownfields.

Then, KBR looms. Though not the headquarters for the company (that is downtown), nor the largest industrial site for them (that’s in the suburbs), this facility, a ten story office tower surrounded by engineering sheds and parking lots, was once one of their primary engineering sites, and it is still very much in use. KBR (formerly known as Kellogg, Brown and Root) is a legendary international construction, engineering, and infrastructure company, focusing on oil, energy, natural gas, and military contracts. It was formed by the integration of Brown and Root, a road building company that grew into a diversified construction company as a subsidiary of Halliburton over 44 years, and the MW Kellogg Company, a construction and engineering company specializing in refineries and power plants. In 2007, KBR became independent of Halliburton. It is still headquartered in Houston, and employs 50,000 people around the world.

Across from KBR, a little further donwnstream, another Buffalo Bayou Partnership-owned site, the former junk yard where the CLUI has its field office. This is also the location where trash that floats down the bayou is collected. The Mighty Tidy skimmer boat (painted pink by the local artist team The Art Guys), which used to ply the Bayou, scooping floating trash into its arms, sank in Hurricane Ike, and is unlikely to be put back online. Another vessel, a giant floating vacuum cleaner, is taking its place.

Every time it rains, floating cups, water bottles, basketballs, and nearly any other thing you can imagine that floats comes down the Bayou, sometimes in thick rafts, catching along the stubble of its banks. The clean up crews of the Buffalo Bayou Partnership, with the help of county misdemeanarians doing community service, have floating booms tethered and moored at strategic points to trap the debris, which is then collected by hand, rake, or by the floating vacuum cleaner boat. A conveyor, painted pink like its deceased partner, the Mighty Tidy, lifts the collected trash from the water, over the bulkhead, to dumpsters on shore.

Directly across from this site is the most upstream, in-use heavy industry site on the Bayou, a busy metal scrapyard operated by Proler Southwest. The site is a cacophony of grinding, dumping, shearing, baling, and torching.

This site was started in the 1940s by the Proler family, who still operate a smaller site next door. Proler is a big name in American scrap. They invented the Prolerizer, a type of car shredder widely used in the industry. The main yard here, Proler Southwest, is now owned by Metal Management Incorporated, the largest metal recycler in the country. Formed by the merger of many “mom and pop” scrap companies, and the international scrap company SIMS, Metals Management is based in Chicago, and has operations in 14 states.

Since steel has little structural memory, the material is easily recycled. Around 2/3 of the steel made in the USA is from recycled stock. Scrap from yards like this is shipped all over the country, to “mini-mills” that melt it to make more steel. Much of the scrap metal in the USA goes to China, and used in their construction industry as rebar, floor decking, and beams. China is being built on the ruins of America, at least to some degree.

Floating further down, we pass a closed down sewage plant, and go under the bridge for Lockwood Road. The rectileanear and circular ponds of the plant are green with scum, and overgrown. Light industry intensifies in the neighborhoods on shore. Companies making scaffolding, saws, electrical supplies, cable. Then the silos and piles of Southern Crushed Concrete, which grinds up Houston’s demolished building parts, making aggregate for more buildings. More industrial scale recycling, churning, digesting.

Turkey Bend is a former oxbow that was cut off to shorten and straighten the channel. Down the bend, more industrial and metal working, including a major site for Baker Oil Tools, though the plant is shrinking, and many of its 1960s art deco buildings along Navigation Boulevard are for lease with broken windows, as the company continues to join its brethren in the suburbs, and overseas. Baker Tools is part of Baker Hughes, one of the largest oil services companies in the world, focusing primarily on drilling technology. An accretion of related companies, the brand’s history includes the Baker International Corporation, which has roots back to well drilling tools in California, and the Hughes Tool Company of Houston, run by billionaire Howard Hughes’ father. Today the company still makes the industry-standard tricone drill bits used all over the world, and provides a variety of well development, monitoring, evaluation, and service technologies, employing over 30,000 people worldwide, and generating over $10billion in revenue in 2007.

The strange building looming on the left looks like a huge vent, which in fact it is. This is the sewage sludge drying plant for the 69th Street water treatment plant, the largest sewage plant for Houston, and one of five. A 12-foot diameter trunk line feeds to the plant, and the solids that remain after the water has been treated is processed here and distributed as organic fertilizer called Hou-Actinite. It is not unusual for cities to sell dried sewage sludge as fertilizer, but Houston has sold dried sludge for this purpose since 1930, apparently a pioneer in the field.

Then we pass the rest of the sewage plant, the big circular sedimentation tanks and rectangular aeration tanks, and the odor becomes strong. The outfall is mostly submerged, but the top of the pipe emerging from a bulkhead on the side of the plant is visible, and bubbling away. This is where most of the liquid waste from the city flows out of the network of pipes and plumbing, back into the world. Some say this is the cleanest part of the bayou—as the water entering the stream here, this mechanical tributary, is treated.

We pass under the Wayside Avenue Bridge, and make a final bend in this upstream part of the Bayou, passing Buffalo Bend Nature Park, another property owned by the Buffalo Bayou Partnership, where the land is being graded into terraces that trap the water as it flows overland and into the Bayou, reducing the pollution caused by surface runoff, and allowing the land to serve as a filter. This park is a model for other park-like development along the bayou, a passive water treatment system, which will help improve water quality, over time.Passing under a railroad swing bridge festooned with cameras, we enter into another realm: The Ship Channel.

The Houston Ship Channel
Captain Jim, who did much of the negotiating with the Coast Guard to get us here, and as the captain, is responsible for compliance, gets on the PA to explain what is happening: We are entering a security zone. In order to let us be here, the Coast Guard requires that we do not take any photographs. They will be watching us, from a network of cameras along the ship channel. They may board the boat and ask everyone for ID. This will be the situation for most of the rest of the journey, and he will let us know when we can take our cameras out again. Suddenly we feel like guiltless suspects

We are in the turning basin, the upstream end of the fully industrial ship channel portion of Buffalo Bayou. If it ever did look like a bayou, it certainly doesn’t now. The sides are all berths and bulkheads, and busy port space. On the left is the Port of Houston Pavilion, where the port’s tour boat, the Sam Houston, docks. The Sam Houston was built in 1958 at Platzers shipyard, on the Ship Channel, as an “inspection boat” to show visiting dignitaries the port. It evolved into a public tour boat, operated by the port, and is the way most people get a sense of the Port of Houston and the Ship Channel. The tours are free, and over a million people have been on board. But the Sam Houston trip is just an hour long and covers just a third of the Ship Channel. And the speil is the official presentation of the port.

On the other side of the turning basin are chemical tanks, holding material generally created locally, to be loaded onto chemical tanker ships. Tank farms operated by Jacob Stein and Sons, Westway Terminals, and Global. A chemical tanker is docked, and its escape pod vessel is mounted poised, pointing down a chute on the stern, ready to plunge into the water in an emergency. This part of the channel though is mostly freight and bulk materials, non-petrochemical goods handled with warehouses and stevedores, a part of the port where people can still be seen operating forklifts and cranes. This, the Turning Basin Terminal area, is lined with 2.5 miles of warehouses, and 3 dozen docks.

The Port of Houston is one of the busiest ports in the country, and has more ships in it at any given time that any other, due to the large number of smaller chemical tankers and freighters that come and go. Unlike other ports, the Ship Channel handles very little containerized cargo, with the massive ships associated with that form of freight (the port does handle container ships, but mostly at two other locations, outside the Ship Channel, at Barbours Cut and Bayport). 6,400 ships come through port every year, and 200,000 barges. It is the largest port in foreign water-borne cargo in the country, meaning that it ships more goods out internationally than any other port. And 75% of that is petrochemicals, produced in the region, the largest petrochemical production zone in the nation. And we are not even there yet.

The bulk freighters at this upstream part of the port are headed to and from China, Europe, the Middle East, Asia, and Africa, though many are labeled as being Bahaman, Antiguan, and Liberian. They fly the “flags of convenience,” like most of the merchant ships in the world, registered with nations which are not where owners are based, or where the traffic flows. This “open registry” system, developed largely by US businessmen after World War II, enables companies operating ships to register them in nations where fees are reduced, taxes evaded, union laws lax, and policies streamlined. Much cheaper and easier than registering in Europe or the United States, with their rules, fees, and taxes.

We pass a group of large gray freighters, the Cape Texas, Cape Trinity, and Cape Taylor, all registered at Norfolk, VA. These are Navy ships, part of the Ready Reserve Force fleet of 51 ships, deployed mostly at civilian ports around the nation, ready to support the deployment of military forces. 35 of these ships, including these three based at the Port of Houston, are “Roll on Roll off” ships, with big ramps that quickly connect to the shore, for driving fully loaded trucks, tanks, or other vehicles on and off. They are all staffed with a Navy crew, ready to go in either a 5 or 10 day period of readiness.

Ready Reserve Fleet ship, pointing down the Ship Channel.

CLUI photo
Ready Reserve Fleet ship, pointing down the Ship Channel. CLUI photo

We pass the silos of Gulf Coast Portland Cement, and the epic scrap metal yard Derichebourg Recycling USA (formerly CFF), where school buses can be seen piled higgledy-piggledy in a twisted piles of scrap headed to the shredder. We are abreast of the town of Harrisburg, the historic town that preceded Houston, and which was sacked by Santa Ana in 1835, spurring the establishment of Houston at Allen’s Landing the next year. Harrisburg was established at the confluence of Buffalo and Brays Bayous, and though little remains of the original town, it still feels like a separate community.

Brady Island formed at the site where Brays Bayou enters the ship channel. The island is connected to the shore, and is covered and surrounded by shipyards and drydocks, for Buffalo Marine and Houston Ship Repair, making and fixing ferries, fuel barges, tugs, and other small industrial vessels, but mostly petrochemical barges. Also on Brady Island is the white-tablecloth buffet restaurant, Brady’s Landing, the only restaurant on the Bayou portion of the Channel, and one of the few places where the public can approach the shore. From the glass walls of Brady’s Landing diners can watch the cargo ships from Germany unload Volkswagens into the company’s storage lots across the Bayou.

Next to Brady Island is the port for the Rhodia plant, the first of the petrochemical plants downstream from downtown. Visible with two thin red and white stacks, Rhodia Eco Services Houston Plant is a major producer of sulfur dioxide and sulfuric acid. It is owned by Rhodia Eco Services, one of three sites in the area operated by the company. Rhodia is a leading maker of sulfuric acid and specialty phosphates. It is a French company, spun out of Rhone-Poulenc in 1998. The company’s plants are often located near refineries, as sulfuric acid is used to make gasoline. It is also used in batteries, paper bleaching, and numerous other industrial applications.

Next to the plant is the Glendale Cemetery. As land developed for the petrochemical and port functions, cemeteries were often left as small pockets of undisturbed land, for obvious reasons. They have ended up as historical holes of greenery, surrounded by hyper-industry. Then, the Lone Star Scrap metal yard, at the base of the 610 bridge, which carries the east side of the inner loop that rings the city of Houston.

Between the Loops
Houston is like a target, with its downtown core at the middle of two concentric circles, the inner loop (highway 610) and the outer loop (Highway 8, the Sam Houston Tollway). The rings can be used like graduations, measuring the distance from the core. The radius of the inner loop is around 6 miles, and the outer about 13. The Sydney Sherman Bridge carries the inner loop over the ship channel—we are 6 miles out. The bottom of the deck is 135 feet above the water, according to the vertical graduations on one of the piers of the bridge. We are calibrated. And entering the petrochemical zone.

On the south bank, after the bridge, a chemical tank farm, mostly operated by Westway Terminals. Many small tanks, and curious smells. The smaller the tanks in the farm, the more diversity and complexity in the chemicals stored there. On the north bank next to the bridge are loading and logistics yards for engineered products, like propellers for wind farms, tubes and steel. Beyond that on shore the largest of the dredge spoil piles, piped slurry pumping mud from the bottom of the channel to rectilinear no man’s land mounds next to highways, to constantly keep the channel’s depth at 35 feet or more.

Then the fractionator and flare towers of the first refinery: Valero Houston. With a throughput of 140,000 barrels of oil per day, this is considered a midsize oil refinery. It produces gasoline, diesel, kerosene, asphalt, jet fuel, sulfur, fuel oil and liquefied petroleum gas, employing approximately 300 people, on 250 acres. It was one of the refineries in the area built during World War II, in 1942, and has grown since then, changing hands often. Its current owner, Valero, bought it from Basis Petroleum in 1997. Valero, based in San Antonio, Texas, has grown rapidly through acquisitions, and is now one of the largest refining and gasoline marketing companies in the country, with twelve refineries and hundreds of gas stations.

Across the channel from Valero, at the top of a bend in the bayou, is the headquarters for the local Coast Guard and the office of the Captain of the Port (currently Coast Guard Capt. William Diehl holds this position). This is the security and port authority control center for the Ship Channel. The dozens of steerable cameras on towers along the port feed their signal to this building, where Coast Guard officers watch a bank of monitors and communicate with ships coming and going. The building is topped with a tower, which looks a bit like an oil derrick, but is for cameras and antennas. On shore is a boathouse for the fleet of small coast guard vessels, mostly the 25-foot Defender Class response boats that are now common sights at America’s ports. These boats were designed, built, and procured as a direct response to the September 11 terrorist attacks, to be the security workhorses for the nation’s harbors. They are small, agile, and fast, with twin 225 horsepower outboards, and machine guns fore and aft. Over 500 of them have been deployed since 9/11, from an order of 700 placed with the manufacturer, SAFE Boats International, of Port Orchard, Washington. As we pass, one leaves the boat house and follows us on our port side for a few miles, making sure we are behaving.

Beyond the Coast Guard we pass a corn syrup terminal, operated by Cargill, with a loading boom hanging over the water’s edge like a poised soda straw, then a large metalworking shed. U.S. Steel used to operate the site, but it is now owned by O’Neal, a large family-owned metal fabrication company. Next to that are the twin storage domes of the Houston Cement Company’s West Terminal, adjacent to another cement company, Holcim, a Swiss cement and aggregates company, with operations all over the world. Next to that the two drilling rigs rising up behind the cement plants indicate the National Oilwell Varco (NOV) company yard on Clinton Drive. NOV, based in Houston, is one of the largest suppliers of oil field equipment in the world, and has dozens of sites around Houston.

On the south bank we pass the Manchester Terminal, one of the biggest enclosed warehouse spaces on the port, with over a million square feet indoors. Sims Bayou enters the Ship Channel next to the terminal, adding the drainage of most of the south side of Houston to the soup.

On the north bank, U.S. Gypsum’s Galena Park Plant, which has supplied the region with gypsum for wallboard since 1958. U.S. Gypsum has nearly half of the national market for wallboard, operating 10 mines and 20 plants in the USA. Next to U.S. Gypsum’s shed is another looming storage structure, Public Elevator No 2, a concrete and steel silo used for wheat. It is owned by the port, and leased to Harvest States Milling. It has a capacity of 6 million bushels storage, equivalent to over 6,500 truckloads.

The grain elevator fronts on the Lyondell Turning Basin, a widened part of the channel allowing ships to turn around after loading up at the Lyondell Houston Refinery. This refinery has a capacity of 265,000 barrels per day of high sulfur crude, covers 700 acres, and employs over 1,000 people. It makes the usual list of fuels; gasoline, diesel, jet fuel, as well as lubricants, coke, and chemicals. It was one of the first refineries built in the region, in 1918, and was operated by Sinclair. It was later bought by ARCO, then became part of the original assets of the Lyondell Chemical Company, when the company was established as a spin-off of ARCO in 1985. The plant was operated jointly with the Venezuelan company CITGO from 1993 to 2006, but is now operated solely by the Houston Refining LP subsidiary of Lyondell. Lyondell, based in Houston, is one of the major chemical companies in the nation. It became part of a larger company in 2007, when it was acquired by the Dutch company Basell, becoming LyondellBasell, with 19 plants in the USA, 9 of them in Texas.

Following the loading rack for Lyondell, where a battery of hoses faces the water, each capable of handling a separate product, the tall stack of the Deepwater Power Plant comes into view. The plant is a major local supplier of electricity, operated by AES, an international energy and electric company, with around 25 plants in the USA. Deepwater uses petroleum coke, produced at local refineries, as a fuel. Two sets of high tension lines cross the channel here, heading north over the tank farms on the north bank. One of these tank farms is Kinder Morgan’s Galena Park Terminal, a major hub for regional pipelines, pipelines that cross back and forth under the waters of the Ship Channel. Shell Lubricants operates a facility next to the terminal, on Clinton Drive, and a new tank farm for biofuels opened here, operated by Green Earth Fuels, and integrated into the distribution network at Galena Park.

On the southern bank we pass where Vince Bayou flows into the channel, generally unnoticed, next to the Gulf Coast Waste water treatment plant, another effluent. Next to the plant is the Crown Hill Graveyard, another island of history, surrounded by industry. The graveyard is sometimes closed due to illegal digging. Next to the wastewater plant too is the factory for the Pasadena Paper Company, making paper on the channel. Beyond it is another rare point of public access along the channel, a historic site next to the parking lot for the paper plant.

It was here—or near here, really—where Santa Ana, the president of Mexico, and the leader of the forces at war with Texas, was captured in 1836, the day after the nearby Battle of San Jacinto. He had fled the battleground disguised in a privates uniform, and apparently was not identified until he was brought back to the battleground by his captors, whereupon wounded Mexican soldiers recognized him and saluted him as “El Presidente.” This, according to the text engraved on a lonely granite monument, another island of history on the busy Ship Channel.

Santa Ana capture site and Pasadena Refinery coke dock

CLUI photo
Santa Ana capture site and Pasadena Refinery coke dock. CLUI photo

Across from the grassy shore at the monument is the concrete silo of the Houston Cement Company’s East Plant, and behind that, less visible, the City of Houston’s East Water Purification Plant, in Galena Park. As we travel downstream, we cross over the Washburn Tunnel, invisible beneath the sediments of the Ship Channel. The tunnel is for cars, and connects the two sides of the channel, emerging at roundabout on either sides. It opened in 1950, and with a 12 foot clearance, is too small for commercial traffic. Manned booths at either end of the tunnel watch the traffic come and go, making sure nothing too large slips by.

The Washburn Tunnel is another point of transition along the Ship Channel. Downstream the landscape opens up and intensifies, shifting scale even larger again. It is here where the port’s tour boat, the Sam Houston, turns around, and heads back to the pavilion. We, however, continue on, towards the San Jacinto Battlegrounds. The major petrochemical plants are still ahead.

Washburn Tunnel to Outer Loop
From this point on, heading downstream, the Ship Channel’s land uses are mostly petrochemical. We enter the core of the largest petrochemical complex in the USA. There are seven refineries along the Ship Channel, two of which we have already passed, and ten major petrochemical plants. Just beyond the battleground, where the Bayou transitions into the San Jacinto River, are another half dozen petrochemical plants, and the nation’s largest refinery, Exxon Baytown. Add to this the refinery zone at Texas City, a few miles further down San Jacinto Bay, and the refining capacity of the area equals about 1/8 of the nation’s refining capacity. Extend the area further, to include the upper half of the Gulf Coast of Texas, and the region refines a quarter of the nation’s crude, and produces more than half of the nation’s petrochemical base materials for plastics and chemicals.

The USA consumes 20 million barrels of oil per day. Of that it produces 8, and imports 12, and refines all. The nation has more refining capacity than any other. There are 150 refineries in USA (including the small ones, like one in Nevada’s remote Railroad Valley that handles less than 2,000 barrels per day). 26 of them are in Texas, which has a total refining capacity of around 5 million barrels per day. Louisiana is next, with 16 refineries and a 3 million barrel per day capacity, followed by California with just over 2 million barrels per day capacity, slightly less than the 2,150,000 barrels per day capacity of the Houston Ship Channel. Only a handful of countries are capable of processing considerably more crude than the Ship Channel, among them Germany, Russia, and Japan (though several nations are in the ballpark, such as France, Brazil, and Canada). Saudi Arabia, with more oil than any other country by far, has only six refineries, processing 1,750,000 barrels per day.

As we pass over the submerged tunnel, we encounter the black coke piles from the Pasadena Refining Company refinery, a medium sized refinery in Pasadena. The Pasadena Refining System Inc. owns this 120,000 barrel per day capacity plant, which it recently purchased from the Crown Central Petroleum Company. It is operated by Astra Holding USA, which is itself a division of the Belgian company Transcor International, under a partnership with Petrobras, the Brazilian federal energy company. Petrochemicals are truly a global industry.

Next to the refinery is a major tank farm, Kinder Morgan Pasadena, one of a few in the area owned by the company. The terminal is part of this distribution hub for the entire Gulf Coast area, and is connected the area’s plants via 21 inbound pipeline connections, and 20 outbound. The tanks on site can hold 22 million barrels of refined products.

Kinder Morgan is one of the largest “midstream” companies in the country, handling much of the movement and storage of bulk materials and commodities of the petrochemical and energy industry, especially oil, gas, coal, and coke. The company has more than 150 terminal facilities, including some of the largest tank farms, rail to tanker ports, and bulk material yards in the Houston and Gulf Coast area. It owns or operates 40,000 miles of gas and oil pipelines in the USA, and is the leader in CO2 supply and distribution, a gas used in gas well stimulation. It is a privately held company, and was founded in 1997, when it took over some pipeline assets from Enron.

On the north bank of the channel is another tank farm, owned by a variety of companies. Williams Holdings/Targa Resources operates a gas tank farm here, as indicated by the spheroidal tanks which tend to be used for pressurized gasses. Magellan Midstream has a large tank farm and terminal here as well. We are floating through the core of the network of petrochemical flow, whose buried lines can only be imagined. Opposite the tank farm and terminal is an unusual plant with a large shed. This is a phosphate plant, making components for fertilizers. The company handles hundreds of thousands of tons of sulfuric acid and phosphoric acid a year, and generates a literal mountain of byproducts, stacked in mounds nearby. The phosphate rock for the plant comes by ship from Morocco, the major global source for phosphates. Built in World War II, the plant has been owned by Olin, and Mobil. Agrifos bought the plant from Mobil in 1998, and manages it today, with over 200 employees.

Behind the plant is a network of rectilinear mounds known as “gypstacks,” which have grown over the decades of operation of the plant. Primarily composed of gypsum, the material is pumped in a slurry to ponds at the top of the piles, where the water evaporates, leaving the solids. The gypsum is tainted with enough acids and other materials that it is not marketable, so it just piles up. Handling and isolating these acidic piles is a task that is being addressed at the moment by a company called Envirocon. Envirocon is an environmental remediation company established by Dennis Washington, a Montana-based investor who seems to specialize in toxic and acidic sites (he bought the Berkeley Pit in Butte Montana from ARCO in 1985, an open pit mine which is slowly filling up with billions of gallons of toxic and acidic water, and is the source for the longest Superfund site in the nation). The gypstack in Pasadena, connected to Agrifos, is a well known landmark visible next to Highway 225.

On the north shore, across the channel form Agrifos, is the former steelyard for Armco, once one of the largest steel production sites in the South. The site has mostly been redeveloped as the Greensport Industrial Park, and the massive sheds that remain at the site are used by separate metalworking companies now, such as General Welding Works, Ameriforge, and the Woble and Curtis Kelly pipe mills. Gulfstream Marine operates the remaining steelworks loading shed, and much of the rest of the shoreline is used for storing and loading steel products like pipe and beams onto ships and barges. Part of that site is the former Todd Shipyard and the Brown and Root engineering site, where ships were made during World War II. It later became the principal shoreline engineering and shipyard for the company that became known as KBR, the engineering subsidiary of Halliburton. The sheds are now owned by other metal engineering companies, and the terminal areas are used for shipping engineered products and pipe. Vulcan Materials operates an aggregate depot at the site, as well.

On the south side of the channel here is a former chemical works and terminal now used by Green Earth Fuels Processing, while remediation plans are worked out. Downstream from that are the terminals for Chevron Phillips’ Pasadena Plastics Complex, though the plant is only partially visible, a few hundred yards in from the shore. (We will visit it on the bus later.) Next to that is the Ethyl Corporation plant. This plant, one of two owned by the Ethyl company in the USA (the other is in Richmond, Virginia) makes fuel additives. The Ethyl Company was founded by General Motors and Standard Oil in 1923, to produce Tetra-ethyl lead, which was discovered to significantly reduce engine knock and improve mileage when added to gasoline. Leaded gasoline became the norm for decades, before the pollution it produced provoked legislation to ban it. A few companies still market Tetra-ethyl lead, including the Ethyl Corporation. It is owned by the NewMarket Corporation of Virginia.

In the 1990’s, the Ethyl Corporation spun out two of its divisions as separate companies that still operate at this location: the MEMC Company makes granular polysilicon, for silicon wafers used in the computer industry; and the Albermarle Corporation, a specialty chemicals company that makes aluminum alkyls, and magnesium alkyls.

On the north bank, Greens Bayou flows into the Channel, around the bend that is the former Todd/KBR shipyard. A big black pile on the other side of the confluence of Greens Bayou is the Kinder Morgan petroleum coke terminal, a trans-shipment point for rail and ship. Nearby is a small pumping operation, operated by Ballard Exploration. This gas distillates well is the only “upstream” production site visible from the Bayou. Its all downstream.

On the south shore is a terminal and plant for the Georgia Gulf Company, a petrochemical company with 50 locations worldwide, specializing in chlorovinyls and aromatics—feedstocks for plastics and chemical industries, especially for building materials, such as vinyl siding. Georgia Gulf was formed out of the Georgia Pacific Corporation in 1985. This plant was built in 1979, and makes cumene, a synthesized form of benzeyne and propylene used in acetone and phenols. Next to that petrochemical plant owned by BASF, the German company that is usually ranked as the largest chemical company in the world, with nearly 100,000 employees. They have a few plants in the Gulf Coast, but this is the only one directly on the Ship Channel.

Beyond the Outer Loop
The soaring span of the Sam Houston Beltway Bridge marks the transition of the Bayou to the region outside the beltways that ring the city. At 1,500 feet, it is the longest concrete arch bridge in the country, taking traffic 140 feet above the waters of the Ship Channel. As the crow flies we are 13 miles from where we started, though about 15 miles on the water. This is the last stretch of Buffalo Bayou, and is completely developed by industrial land uses, primarily petrochemical.

On the north side of the channel, Beltway 8 slices through the former San Jacinto Ordnance Depot, established in World War II to inspect, repair, and store ammunition. The Captain of the port, at the time, thought it was bad idea to handle munitions in the heart of nation’s petrochemical complex, but it happened anyways, and generally without incident. In October 1964 most of the depot was sold to the Houston Channel Industrial Corporation for somewhat more than ten million dollars to be developed into an industrial park. While portions of the depot have been developed, there are still large tracts of greenspace, where more than a hundred munition storage igloos remain in the overgrowth. Chemical weapons, such as phosphene and mustard gas bombs, were known to have been buried on site, and dumped at sea. Some munitions were dumped in the channel too, and have been left there to this day.

On the south shore, just after the bridge, Shell Deer Park begins. This is the largest petrochemical plant on the Bayou. The first site is the petroleum coke dock for the plant, operated by Kinder Morgan. Most refineries produce coke in some quantity. It is a product made at the bottom end of the refining process, from the thick gooey residue of petroleum that is left over after the rest has been turned into other things. Coke is generally made in vertical ovens, where it collects and dries, forming a solid block of black carbon. Once full, a battery of derricks on top of the coking towers drill into the solid mass, enabling it to be broken up, extracted, and moved by conveyor to piles near the shore, from where it is loaded onto barges and ships. Though some petroleum coke (“petcoke”) is used in the refining process, most is used in other industries, such as steelmaking.

The coking towers at Shell are visible at the other end of the conveyor from the coke dock. Beyond them is the rest of the plant. At this, and other refineries, crude oil (aka petroleum) comes in via tanker and pipeline, and is held in storage tanks on site for up to a week or two, but usually much less. Refining is on one hand a very simple process which hasn’t changed in a hundred years: crude is boiled and its vapor is collected and condensed into different fluids, such as gasoline, kerosene, fuel oil, and jet fuel, that forms at different pressures and temperatures.

Heated fluid enters the bottom of fractionating towers, where its vapors are collected at different levels, based on their density, temperature, and other characteristics, through a series of baffles and plates inside the tower. They are piped off through ports and pipes along the side of the tower for further treatment elsewhere, such as in reactor vessels, which apply pressure to make specific reactions occur. Catalyzer cracking units use crushed solids as catalyzers, generally chemicals and metals, to make other kinds of reactions occur, and other kinds of materials to form. Hydrocracking uses hydrogen. Along the way heat exchangers cool and heat the fluid as needed, and make steam for power too.

All of this and more occurs on Shell Deer Park’s 1,500 acres. One of the largest petrochemical sites in the nation, the site combines a refinery and a major chemical plant, both owned by the oil company Royal Dutch Shell. The refinery has the capacity of processing 340,000 barrels of crude per day, making it among the top ten largest refineries in the nation. It is operated in partnership with Pemex, the federal Mexican oil company, as it processes a lot of oil from that country. Established in 1929, the refinery refines sour crude from Africa and Venezuela as well. The chemical plant was established in the 1940s and makes base materials for the chemical and plastics industries, including aromatics such as benzyne, and xylene; olefins such as ethylene, propelyne, butylene; phenols; and solvents. Most of the products are moved to other plants by pipeline, though the docks at Deer Park, on the Houston Ship Channel, handle enough material to rank it the 25th largest port in the nation.

Across the channel from Shell is a terminal and tank farm on the edge of the ordnance depot, operated by the Oil Tanking Company, and Stolthaven. Next to that, Texas Terminals Inc. operates a bulk and engineered materials shipping terminal, next to a large grain elevator, operated by Cargill, the Grain and Oilseed Supply Chain, Houston Export Terminal. Much of the area past Cargill was the site of another large World War II steel plant, Bethlehem Steel, now generally referred to as Jacintoport. Like Greensport, the steel site has been redeveloped for a wide array of industries, including steel engineering and fabrication, petrochemical storage, chemical production, and international shipping.

At a slip inside the port area of Jacintoport is Jacintoport International, a private cargo company, handling bagged and boxed commodities, with links to the Caribbean, and South America. As a private company, not part of the Port of Houston, it offers an alternative labor force, and an especially secure facility. It is owned by Seabord Corporation of Kansas, which also owns pork processing companies, and grain processing companies. Other parts of Jacintoport include drilling mud producers; a Seimens company facility; Technip, an offshore oil technology engineering company; GE Energy; Precoat Metals; Powell Industries Offshore; Delta Engineering Corp.; and the Halterman Custom Processing chemical plant. The largest single site is the Houston Fuel Oil Terminal, a tank farm exclusively used for crude and fuel oil. The facility has three tanker docks, and over sixty large tanks, cumulatively capable of storing more than 10 million barrels of oil. The tops are painted black, to absorb heat, reducing the viscosity of the heavy oils. (Normally tanks are white, to reflect heat, reducing evaporation of less viscous fluids, like gasoline.)

Across from Jacintoport, on the south side of the channel, three major petrochemical plants operate side by side. One is Oxyvinyls’ Deer Park Plant, manufacturing polyvinyl chloride, polypropylene ether, polystyrene, polyester, polyurethane, and other poly plastics chemicals and resins. Oxyvinyls is part of Oxychem, which is based in Dallas and has 21 plants in the USA, six of them in Texas, mostly along the Gulf Coast and Ship Channel. Oxychem is a subsidiary of the Occidental Petroleum Corporation of Los Angeles.

Next to that is Rohm and Haas’ Deer Park plant. This plant is the world’s largest manufacturer of methacrylate and acrylic monomers, used to make latex paints, of the variety found in consumer hardware stores. The plant was built after World War II, by the Philadelphia-based chemical company, Rohm and Haas. Rohm and Haas specializes in acrylic chemistry, and is a leading producer of the source chemicals for paints, adhesives, and laminates. The company has dozens of plants around the country, including those of its subsidiary Morton Salt. This plant, and the company’s adjacent Lone Star Plant, are among the largest of the company’s holdings.

A narrow slit in the shore, Tuckers Bayou, divides Rohm and Haas from the Intercontinental Terminals site, a bulk liquid logistics yard and tank farm. The 265-acre site includes a rail yard with a 550-car capacity, 180 storage tanks, and several barge and ship docks. Owned and operated by a small local company, Intercontinental Terminals employs around 150 people, and is the largest refrigerated olefins handling facility in the country. It is next door to Vopak Deer Park, a similarly sized and functioning terminal site.

Carpenters Bayou winds through Jacintoport, and flows into Buffalo Bayou, near its mouth. At the end of Buffalo Bayou, where it enters the mixing bowl of the Old River and the San Jacinto River’s stream, is a tugboat terminal and the channels where the chemical barges serving the Ship Channel are stored, serviced, and scattered about. We turn in to the south shore, towards the looming tower, and the ceremonial grounds of the San Jacinto Battlegrounds.

The Houston Party Boat passengers on the CLUI tour disembark at a rarely used ramp along the bulkhead behind a taco truck at the state historic site. The group is confronted first with the Battleship Texas, an ahead-of-its-time battleship on display at the site that looks more like an evil spacecraft from Star Wars than a World War I warship. It is the only surviving battleship to have fought in both world wars. But other than the fact that it is here, it has little to do with this place.

The San Jacinto Battleground State Historic Site is a park established to preserve and commemorate the 1836 battle that brought Texas its independence from Mexico, and which created the Republic. Its resemblance to the National Mall in Washington DC is hardly coincidental. A network of monuments, plaques, and engraved stones dot the park near the edge of the Bayou, eventually clustering in a symmetrical configuration that lines up with a long reflecting pool that converges at the vanishing point where the San Jacinto Monument rises up to the sky.

The group on the tour heads down to the Sundial, located in the waterfront core of these alignments, a sculpture that symbolically draws time and the cosmos into this commemorative matrix. With the bulkhead wall of the dissolving end of the Buffalo Bayou behind us, and the soaring monument ahead, we have arrived at the tour’s fulcrum, poised between the sea and land, horizontal and vertical, liquid and solid. Three hours ago we traversed the forgotten swamp, and have now arrived at the monumental tower—nonsite to site.

David Pomeroy, a living historian in period costume, meets the group, and describes the vectors of the 18 minute battle of San Jacinto which occurred on this spot in 1836. The battle was the historical reactor that produced, as its outcome, the Republic of Texas, which remained an independent nation for nine years, before joining the United States, though it remains distinct, separate in many minds, as this park evokes in epic proportion.

David Pomeroy, a living historian, talking to the group after landing at the San Jacinto Battlegrounds

CLUI photo
David Pomeroy, a living historian, talking to the group after landing at the San Jacinto Battlegrounds. CLUI photo

It was on this spot where the soldiers from Texas’s army camped, before heading across the prairie to attack the Mexicans, a mile to the east, just beyond where the Monument is now. Led by Mr. Pomeroy, musket in hand, we get on an awaiting tour bus and drive across the park to the Monument.

Despite being built to commemorate the founding of the very independent Republic of Texas, the tower was built as a WPA project, a federal program of a socialist nature. It was started in 1936, on the centennial of the battle, and completed three years later. It is the tallest column in the world, according to Guinness, 570 feet—15 feet higher than the Washington Monument because of the Texas star at the top. This also is not an accident.

The monument has a museum, theater, bookshop, and archive inside, and an elevator that takes us up, eight at a time, to the observation deck near the top. Below, the alignment of the opaque reflecting pool points to a remarkable view westward, up the Ship Channel, with downtown Houston, in the distance. We are at the apogee.

Back on the bus, we head a mile down the road to the Monument Inn, where lunch is waiting in a dining room overlooking the Lynchburg ferry crossing. The crossing is a narrow gap where all ships entering the Channel have to pass. The state ferry goes back and forth the few hundred feet of water, carrying cars for free across the gap, dodging the ships, and the heavy currents that stream through the gap—the entire flow of the Buffalo Bayou and San Jacinto River come through here. The ships loom in the window of the Inn, like the landscape is passing by.

Battleground Industrial District
After lunch we head south down Battleground Road, and begin our approach into the heart of the petrochemical area, from land. The first facility we encounter, less than a mile outside the park, is the Vopak Deer Park Terminal. The bus enters the gate, and a representative of the company, waiting for us at the guard house, signs us in and boards the bus to escort us through the facility.

Though it is said to be the largest specialty chemical terminal in the world, in many ways this is a typical, large petrochemical terminal, one of a dozen or so along the Ship Channel, handling the movement of products produced in the area. It is a logistics, blending, storage and transfer site for a variety of refined liquids coming and going. It is connected to plants by pipelines, and is serviced by rail, ship, and truck. It has over 100 storage tanks, and busy ship docks, where the entire facility converges in a network of pipeways and loading racks to connect to tanks in ship holds. This facility is owed by the Dutch company Vopak, which is one of the largest bulk liquid handling companies in the world, with 80 terminals in 32 nations. The terminal is adjacent to the locally owned and operated Intercontinental Terminals Company, which performs a similar function, with 170 tanks, and a large rail terminal. It is Kinder Morgan, though, that dominates the terminal industry in the Ship Channel area.

After looping through the facility, we drop off our briefer on the way out, and continue heading south on Battleground Road. We pass a large white Vopak tank with a remarkable painting of a battle scene. This is part of a regional chemical storage tank mural program, a program that is being sponsored by the Economic Alliance of the Houston Port Region, a collection of the chambers of commerce of the various towns and cities of the petrochemical zone. The Alliance has established the San Jacinto Texas Historic District, and has a number of projects in mind to emphasize the historic layer of the region. The mural program is the first, and most dramatic.

Not your typical hand painted historical mural program that one finds in small cities and towns, this is a state of the art imaging process that is visualizing moments from the Battle of San Jacinto on highly visible chemical tanks over a few years. The images are arrestingly dramatic and vivid, combining a heroic painting style, a la Washington Crossing the Delaware, with an epic, cinematic composition and realism. This is due to the way in which they are made. For each image, Native Sons Productions, led by Gary Foreman, the artist hired to make the murals, used live actors who were costumed, positioned in a scene outdoors, directed, and photographed. The image was then electronically altered to give it a painting-like coloration and drama, then printed on plastic sheets that are then adhered to the tank, forming an image that is nearly 100 feet wide. Each mural is to depict a different aspect of the battle, leading chronologically from the furthest away, to the closest. The figures in each mural gesture inevitably towards the San Jacinto Monument. As many as 25 murals are planned. The one at Vopak was the second one to be made. The companies that own the tanks pay the costs of the installation, which is close to $50,000 each.

Project Stars mural on a Vopak tank

CLUI photo
Project Stars mural on a Vopak tank. CLUI photo

Other programs for the Alliance District’s Project Stars, as the historic revitalization plan is called, include building ceremonial gates at either end of Battleground Road (at highway 225 at the southern end, and at Interstate 10, a few miles north), to draw people into what the Alliance says will be “a museum without walls.” This museological layer is a historical veneer, where the generative mythology of 1836 exists as an appliqué on top of the infrastructure of the largest petrochemical area in the land. Even the name of the main street through the zone, Battleground Road is being changed to the more affirming Independence Parkway.

But for the time being, we travel south on Battleground Road, and pass Texas Molecular, a hazardous waste company next door to Vopak. Texas Molecular specializes in deep well injection disposal, and incineration. It was formed in 2001, after the bankruptcy of its predecessor at this location, GNI. GNI was known for, among other things, disposing of 3.3 million gallons of leftover Vietnam-era napalm from California that no one else wanted, and which floated around rail tankers like an orphaned garbage barge, before coming here. The company typically disposes of petrochemical waste products, and napalm, after all, is just gasoline, benzene and styrene: materials that can call this region home, and womb. Cradle to Grave.

Across from Texas Molecular is the Oxyvinyls Battleground Plant, a chlorine and caustic soda plant, operated by the OxyChem chemical company, a major national chemical company that is based in Dallas, and is owned by the Occidental Petroleum Company of Los Angeles.

Next we pass Clean Harbors’ location at 2027 Battleground, the Deer Park Hazardous Waste Disposal Facility. This is a hazardous waste incinerator, where ash from the incinerator is buried onsite. It accepts contaminated wastewater, paints, solvents, reactive chemical clean-up material, lab chemicals, oils, and things like that. It opened in 1971, but was taken over as part of the assets of the company Clean Harbors, which has grown into the largest hazardous waste disposal company in the country, from its origins in Braintree, Massachusetts, and its first job cleaning up Boston Harbor. This is one of three Clean Harbor facilities on Battleground Road.

On the east side of the road is a petrochemical research and technology center for the French petrochemical company Total. Total is one of the six “supermajor” oil companies, like Chevron, ExxonMobil, ConocoPhillips, BP, and Shell. Total has several plants in the Gulf Coast area, including the plant next door to their R&D site here, said to be the largest polypropylene facility in the world (though there are others around here that also make that claim). Total acquired the plant from ARCO in 1984, and it produces 2.4 billion pounds per year, for use in food packaging, tape, carpet yarn, small appliances, housewares, outdoor furniture, toys, and many, many other things.

The CLUI tour bus turns left at the Total Plant, onto Miller Cutoff Road. (We will resume the journey down Battleground later.) Across from Total on Miller Cutoff is a plastics company called Metton America, based in Houston, that makes liquid molding resin, for things like truck bodies. Then on the north side, the Oxyvinyl LaPorte VCM Plant, connected by large above ground pipelines to the company’s Battleground Plant. This plant makes vinyl chloride monomer, the key chemical precursor to polyvinyl chloride more widely known as PVC, a common and inexpensive plastic material used in pipes, and thousands of industrial and consumer products. Vinyl chloride monomer is made by combining ethylene, which comes from refineries, and chlorine, which comes from salt brine.

We quickly pass the gate for Dow Chemical’s LaPorte Plant, also known as Dow Houston Operations. The plant makes 395 million pounds of polyurathanes, fabricated products, and engineering plastics every year. Piles of blue “styrofoam” cubes are visible outside the plant. We then pass the gate to the SR Burton Power Plant, a local provider of electricity, and the Burton Terminal for the pipeline company TEPPCO. TEPPCO is one of the largest gas and oil pipeline companies in the nation, and has its origins in the acquisition of the Big Inch and Little Inch pipelines (24 and 20 inches, respectively), originally built by the government to get Texas crude to refineries in New Jersey in World War II, and sold off after the war.

Miller Cutoff Road turns south, and heads through the Lyondell LaPorte Complex, a chemical plant that covers 540 acres, and is bisected by Miller Cut-off Road. The complex consists of two plants, each with port access, operated by separate subsidiaries of Lyondell before Lyondell’s acquisition by the Dutch chemical conglomerate Basell in 2007. On one side of the road what used to be Equistar Chemical produces base chemicals for the type of plastic used in milk crates and household chemical bottles. On the other side, what used to be Millennium Chemicals makes acetic acid (used in foods), and vinyl acetate, used in adhesives and paints.

Next we pass Mobley Industrial Services, a specialty contractor company, one of several companies of this type in the area that do physical work on the region’s chemical plants. The bus turns east on Strang Road, crossing over the TEPPCO pipeline, and passing a plant operated by the industrial gas company Linde. We see the water of Upper Jacinto Bay through the trees, then arrive at the gate of our next destination, DuPont LaPorte. Our escorts board the bus, and guide us through the plant, pointing out the nine production units at the sprawling plant, each designed to produce a particular petrochemical product. Three business units operate these production units: the acid unit, which makes things like hydrofluoric acid, which is used to make Teflon and refrigerants; the ag unit, that makes herbicides and insecticides; and the polymers unit, that makes packaging plastics.

Dupont LaPorte opened in 1956 to make chemicals for agricultural products and clothing. It is a major manufacturer of weed killers, formaldehydes, and other biocides and herbicides. It also has what is said to be the world’s largest polyvinyl alcohol unit, making a chemical used in weaving polyester blends. Part of the plant, the EVOH unit, has been sold off to Noltex and Nippon Goshei, subsidiaries of the companies Mitsubishi and Nippon Synthetics, which makes Soarnol, a plastic food packaging brand used in things like ketchup bottles. At the west end of the plant is a large waste pile—an angular mound of powdery white material, several acres in size. The pile is mostly calcium sulfide, a byproduct of the hydrofluoric acid unit.

We snake around slowly through the labyrinth of glistening silver pipes, tanks, boilers, vents, coolers, crackers, towers and evaporators, watching for low clearances and narrow corridors for the bus. The plant seems deserted, though it is fully operational. Occasionally we spot a maintenance person in a jumpsuit riding a bicycle. They are surprised to see us too.

The county road used to pass through the plant and out to the south, but that road is now part of the plant and the south gate is closed. We are on the eastern end of the petrochemical corridor, at the end of the Pasadena Freeway, highway 225, next to the Baytown Bridge, which soars over San Jacinto Bay, and takes Highway 146 past the ExxonMobil plant in Baytown, the largest refinery in the country. We won’t head out there today. We are at the furthest point on our tour. We drop off our helpful, jump-suited DuPont briefers on the way out the gate, and head back out Strang Road, back towards Battleground Road.

On the way we pass a number of smaller operations, such as the sheds of Katoen Natie, a Belgian petrochemical logistics company that dries, dusts, and deodorizes plastics; an Air Products industrial gas plant; Gulbrandsen Technologies, a chemical handling, packaging, and shipping company; and Sunoco Chemicals LaPorte Plant, a propylene plant that closed after an explosion in 2003. When we intersect with Highway 225, we head north on Battleground Road, covering the southern end, the part that we missed by taking Miller Cutoff Road earlier.

At 500 Battleground Road is a Clean Harbors office and truck yard, followed by the Akzo Nobel Deer Park Plant, that makes HPMO: high purity metal organics, such as metal alkyls, used in plastics and pharmaceuticals. Akzo Nobel is a large Dutch chemical company, with 60,000 employees worldwide, making paints, coatings, specialty chemicals, and other things.

Across from Akzo, in front of the GEO Specialty Chemical company plant (formerly Grace), which makes naphthalene sulfonate products, used as a dispersant and surficant, is one of three older interpretive plaques on Battleground Road that talk about the Battle. Next is a Solvay Chemical plant that along with a sister plant in Longview Washington, makes hydrogen peroxide and its derivatives. Next door to that is the Ineos Olefins and Polymers, Battleground Manufacturing Center, followed by another Clean Harbors facility at 1777 Battleground. Just after passing Miller Cutoff Road, we turn west, onto Tidal Road, heading back towards Houston, but with a few more stops to make along the way, as the petrochemical odyssey continues.

Tidal Road to Jefferson Road to the End of the Road
Even though it’s a public road, parts of Tidal Road pass so close to the petrochemical plants that you feel like you are in them. After passing the gate of Intercontinental Terminals, and Valvoline, the road runs through the Rohm and Haas Deer Park and the Lone Star Plants, including views of fountain-like displays of aeration at company water treatment plants. Degussa’s chemical coatings and lubricant additives plant, on the edge of Rohm and Haas’ Lone Star Plant, was recently integrated into Evonik, a new name for an old company in the petrochemical landscape, based in Essen Germany, and employing 43,000 people around the world. The road passes a greenspace, that was once a golf course for OxyChem, now overgrown and occupied by cows. Then the gate for Oxyvinyls’ Deer Park poly plastics plant.

The road heads south and passes through Lubrizol’s Deer Park Plant, making specialty chemicals for its parent company based in Ohio. Next to it is another Ohio-based petrochemical company, Hexion Specialty Chemicals, making binders, adhesives, coatings, ink, and the largest supplier in world of thermosetting resins. The plant is on the edge of Shell’s Deer Park Plant, the refinery and chemical production giant that is the largest single plant on the Ship Channel. We travel its length on the feeder road of Highway 225, passing a closed Shell gas station near the main gate that is said to have supplied customers with gas piped directly out of the refinery. Fresh gasoline.

Just before passing under Beltway 8, we pass Jones Road north, the access road to the Ship Channel locations of BASF’s plant, the Kinder Morgan Deepwater terminal, Kinder Morgan Deer Park Rail Terminal, and the Houston Ammonia Terminal. Passing under the beltway bridge we pass a debris field for Hurricane Ike debris, mostly broken trees, spread out neatly in a field, then the access road north to the Georgia Gulf Chemical company plant. We pass by a small ExxonMobil pipeline tank farm, then pass Preston Road, northbound, which heads to Marathon’s Pasadena Terminal, and tank farm, then a waste pit, and then the Ethyl Corporation Plant, on the Channel.

On the tour we take the last of these access roads to their dead-ends in the north, Jefferson Road. We pass a Shell Oil Products Pipeline facility and a small Kinder Morgan facility, then the big gypstack for Agrifos, the fertilizer plant we passed on the Channel. The mound is being remediated by building a lime plant to deal with the acidic runoff. We then approach the last stop on our tour, the ChevronPhillips Pasadena Plastics Complex.

Like other large petrochemical plants, the facility is a few hundred acres in size, and contains several different production units within its fenced perimeter. This plant, which is said to be the polyethylene plant in the country, focuses on polyethylene, polypropylene, and K-resin, all fundamental plastic base materials for plastic products. The finished product here is solid and not liquid, taking the form of white pellets or fluff, that can be heated and formed into plastic products by factories elsewhere.

The Pasadena Plastics Complex is one of a few major plants in the region that are owned by ChevronPhillips, a large petrochemical company based in the Woodlands, north of Houston. ChevronPhillips was created in 2000, by joining the chemical divisions of Chevron and Phillips (now ConocoPhillips). Though an independent company, ChevronPhillips is still co-owned by Chevron and ConocoPhillips. It owns 36 petrochemical plants around the world, including in Al Jubail, Saudi Arabia. In Texas, the company has plants in Cedar Bayou, Port Arthur, Borger, and here in Pasadena.

We meet Roy Watson, the plant manager, at the administration building, and we watch a safety video on the bus. Each of us is given a sheet of paper with questions—a test to make sure we retained some of the safety information in the video. As we had been warned, any children less than 15 years of age had to get off the bus. There were two, and their mother stayed with them. The signed release forms and tests were collected, and anyone who might not want to be there was given a last opportunity to get off the bus. Then we entered through the gates. We are entering a place that is rarely visited by outsiders, and we feel privileged, though a bit trepidacious.

Roy guides the driver through the gleaming machine, describing its components. The ground is a clean cement and asphalt pad, above which rises cathedrals of apparatus, boilers, condensers, reactors, towers, tanks. The neohexene plant, the polypropylene plant, the polyethylene plant. Pompidou Center without Pompidou in the center. Nobody in sight, though the plant was operating fully. Roy assures us that each unit is being monitored by a crew of at least three or five people, though computers basically run the plant. The control rooms are blast proof.

At the southwest corner, we pass the rebuilt Polyethylene Plant Number 5, which blew up in 1989, killing 24 people. Pieces of the plant were found six miles away, north of Interstate 10, on the other side of the Ship Channel. Windows were broken two miles away, south of Highway 225. Roy does not mention the explosion. We loop through the vacant landscape machine, as the machine churns out pure plastic pellets. We leave, awed.

We head south on Jefferson Road, back on 225 westbound. Pass the Celenese Chemical Plant, the Air Products plant, and loop around the traffic circle at the southern side of Washburn Tunnel to pass by the Pasadena Refinery, the Kinder Morgan Pasadena Terminal, and the site where Santa Ana was captured the day after the Battle of San Jacinto. The bus is too big to fit in the tunnel, so we head back to the 225, past the Lyondell Houston Refinery, and the Texas Petrochemicals Houston plant, one of the largest synthetic rubber plants in the nation. The plant, located adjacent to a Goodyear facility, was built during the rapid expansion of synthetic rubber production brought on by World War II, when the Japanese controlled much of the natural rubber areas in Asia. This federally supported wartime expansion of the petrochemical industry multiplied the infrastructure and R&D, and propelled the postwar diversification of synthetic fossil fuel derived compounds. The industry fed and was fed by the heightened consumerism and production of products after the war, a 1950s and ‘60s American renaissance of plastics, and cars, that continues today.

This plant, and another owned by the company in Port Neches, Texas, make Texas Petrochemicals one of the largest suppliers of butadiene in the country. Butadiene is a feedstock for synthetic rubber, and carpet nylon. The plant covers 256 acres and produces more than 1.5 billion pounds of product per year.

The bus flies over the Sidney Sherman Bridge, the inner loop spanning the Ship Channel. We pass Rhodia, the VW yard, and the dredge spoils mounds. Then land back at Allen’s Landing, where it all began—in 1839, and in 2009. 

This tour was made possible by the Buffalo Bayou Partnership and the Mitchell Center for the Arts at the University of Houston.