POINT COMFORT – Kathy Warren uses acrylic paint to capture the beauty she sees in an area others write off as polluted.
She then posts them on both physical and metaphorical walls while making this plea to friends on Facebook: “Our little area has so much more potential, it just takes good people to help it along.”
Scenes from Alaska, not Point Comfort, decorate the walls of a house across the street from Warren’s. The house belongs to the Lambdens, who have vacationed in Alaska eight times. Although Vaughn Lambden’s military career meant his family lived in far-flung places, they always have returned to Point Comfort.
“We really wouldn’t want to live anywhere else,” said Pam Lambden, who served as Point Comfort’s mayor for more than a decade.
This is the story of how Point Comfort was forged by one industry and remolded by another, for better and for worse. It is a town where the population flourished in the 1950s and ’60s but has declined every decade since amid environmental challenges and changing public expectations.
You’ll find Point Comfort where Farm-to-Market Road 1593, SH 35 and the Lavaca Bay intersect.
Legend has it that one pioneering family named the town for the comforting breeze that came off the water.
Cattle grazed there until the late 1940s when Aluminum Company of America, or Alcoa, bought land for a chemical plant and to house its workers.
The site was ideal because it was close to the Intracoastal Waterway, and later the Matagorda Ship Channel, as well as natural gas.
A company executive in Pittsburgh, Pa., plucked the names of the streets from an almanac. Austin Street was named for Stephen F. Austin, who was the Republic of Texas’ first secretary of state, and Lamar Street for Mirabeau B. Lamar, who was the Republic of Texas’ second president.
Thousands, many of them World War II veterans, flocked to the burgeoning city.
Tina and Willie J. Hubenak were among them. They came in 1954, shortly after wedding in Houston, and rented a home built by Alcoa on Henderson Street.
There was a gas station, a motel, barber and beauty shops, at least two grocery stores, an appliance store, a library, a post office, a doctor’s office and a pharmacy with a soda fountain.
“And the pool. It was so safe that the girls,” Hubenak said of her two daughters, Peggy Shafer and Sandra Boehm, “well, they could get on their bicycles and ride down to go swimming.”
“We practically lived there,” Peggy Shafer said about the pool.
Alcoa built the pool out of aluminum, and it proved central to the Lambdens as well.
Vaughn Lambden lived one street over from Hubenak in a rented home on Wood Street, which he moved into with his family as a third-grader in 1950.
He recalled roaming the oyster- shell streets then.
“I cut up my feet so bad that one lady told my mother, ‘It’s a shame your son is crippled.’ My mother said, ‘He’s not crippled. He just doesn’t wear shoes!’”
Lambden met his wife when he was a teenager working as a lifeguard at the pool.
As an adult and after his military service ended, he worked as a machinist for Alcoa for 33 years.
Kathy Warren arrived in Point Comfort much later than Hubenak and the Lambdens – in 1975 – to work as a boarding agent for Alcoa Steamship Company. She worked for that company for 14 years, and then she worked as a production supervisor for Alcoa for 18 years.
Warren was introduced to her husband, John, by his parents, who were her next-door neighbors on Clark Street.
“If you worked for Alcoa, you could live here, but you rented a house from Alcoa, and your rent was deducted from your paycheck,” Warren said.
Aluminum to plastic
Eventually, the number of Point Comfort residents who worked for Formosa Plastics Corp. or some other company outnumbered those who worked for Alcoa.
Jasper “Jay” Cuellar was among them.
“I moved there as a young adult, married and starting a family. It was a good place to buy a starter home, and the community had a very strong school,” he said.
In 1983, Formosa started a plant just east of Point Comfort off FM 1593.
Almost immediately, some residents expressed concern for their safety.
For example, in 1991, they complained they weren’t notified by Formosa of a hydrochloric acid leak that produced a cloud that drifted toward them and burned their eyes.
And 42 residents eventually banded together to get Formosa to answer for these types of incidents.
In a federal lawsuit filed in 1994, they claimed there were “frequent explosions and powerful rumblings which (shook) the ground of the plaintiffs’ property and rattle(d) windows of the plaintiffs’ homes, for which the community receive(d) no warning and little or no explanation ...”
They claimed this devalued their property, and they were worried about the pollutants wafting from Formosa, including the carcinogen benzene.
Victoria lawyer Sandra McKenzie, who represented the residents, said she still thinks the residents had a valid claim.
She said she devoted years to the case partly because she was inspired by one of them, Lou Ann Morris, who is now deceased.
“Lou Ann would say, ‘Look, I can buy bottled water, but I have to breathe the air,’” McKenzie said.
Despite that conflict, Formosa grew in its influence over Point Comfort.
When Alcoa threatened to disconnect Point Comfort from its water well because Formosa, a customer of the city, was causing it to run dry, Formosa gave the town its rights to water from Lake Texana and built the town a water treatment plant, said Cuellar, who served for a time on the City Council.
“Then, Alcoa disconnected Point Comfort, and Point Comfort went about operating a water plant that Formosa paid for and provided water to Formosa at a discounted rate. When I came on board, the utilities department was losing money hand over fist,” Cuellar said.
Point Comfort dwindles
As Alcoa dwindled and Formosa grew, the streets of Point Comfort saw fewer people, fewer businesses and fewer homes.
Point Comfort had a population of 1,453 in its heyday in 1960. The U.S. Census Bureau says it’s now 692.
There is no grocery store unless you count the Exxon gas station on Lamar Street.
Want to eat out? You’re limited. Try the aptly named “Hard Hat Cafe,” which brings in most of the traffic of a small nondescript shopping center, also on Lamar Street.
Formosa owns 171 of the lots in Point Comfort, according to recent Calhoun County Tax Appraisal District data.
This appears to be the result of the 1994 lawsuit, which settled out of court confidentially and which those residents not involved view as a kind of betrayal.
Even Kathy Warren’s artistic eye couldn’t overlook what happened when Formosa bought her neighbors’ homes.
They fell into disrepair.
She remembered a hurricane punching a hole into the home next door to hers on Texas Avenue. That home and a slew of others were demolished.
Another collective pain point is the closure of the elementary school in 2011.
After the Calhoun school district closed the school, Formosa bought it in 2013 and turned it into a training and development center.
The pool Alcoa built remains, but it, too, is in disrepair. It closed early this summer because a leak prevents the pool from retaining its water.
Cuellar moved to Port Lavaca after abandoning a plan to spend between $60,000 to $70,000 to remodel his home in Point Comfort.
“I didn’t think it would be a good investment with its proximity to the plants, with Alcoa and Formosa being so close. I didn’t think I’d be able to sell it for a reasonable amount,” he said.
His stepdaughter and son-in-law, Jacquie and Joshua Grissom, live in his Point Comfort home now. The tax appraisal district most recently valued the 1,180-square-foot home, built in 1954, at $40,820.
By comparison, the median home value in Calhoun County is more than three times that – $134,400, according to Zillow, a leading real estate and rental marketplace online.
At a recent meeting, the City Council bemoaned the city’s meager taxable value and proposed a higher tax rate of 1.2307.
At the same meeting, the council hired a company to run the city’s water and wastewater facilities after they said they couldn’t retain employees, some of whom had gone to work for Formosa.
Point Comfort may be dwindling, but pollution left behind by Alcoa and Formosa isn’t.
And Formosa still emits the type of chemicals the Sierra Club and Point Comfort residents were concerned about in 1994, although now there is equipment monitoring the air for them.
The company has placed four stainless steel canisters in and around the city that can collect air samples for a full laboratory analysis.
In addition, it has two of what are called “FTIR” units.
Neil Carman, the Sierra Club’s Clean Air Program director, explained that these units can instantly detect and identify volatile organic compounds that cross into an infrared beam it produces. He said it is still considered to be state-of-the-art and rare because it is not often used today at other plants nor by the agency that regulates them.
One of these units is at the water tower while the other is at Formosa’s guest house farther down Pease Street.
Formosa added the one at the guest house to offset a fine it received from the state for air emission violations in the early 2000s.
Reports from the unit at the guest house show that for about two and a half hours on Dec. 18, the air had an average concentration of ethylene dichloride that approached a level where its effects on human health could be a concern.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency, ethylene dichloride can affect the nervous system, liver and kidneys as well as cause respiratory distress, cardiac arrhythmia, nausea and vomiting.
The units are supposed to run 24/7, but this one was down for 26 days because of technical difficulties in that quarter alone.
The state also requires Formosa to post the reports online, but these reports appear to have been posted online only after a reporter inquired about the company’s air monitoring practices Sept. 6.
Both Alcoa and Formosa are also required to report to the state how many tons of carbon monoxide, nitric oxide, sulfur dioxide, particulate matter and volatile organic compounds they emit per year.
Reports from 2013 to 2017, the most recent years available, show both emitted hundreds, sometimes thousands, of tons of pollutants harmful to human health.
Calculating the risk
Point Comfort residents don’t like to think about the risk they take living there. Most, who either work for Formosa or have a family member who does, defend the company.
Take Nathan Almanzar. He got a job at Formosa after he graduated from Calhoun High School and settled in Point Comfort with his wife, Dana, with their two children, ages 21 and 7, a few houses away from his father, who also works for Formosa.
“A lot of people don’t understand what exactly those flares are doing when they see black smoke,” Nathan Almanzar said. “They see black smoke and think it’s bad for the air, but it definitely beats the alternative of if they didn’t have those flares in place and chemicals were being released to the atmosphere.”
The Almanzars recall two explosions at Formosa in the 19 years they have lived in Point Comfort.
“One was really major, and the other was nothing, but we still evacuated and did what we needed to do,” Dana Almanzar said. “Formosa has done a good job of keeping us updated as far as now with our technology. We get text messages and phone calls regarding whatever is going on with the plant.”
The company also installed a communitywide alarm system that the Almanzars say is tested at noon every Wednesday, which adds to their feeling of safety.
Point Comfort residents also don’t link theirs or any family member’s cancer to the industry that surrounds them.
The cancer incidence and mortality rate in Calhoun County is not statistically significant when compared to the rest of the state and when controlled for age.
But more data is needed about Point Comfort specifically, said Ilan Levin, the Texas director for the Environmental Integrity Project.
“Epidemiologists by nature are very cautious and epidemiologists who work for the state of Texas are extremely cautious, so they are just not going to say anything about cause and effect. They are not proactively looking for cancer clusters,” he said.
Chris Van Deusen, a spokesman for the Department of State Health Services, confirmed the agency hasn’t investigated whether a cancer cluster exists in Point Comfort nor has it ever attempted to determine the source of such a cluster elsewhere in the state.
“We’ll often have people come to us and say, ‘Well, someone in my family had cancer and someone has cancer three doors down and the next street over,’ but it’s just the fact that there’s a lot of cancer,” Van Deusen said.
A study published in the International Journal of Hygiene and Environmental Health in 2018 found that people who live less than 6 miles from a petrochemical plant are more likely to be diagnosed with all types of cancers, however.
That study lasted 12 years and involved more than 1,000 people aged 35 or older who lived within about a 25-mile radius of a petrochemical complex with coal power plants and refineries in Taiwan.
Also, people who live near petrochemical industrial complexes have a slightly higher risk of dying of lung cancer, according to studies conducted between 1960-2002 involving more than 2 million people living near the complexes in Louisiana, the United Kingdom, Italy and Taiwan.
More Gulf Coast communities will soon undergo the kind of transformation Point Comfort did in the 1980s.
The Environmental Integrity Project reported this month that the state has permitted 48 plastics-related expansion projects or new plants in the Houston area alone.
Plants have already fouled the air there, said Ilan Levin, the nonprofit’s Texas director, so now is the time to create zoning and save low-income and minority residents from a future of poor health.
As for established communities such as Point Comfort, Levin suggested leadership stop offering tax abatements.
But tax abatements help the struggling city survive.
For example, Calhoun County purchased six fire trucks this year with the $1.5 million Formosa gave it as part of its tax abatement agreement. One went to Point Comfort.
Some define company towns as those built by a company because of its need to have workers close to the resources they are extracting, while others define them as those towns where one company is the dominant employer.
Point Comfort fits either definition, said Hardy Green, the author of “The Company Town: The Industrial Edens and Satanic Mills that Shaped the American Economy.”
Green identified about 2,500 company towns in the world. He said Alcoa has at least two others in the U.S.: Alcoa, Tenn., and Bauxite, Ark. Bauxite blinked out of existence after 30 years. All that remains is a community center/museum open for a few hours a week.
Today, he said, there’s less land for Alcoa and other companies to build more of their own towns and much less need to do so.
“It’s the automobile that did them in, you know? People can live anywhere and drive to their workplace, so there’s less necessity,” Green said.
Alcoa had been in Point Comfort for 13 years before, in 1961, Point Comfort was connected to Port Lavaca by a four-lane concrete bridge.
Before that, there was a wooden bridge that rocked precariously as people drove on it for three miles over Lavaca Bay.
Vaughn Lambden said it was scary hearing the waves lapping below him when he was bused from Point Comfort to Port Lavaca to attend middle and high school.
His parents briefly thought about moving to Port Lavaca, but Lambden told them he didn’t have the drive to go.
“I just never did feel comfortable in Port Lavaca,” he said. “I figure one of these days Formosa will buy it (Point Comfort) out, but I hope it’s not in my lifetime.”