At the convention center, I met Peggy and Laura, two friendly ladies in charge of the annual Mardi Gras ball. Peggy was a loyal daughter of Port Arthur, born and raised, but I barely had to let it drop that I was interested in the environment before she took up the cudgel.

"Cancer!" she exclaimed. "We've got lots of cancer around here. It's the refineries. And the incinerator. You know about the incinerator, out by the highway? Where they're burning all that nerve gas? Why, they burn all kinds of horrible things out there. That stuff is going to get into the aquifer," she said. She sounded almost proud.


How could I leave out the United States? At the other end of the proposed Keystone XL pipeline from Alberta, there's Port Arthur, Texas. Or shall we call it Refineryville? If the oil sands represent petroleum's future, Port Arthur is its past. Just up the road is Spindletop, the site of an oil well called Lucas No. 1, which was the world's first "gusher." The Lucas Gusher spewed hundreds of thousands of barrels of oil into the air, and announced the birth of Big Oil. Before Spindletop, oil was an industry. Afterwards, it was an empire.

Today, downtown Port Arthur is a hollowed-out husk of a city, deeply poor and surrounded by some of the largest refineries in the world, with volatile organic compounds on the breeze, titanic oil tankers on the local waterways, and a rat's nest of pipelines in the ground. But here, in the crown jewel of America's oil industry, I found that Southeast Texas has more to offer than just oil spills and refinery flares. And I learned that sometimes the problem isn't how much pollution there is, but who ends up living with it.


next: The Great Pacific Garbage Patch