John Beard Jr. was born and raised in Port Arthur, Texas, directly across from one of the largest petrochemical refineries in the country. Since Port Arthur’s first refinery was built in 1901, the city has been at the heart of the Texas oil industry. As one of the country’s largest sites for oil and gas refining, Port Arthur also boasts some of the country’s most polluted air.
Forced to breath a toxic soup of benzene, carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, formaldehyde, and other harmful pollutants, the city’s predominantly African American residents suffer from horrifying rates of cancers, leukemia, birth defects, reproductive disorders, asthma, and heart disease, among other diseases. Port Arthur’s average life expectancy is the fifth lowest in the US. Illness, death, loss and grief are ever-present features of life in the region John describes as “the belly of the beast.”
But the people of Port Arthur have had enough.
After spending 38 years working for Exxon-Mobil, John became a City Councilman and a community organizer, which led him to the forefront of the struggle for environmental justice in and beyond Port Arthur. Today, John is the founder, president, and executive director of PACAN, the Port Arthur Community Action Network, an environmental justice organization fighting fossil fuel and petrochemical facilities across Southeast Texas.
Our team had the opportunity to visit John in July, where he described the challenges of building collective power in Port Arthur—and the urgent need for a national message that “shocks America” into action.
Check out some highlights from our follow-up conversation with John below.
Life used to be a lot better here. After twelve decades of petrochemical pollution and all that comes with it, we can't even get the jobs and opportunities to build a better life for ourselves and our children. To what purpose is this sacrifice? Because that's what's happening to us. Our lives, our health, the health of our children, the health of our communities is being sacrificed. Our future is being sacrificed—and to what good end?
We deserve a chance to have a good and decent life. Everyone, everywhere deserves clean, fresh air, unpolluted water and clean land. That's a basic God given right, and no man should take that away.
The Permian Basin and the Gulf Coast are sick and tired of being sacrificed for the oil and gas companies who do very little to help the people, the economy, or the ecology of the region. And worst of all, they contribute to the chronic health problems of cancer, heart disease, leukemia, you name it, that people suffer from. They may have billions of dollars, but there are billions of us. And I believe with all my heart that billions will do just like they did when they marched seven times around the walls of Jericho and then gave a shout and those walls came tumbling down.
All of us are uniquely and intricately tied together. What happens here in Port Arthur, in Freeport, Brownsville, Corpus. Lake Charles, Saint James Parish, Louisiana, and many other places. What happens here does affect the world.
Too often we play the meek and mild role when we should be boisterous, strong, and pushing back. We don't do that nearly enough. We let the other side take over and we sit back, just like little mice hide behind something or the other, but desperate times call for bold and desperate actions.
As I have been telling some of my friends lately, we're in a fight. And some people don't even know there's a war going on. And yet we gotta fight for them too. You know, they’re throwing hand grenades. We can throw some. Do they fire bullets? We can fire some too. We're not going to sit back and just duck and cover. And if you're not going to fight, this place is not for you because the fight is yet to come. These are just skirmishes now.
Logic and reason is useless in a fight. How do we expect you to break bone when you won't even break a rule? We have to do something that breaks the mold.
We are the living dead, thanks to you. Thank you. Well, we are the living dead, and we're here to serve notice to you, that we're coming for you to. What we have and what we're getting, you're going to have it, too. It's going to visit you.
You're under the watch. We see you. You're not invisible. And we see and we watch everything you do and we're going to hold you accountable and we're going to do something about it. It's just that simple.
- As told to Not An Alternative’s Beka Economopoulos and Steve Lyons, August 3, 2023