Shae Cottar grew up and lives in Baytown, Texas, home of the ExxonMobil refinery and chemical plant complex that comprises the largest facility of its kind in the nation. After many years living directly across the street, Shae, his wife and three children now live slightly less than two miles away from the facility. Shae works as the communications director of Air Alliance Houston (AAH), an organization working to reduce air pollution in the Houston region. He is also a member of the Sierra Club, one of the plaintiffs in NELC’s ongoing Clean Air Act litigation against Exxon (see related story, 2013 Summer – Federal Court Rejects ExxonMobil Defenses).

How does living near Exxon affect your life on a daily basis?
In the neighborhoods next to Exxon, there is an all-pervading smell of burning chemicals. I can’t smell the sweet pines right outside my door. I can’t smell the grass when it’s cut. The pungent odor of the Exxon chemical plants reaches into the house and gives my family headaches. Nighttime is filled with flares so bright that, at times, it’s like dawn in the middle of the night. The jet engine-like roar of the flares rattles the windows over our heads as we try to sleep. I worry about an explosion at the plant and the health of my family.

How does your work at AAH relate to your personal experiences?
Working with AAH has helped me realize that life with Exxon as a neighbor isn’t normal or acceptable. And living with Exxon’s pollution has greatly informed my work with AAH. I know, from firsthand experience, just how frustrating and futile it feels for those in fence line communities. You begin to lose hope of a change. You stop reporting the odors, headaches and flare events because it seems that there is increasingly less and less being done to stop them. Eventually, you just give up.

Has the Exxon facility ever caused you to fear for your family’s safety?
Yes. A particularly frightening event occurred just last year. At about nine o’clock at night, my wife and I could see that workers were evacuating the facility, and we could hear sirens blaring out warnings. It seemed as though there had been a chemical explosion.

“There is an all- pervading smell of burning chemicals. I can’t smell the sweet pines right outside my door. I can’t smell the grass when it’s cut.”

—Shae Cottar

Did you try contacting Exxon about it?
I called the only public phone line listed for Exxon’s facility, but reached a recording saying that the line wasn’t answered after 5 p.m. I then called 911, but was told that they had no idea what was going on and that Exxon didn’t have to report anything to them because the company has its own emergency response teams.

What do you hope this lawsuit accomplishes?

I hope that this lawsuit effects real change in Exxon’s communication with the community, with the local government, and with regulatory agencies. I hope the constant barrage of air pollution events from Exxon
stops, and that the company employs safer equipment and practices that more effectively reduce pollution. If we could trust the air quality in our neighborhood, my wife and I would go running outdoors. We would take our children to the parks and playgrounds near Exxon.