Black residents in Corpus Christi file a civil rights complaint to stop Texas’ first desalination plant

Adam Carrington, pastor at Brooks AME Worship Center, said the city is sacrificing Hillcrest yet again to support industrys need. (Dylan Baddour/Inside Climate News, Dylan Baddour/Inside Climate News)

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The Hillcrest neighborhood in Corpus Christi started out as an upscale all-white community in the heart of the city. But after oil was discovered nearby in 1930, a growing refinery sector on Hillcrest’s edge drove many residents to seek homes elsewhere. So in 1944, Corpus Christi recommended Hillcrest be opened to Black people.

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In the following decades, refinery flares and smoke stacks cropped up around the neighborhood. An interstate highway cut it off from the rest of the city, and it became host to Corpus Christi’s sewage treatment plant.

Now, the city hopes to add Texas’ first large-scale seawater desalination plant to meet the demands for fresh water from a booming industrial buildout in the region.

But a fresh civil rights challenge filed Wednesday by residents of Hillcrest promises to further delay the plant’s construction, which was initially supposed to be running by early next year.

“The City is sacrificing Hillcrest yet again to support industry’s need for additional water,” said Pastor Adam Carrington at the Brooks AME Worship Center. “Corpus Christi has proven over and over again that it values profits over Hillcrest residents’ health and quality of life.”

The Citgo refinery fumes behind a house in Hillcrest.

The Citgo refinery fumes behind a house in Hillcrest. Credit: Dylan Baddour/Inside Climate News

Community groups gathered in the chapel to announce the complaint under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 against the City of Corpus Christi and its Inner Harbor desalination plant, planned on 12 acres in the Hillcrest neighborhood. The complaint requested investigations by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Justice into allegations of discriminatory practices in Corpus Christi’s treatment of Hillcrest. Title VI prohibits racial discrimination by any program that receives federal assistance.

“We the citizens of Hillcrest have endured this for over 60 years,” said Lamont Taylor, vice president of the Hillcrest Residents’ Association and a former director of the Corpus Christi Housing Authority. “Stop this behavior.”

A spokesperson for the City of Corpus Christi said she was unable to immediately comment on the complaint.

It’s the third federal civil rights complaint filed on behalf of Hillcrest residents since 2007. The first stopped the city from putting a second sewage treatment plant in the neighborhood. The second forced the Port of Corpus Christi to fund relocation services for Hillcrest residents in order for the state to build a new highway bridge through the community.

A support for the new harbor bridge stands beside the Corpus Christi Ship Channel near the Hillcrest neighborhood. Bridge construction was halted this year over design flaw concerns.

A support for the new harbor bridge stands beside the Corpus Christi Ship Channel near the Hillcrest neighborhood. Bridge construction was halted this year over design flaw concerns Credit: Dylan Baddour/Inside Climate News

Construction on that bridge, initially scheduled for completion in 2020, was halted this year over design flaw concerns, but only after several hundred Hillcrest homes were demolished.

In the 1980s, Hillcrest residents sued the refineries that were growing nearby and won a settlement for 100 houses to be bought out and demolished to put space between residents and toxic industry.

“The exact site where the City plans to locate the Inner Harbor plant was supposed to be a buffer zone to separate homes from refineries,” the residents’ 45-page complaint said. “This historical background of siting industrial facilities in the Hillcrest neighborhood along with the undisputed racial disparities between Hillcrest and the City demonstrates a clear pattern.”

The median household income of Hillcrest ($26,269) was half that of the city ($52,154) in 2016, according to a 2019 study by the Texas Real Estate Research Center at Texas A&M University.

Its population was 34% Black (compared with four percent of Corpus Christi overall) and 58% Hispanic (compared with 64% of Corpus Christi overall).

Hillcrest also has one of the region’s lowest life expectancies — less than 75 years. A 2021 study by Nueces County found that life expectancies around Corpus Christi can differ by up to 15 years between predominantly high-income neighborhoods and low-income communities of color, with rates of infant mortality, child mortality and premature mortality all highest among Black residents.

“If this had been a whiter neighborhood, if this had been a wealthier neighborhood, they would not have chosen to put this plant there,” said Erin Gaines, an attorney with EarthJustice, who is representing Hillcrest groups in the case. “The city knows this is a historically Black neighborhood that has existing health and safety impacts from a long history of segregation, industrialization and disinvestment.”

The Inner Harbor desal plant was initially proposed as a means to meet new industrial water demands. Preliminary plans presented in 2019 said it needed to be running by early 2023. But the effort quickly became mired in challenges and delays. Ground has yet to be broken on the project.

If the federal agencies agree to open investigations, they will likely put the plant on hold — a serious blow to the city’s increasingly urgent effort to expand its water supply as new industrial developments seek to build facilities around the city’s growing port — the nation’s top port for crude oil exports.

The residents’ 2007 civil rights complaint challenged city plans to build a second sewage treatment plant in Hillcrest. It resulted in an agreement for the city to demolish the old plant and rebuild on the same site — a project yet to begin.

The 2015 complaint challenged plans to build the billion-dollar bridge through Hillcrest, which would allow super-tankers in and out of what is the nation’s top port for crude oil exports but leave the neighborhood entirely hemmed in by massive freeways and the refinery sector.

That complaint led the Department of Transportation to suspend the bridge project until the Port of Corpus Christi agreed to fund an innovative, voluntary buyout and relocation program for the residents of Hillcrest.

While typical highway buyout programs pay market value for homes and then evict residents without guidance, the program crafted for Hillcrest required the port to pay well above market value and to provide relocation counseling services.

“That was pretty unique,” said Kelly Haragan, director of the University of Texas’ Environmental Law Clinic, who helped bring the 2015 complaint. “People were paid what it took to relocate to a comparable house in a comparable part of the city, not fair market value because the fair market value of their homes was nothing.”

That program resulted in the demolition of about 400 homes after 2019 and their residents relocated. A study by the Texas A&M Real Estate Center found “those who remained were angry over their perceived upheaval of Hillcrest, particularly the loss of a sense of community,” while some residents who relocated to more affluent areas “felt excluded or unwelcome in their new neighborhoods.”

This year, the bridge project that prompted the relocations was halted after a review of the plans by Flatiron/Dragados — the same builder of a pedestrian bridge that collapsed in Florida in 2018 — found design flaws that raised the possibility of “collapse under certain load conditions.” The bridge’s fate remains uncertain.

Adam Carrington points towards the proposed site of Corpus Christi’s first desal plant in the Hillcrest neighborhood.

Adam Carrington points towards the proposed site of Corpus Christi’s first desal plant in the Hillcrest neighborhood. Credit: Dylan Baddour/Inside Climate News

“You destroyed relationships that have been there for 50 years,” Carrington, pastor of the African Methodist Episcopal church, said of the Hillcrest buyout program. “Something’s not right.”

In spite of the demolition, he said, some 40 families still remain, about 120 people. About 60 people still show up to his services on Sundays, and more than 100 usually tune in online. Developers have long planned to turn the neighborhood into an industrial zone, but Carrington said he plans to fight until the end.

“This is still a neighborhood,” he said. “This church is still in this neighborhood.”

Disclosure: Texas A&M University has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

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