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Huntsman empire

Texas-size profits, problems at chemical plants

By Jerry D. Spangler and Bob Bernick Jr.
Deseret Morning News

Published: Sunday, Jan. 11 2004 12:30 a.m. MST

Chemicals are monitored on computers at Huntsman Chemical's facility in Texas.

Tom Smart, Deseret Morning News

PORT NECHES, Texas — Jefferson County is the heart and soul of Texas oil — a land of alligators, Cajun cooking and union loyalists who wear the monicker "redneck" with pride.

It is a place where 100,000 barrels of crude once bubbled to the surface every day, giving birth to oil giants Texaco, Gulf and Mobil, among others. In turn, they spawned myriad asphalt plants, chemical factories and oil refineries that turned the black gold into products for an increasingly industrialized world.

"We're not afraid of refineries here," said County Commissioner Waymon D. Hallmark. "We love refineries. They've been part of our lives since 1901."

In this part of the world, most people don't give a second thought to the petrochemical plants that line the Gulf Coast in an uninterrupted, 200-mile-long crescent called the Golden Triangle — critics call it the Cancer Belt — from Beaumont in southeast Texas to Lake Charles, La.

"Huntsman" is now emblazoned on huge storage tanks at a fair share of those plants, a reference to the Salt Lake City-based chemical giant that now has 40 manufacturing plants around the world.

In Jefferson County alone, Huntsman LLC owns four facilities it bought from Texaco Chemical in 1994, making it one of the county's biggest employers and a primary source of local tax revenue. More than one-third of the Port Neches tax base comes from Huntsman.

But Huntsman inherited a company notorious for its environmental violations and disastrous relationships with unions. And then there was a legal legacy of being sued thousands of times for health and safety problems.

"They (Texaco) were the worst possible corporate member of any community, and particularly this one," said Wayne Reaud, a Beaumont trial attorney and Democratic Party kingpin who has pocketed a small fortune dragging Texaco Chemical into court over the years — at least a thousand times, he says.

"It was a filthy, dirty hellhole of a place," he said, his Texas accent dripping with disdain for what he calls a "bunch of carpetbaggers" from New York.

When Huntsman came to town, Reaud was watching him with a fair share of distrust.

"I thought he (Jon Huntsman Sr.) was going to be a new Mr. Texaco," he said. "I just wasn't interested in sucking up to the new hat. I am a hard sell and talk is cheap."

But he saw from Huntsman an unprecedented financial commitment to cleaning up the plants, both environmentally and in terms of worker safety. And he saw the company give millions back to the community, winning hearts from the factory floor to City Hall. He'd never seen anything like it.

"We have a long history in Beaumont of dealing with wealthy outsiders," he said. "In my lifetime, Huntsman was the only one who ever reached out to the community. The others took the oil and took the money and left."

Once Texaco's worst nightmare, Reaud has become a convert to Huntsman nation. He refers to Jon Huntsman Sr. as an "enlightened industrialist" and a "philosopher king."

"I'll sue Jon Huntsman tomorrow if the plant blows up," he says. "But I know he'd be down here the day after that wanting to do what was right by the families."

A nasty business

The Huntsmans are, by most accounts, nice guys in a nasty business.

Which raises the questions: Have the Huntsmans made the petrochemical industry a kinder, cleaner industry through their company Huntsman LLC? Or have the inherent problems with one of the nation's dirtiest industries soiled the Huntsmans?

The answer, it seems, is a little of both.

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