CORPUS CHRISTI, Texas _ From her front porch, Ada Mae Walford faces the city's other skyline.
Her rented, wood-frame house has no view of the gleaming hotels along Corpus Christi Bay or the mansions on Ocean Drive. Instead, she looks at the enormous steel tanks, pipelines and smokestacks of nearby refineries _ the main engine powering the local economy.
The 64-year-old retired housekeeper complains that strong petroleum fumes from the refineries are causing her health problems, which she said will soon force her to move.
"The stuff is making me sicker and sicker," Walford said. "I've got a rash all over my body and my eyes are bothering me."
Hundreds of residents like Walford are joining lawsuits against Corpus Christi's five major refineries, citing fears of contamination, a nose dive in property values and a string of recent explosions.
Business leaders worry the looming battle threatens future investments in a city where two of every five nonagricultural jobs depend on the petroleum industry.
Mayor Mary Rhodes said the lawsuits are an obstacle to her goal of negotiating industry fee increases to pay for buffer zones, created by buying out residents closest to the plants.
"Industries are not willing to sit down and buy up properties if they are going to get sued anyway," she said.
But the Rev. Roy Malveaux, executive director of People Against a Contaminated Environment, said residents were ignored for years _ until they sued.
His citizens' group was formed this year to mobilize residents, many of whom are older, poor and minorities. Malveaux said his own home was appraised at $44,000 in 1982 _ but only $29,500 last year.
"It almost appears that somebody is holding us hostage to wait for the value of the property to go down," said Malveaux.
In the past year, a handful of law firms have sued the major refineries Coastal Refining and Marketing, Citgo Petroleum, Koch Refining, Southwestern Refining and Valero Refining.
Also sued were Amerada Hess Corp., which operates petroleum storage tanks, and chemical plants owned by Occidental Chemical Corp. and American Chrome and Chemicals Inc. …