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Archive for the ‘Houston’ Category

Photo by Stephanie Thomas

Flares along the Houston Ship Channel during Hurricane Harvey.

Public Citizen has been pushing back against the EPA’s rollbacks of the Chemical Disaster Rule. The Chemical Disaster Rule came into being following an explosion at a Texas fertilizer facility in 2013, an incident that killed 15 people and injured 160. The Chemical Disaster Rule would put further protections in place to better ensure the safety of communities surrounding facilities.

Under the Trump presidency, the EPA delayed the implementation of the Chemical Disaster Rule, which was finalized in early 2017. However, that delay was met with a legal challenge, Air Alliance Houston v. EPA. (Public Citizen’s Litigation Group provided an amicus brief to the court on this challenge).

On August 17th, an appeals court ruled that the delay of the Chemical Disaster Rule was unlawful. The judges went so far as to say that the EPA’s tactics made a “mockery” of federal statute. But even though the judges shut down the Trump Administration’s attempt to delay the Chemical Disaster Rule, the EPA is still looking to rollback the rule through a proposed reconsideration rule.

Photo By Stephanie Thomas

Petrochemical processing and storage stretches for miles along the Houston Ship Channel.

Houston’s Chemical Footprint

To better understand the impact of the Chemical Disaster Rule and the Risk Management Program under the EPA, Public Citizen analyzed data publicly available through rtk.net from facilities that are required to submit risk management plans. Basically, these are facilities that store or use large amounts of hazardous chemicals.

In our new report, we found that chemical facilities currently registered as RMP facilities use 2.4 billion pounds of toxic chemicals and 38.5 billion pounds of flammable chemicals in their processes. And the bulk–two-thirds–of those toxic chemicals reside in the eight-county area of the Houston region.

In the Greater Houston region, 442 facilities have reported to the Risk Management Program (RMP) database over the past 5 years, and 314 facilities meet the conditions that require them to report to the Risk Management Program (RMP) database as of April 2018. Among the 314 facilities that are currently reporting, there are 892 processes that could have offsite consequences. This means that should an accident happen, these processes could harm communities.

The RMP facilities within the 8 county region use 51 different toxic chemicals in processes, which total to over 1.6 billion pounds. Those chemicals include chlorine, chloroform, formaldehyde, and hydrofluoric acid. Many are known to be hazardous to human health, and some are carcinogenic. Those facilities also use 29.9 billion pounds of flammable chemicals, which is 78% of the total of flammable chemicals in RMP facilities across Texas.

Accidents and Injuries

Every five years, companies submit risk management plans. When data is pulled from rtk.net, it reflects companies’ latest submissions. For instance, Company Y’s last plan may have been submitted in 2018, but Company Z’s last plan was submitted in 2013. In that way, the information summarized here doesn’t necessarily  reflect an apples-to-apples comparisons, and is not entirely current. But all these RMP submissions taken together gives us a broader understanding of the chemical risks that Houston faces.

The report shows that 89 5-year accidents were recorded in the Greater Houston area. What that means is 89 accidents happened during the 5 years that the reports are compiling. For some companies that could reflect 2008-2013, for others it could be 2013-2018, or some other five year period in the mix.

For those 5-year accidents, 5 deaths and 112 injuries were reported. The amount of property damage from 5-year accidents exceeded $175 million. Again, because RMP facilities are supposed to provide reports every 5 years, this number does not reflect the amount of property damage that took place from 2013-2018; this number reflects the amount each facility has reported over the 5 years previous to their last RMP submission.

Chemical Safeguards

The Chemical Disaster Rule helps protect workers, first responders, and the wider community from potentially injurious or life-threatening chemical exposure. With 1.6 billion pounds of toxic chemicals in a region that is home to nearly 7 million people, let’s keep the rules that protect human life.

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Earlier this month, I visited Exploration Green, a former golf course that local residents have helped to transform into a storm water detention basin and green space.

Located in Clear Lake, TX, Exploration Green finished its first phase in March 2018, and has 3 more phases to go. Yet even before Phase 1 was completed, Exploration Green is already paying off for residents of Clear Lake.

Hurricane Harvey

Rains from Hurricane Harvey hit the Clear Lake area strongly, and the detention basin, then under construction, held 100 million gallons of rainwater and prevented about 150 homes from being flooded. Exploration Green serves as a model for what Houston and other flood-prone areas can do to manage storm water.

Wetland Restoration

Profound development in the greater Houston area led to the loss of 20% of Harris County’s freshwater wetlands between 1990 and 2010, a loss of 15,855 acres. And as Harris and surrounding counties continue to be developed, more and more freshwater wetlands will be lost.

Wetlands serve an important function. They clean polluted runoff that enters Galveston Bay, and without them, the health of Galveston Bay will suffer.

Exploration Green has been working with Texas A&M’s Texas Coastal Watershed Program to design and build storm water wetlands that can enhance the environment and provide habitat for the many creatures that call the Clear Lake area home.

Putting It All Together

A recent report in the journal PLOS ONE states that the cost of flooding along the Gulf Coast will range from $134 and $176 billion by 2030, and the annual risk of flooding in the region is expected to more than double by 2050. This is due to climate change, land subsidence, and the concentration of assets in the coastal zone.

Nature-based solutions like the storm water detention basins and wetlands at Exploration Green are a cost-effective way to help mitigate flooding in communities in Houston. Communities can and should used them alongside policy measures and other infrastructure improvements to enhance our resilience to floods.

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As if the relentless heat wasn’t enough this summer, Austin is experiencing hazy skies due to an African dust cloud originating in the Saharan desert. The dust was most noticeable on Sunday, July 1. The technical term for this dust is “fine particulate matter,” particles that are so small they can travel from our lungs into our blood stream, causing health problems. An individual particle is 1/20th the width of a human hair. 

The Clean Air Act establishes standards for fine particulate matter (also known as “PM2.5” because it is 2.5 microns in diameter) in the air we breathe. PM2.5 is measured in micrograms per meter cubed, a measurement of how much material is found in a given volume of air. The Environmental Protection Agency has established limits of PM2.5 at 35 μg/m³ in a 24 hour period and 12 μg/m³ in an annual average. If an air monitor exceeds that level of PM2.5, then the region it monitors risks being designated in “nonattainment” of the federal standard. There are currently no areas in Texas in nonattainment of the PM2.5 standard, though there are several areas in nonattainment of the ozone pollution standard.

Unfortunately, the Austin area got very close to violating the PM2.5 standard on Sunday. The table below lists hourly monitor values at the Zavala air monitor in Austin (you can see a map of all the air monitors in Texas here). As you can see, the 24-hour average of monitor values at Zavala on July 1 was 32.5 μg/m³, very close to the EPA’s standard of 35 μg/m³.

Data available from TCEQ

This does not mean, though, that Austin risks falling out of attainment of the fine particulate matter standard. There are a few reasons for this. First, measuring compliance with the standard is a complex calculation that involves averaging three years of air monitoring data. Second–and more importantly for air quality this week–African dust is considered an “exceptional event” that would be excluded from the data anyway.

An exceptional event is an air pollution event that is excluded from the data because it meets certain criteria. The EPA establishes the criteria for an air pollution event to be considered exceptional. These criteria include that “the event is associated with a measured concentration in excess of normal historical fluctuations, including background.” 40 CFR § 50.14(c)(3)(iv) (emphasis added).

African dust has been reaching Texas since time immemorial, and the impact of these events on air quality in Texas is absolutely part of the normal historical fluctuations of weather and air quality. In fact, the phenomenon was first identified by a noted historical figure, Charles Darwin, during his famous trip aboard the H.M.S. Beagle in 1833.

You might think that the considerable historical record on African dust events would cause EPA to reject their exclusion from the data on the basis that they are, after all, well within “normal historical fluctuations.” You would be wrong. The truth is that Texas has a long history of claiming exceptional events that include African dust storms. Other typical exceptional events in Texas include agricultural fires in Mexico (as old as agriculture) and ozone pollution blowing in from other countries (also Mexico, also old).

Why does this matter? Most importantly, air pollution is linked to public health. Children, the elderly, and people with respiratory ailments such as asthma and COPD are particularly vulnerable to air pollution. We have to keep our air clean to keep ourselves healthy. But nonattainment designations have consequences for a region that can last for decades and cost billions of dollars. Houston and Dallas, for example, have been trying to get into attainment of the ozone standard for decade. It’s why we have emissions tests for our cars, and why we can’t build a new factory without reducing pollution from an existing one. The consequences are so great precisely because the impact on human health is so serious. Asthma is the number one cause of school absences. Globally 7 million people die each year from air pollution.

So the purpose of a nonattainment designation is to make our air healthier and protect ourselves and our children. Unfortunately, in Texas, the focus is on avoiding nonattainment designations and their consequences to big business. Several times in the last few years, Texas has used the exceptional events rule to keep areas artificially in attainment of air pollution standards. In 2013, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality plainly stated that it was excluding enough exceptional events from Houston’s data to keep the area from being desingated under the fine particulate matter standard. Several air quality advocates (including myself) objected to this move. We even pointed to Charles Darwin’s observations as evidence that Texas could not exclude African dust events from its data.

Our objections were ignored by Texas and EPA. The result today is that thousands of people are breathing air that does not meet federal pollution standards. Their health will suffer as a result. Some people will even die. There are quantifiable consequences to these decisions, and they are measured in human lives.

Since the 2013 move to avoid designating Houston as not meeting the PM2.5 standard, several other exception event exclusions have kept areas of Texas artificially in attainment of pollution standards. El Paso doesn’t meet the ozone standard, but exceptional events blamed on Mexico in 2015 have helped the area to avoid a nonattainment designation. More recently, the failure to designate San Antonio as not meeting the ozone pollution standard was blamed on ozone transport from other regions.

In some cases, Texas is using the law correctly to exclude exceptional events. (Houston’s lack of a PM2.5 designation is not one of these cases. We still maintain that it was done improperly and in violation of the exceptional events rule and the spirit of the Clean Air Act.) But even if the state is legally correct in its maneuvers, it’s doing so at the cost of human health. When the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality relies on tricks of data manipulation to avoid federal scrutiny, it is prioritizing business interests over people. A nonattainment designation has consequences for business and industry: old plants have to clean up, new plants have to invest in clean tech. These consequences do reach into the billions of dollars. The total cost of compliance with the Clean Air Act in 2020 is estimated to be $65 billion. But the health benefits of cleaner air in 2020 is estimated at $2 trillion. That’s a return on investment of more than 30 to 1.

Notably, more and more of our air pollution is coming from vehicles. When you register your vehicle, you pay a fee that is used in part to reduce vehicle pollution. When you get your car inspected and make any improvements needed to meet emissions standards, you are investing in clean air. Texas makes sure that you pay your fair share of the cost of reducing air pollution, and you should be happy to do so. After all, it is an investment in your health and your children’s future.

So why does Texas keeping fighting against Clean Air Act regulation? It’s a question of priorities. Much of the cost of compliance is born by industry, especially the oil and gas industry. That’s a powerful lobby in Texas, far more powerful than children who can’t go to school because of chronic asthma attacks. Texas is willing to skirt some regulations in order to save money for industry. It isn’t willing to invest in environmental improvements that pay huge dividends to its people in the long term.

Industry profits today, or public health tomorrow. Texas has made its choice. What’s yours?

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Six years ago, Public Citizen and our partners founded the Healthy Port Communities Coalition (HPCC), which advocates for the health and well-being of residents of communities on the Houston Ship Channel. The coalition also includes Air Alliance Houston, the Coalition of Community Organizations, and Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services.

Recently, we had an opportunity to convene the HPCC in Houston to discuss our work. One purpose for the trip was to introduce our new Press Office, Angel Amaya, to Port Houston. Port Houston is the largest exporting port in the nation and the center of Houston’s petrochemical industry.

We started at Morgan’s Point Cemetery, the oldest continually operated cemetery in Harris County. It is the small green square in the middle of the photo above. Surrounding the cemetery is the Barbours Cut terminal and turning basin. This is one of two container terminals at Port Houston. Goods from all over the world come into Barbours Cut on very large vessels packed with shipping containers. One ship can carry as many as 4,500 containers. (There are even larger ships, the so-called “Post-Panamax” ships, that can carry as many as 9,000 containers, but they are too large to enter Barbours Cut.) The containers are offloaded by cranes (top of photo) and moved on to trucks and trains to be shipped around the country. Many of the engines that operate at a terminal like Barbours Cut–including marine vessels, cranes, short-haul equipment, drayage trucks, and locomotives–use polluting fossil fuels such as diesel. The Healthy Port Communities coalition advocates for replacement of these polluting vehicles with newer, clean technologies. Many funding opportunities are available for these replacements, including the Diesel Emissions Reduction Act and the Texas Emissions Reduction Plan.

A container terminal like Barbours Cut is probably what most people think of when they think of what goes on at a port. There is plenty of container traffic at Port Houston, but in fact this represents only about 15% of the total traffic.

The rest of the traffic consists of bulk products, most of them petrochemical. We visited many of the industrial facilities that produce these petrochemical products. One of the most infamous petrochemical facilities on the Houston Ship Channel is the Pasadena Refinery, owned by the Brazilian national oil company Petrobras.

Pasadena Refinery is notoriously troubled. In recent years, its woes have included explosions with injury, protests by environmental groups and concerned neighbors, lawsuits by environmental groups, and international bribery scandals. It was recently announced that Petrobras is trying to sell the refinery, although it is unclear who would want to buy such a dangerous liability.

We also visited Hartman Park in the community of Manchester, sometimes referred to as “Houston’s most polluted neighborhood.” Our friends at t.e.j.a.s. have advocated for years for the people of Manchester. When our new Press Officer Angel visited Hartman Park, she was struck by this mural:

Created by children living in Manchester, the mural perhaps unintentionally shows how intrusive polluting facilities are in the lives of people living on the Houston Ship Channel. An idyllic scene of children playing in a park is flanked by industrial stacks spewing pollution into the air. The mural is a stark reminder of what life is like for some of our most vulnerable neighbors in certain parts of Texas.

The Healthy Port Communities Coalition is advocating on the behalf of those neighbors who live in Houston. We finished our trip to Houston with a meeting of HPCC member groups. One topic of discussion was the Chairman’s Citizens Advisory Council (CCAC). The CCAC was created after the Port of Houston Authority Sunset Review in 2013. Public health advocates had asked for representation on the Port Commission itself, with the addition of a new seat representing community interests. That recommendation was rejected by the state legislature, although certain other reforms were implemented. After the sunset review was complete, some advocates continued to call for more representation of community interests at the port. Longtime port community advocate Sen. John Whitmire joined this call, asking the new Port of Houston Authority Chairman Janice Longoria to act. Chairman Longoria responded by creating the Chairman’s Citizens Advisory Council.

The Healthy Port Communities Coalition has had members and allies on the CCAC since it was created. Although we appreciated the move, in the years following we have not seen the CCAC be an effective body advocating for public health protections. This is in part due to the manner in which it was created and operates. In order to improve the CCAC, we have compiled a list of recommendations:

 

  1. The existence of the Chairman’s Citizens Advisory Council (CCAC) should be codified in statute, regulation, or by memorandum.
  2. The chairs on the CCAC should be designated for particular constituencies or neighborhoods, including the chair already designated for the Healthy Port Communities Coalition.
  3. The representative for each chair should be selected by each corresponding constituency, via a process of their choosing.
  4. The CCAC should have the authority to set agenda items for CCAC meetings.
  5. CCAC members should be given time to make presentations at CCAC meetings. Port Houston should be required to formally respond to any presentations and answer any questions posed.
  6. The CCAC should have the authority to make information requests and pose questions to Port Houston. The Port Commission should be required to respond.
  7. The CCAC should be given monthly opportunities to report on its work to the Port Commission.
  8. The CCAC should be able to recommend studies to be conducted by Port Houston. If Port Houston declines to undertake a recommended study, it should clearly state its rationale for doing so.

To her credit, Chairman Longoria did implement #7 above at the request of one of the CCAC members (a t.e.j.a.s. employee). But for the most part, the CCAC still functions as an isolated body whose members serve at the pleasure of the chairman. We believe that the above reforms would make the body a more effective advocate for portside community residents. This would lead to a port that took better care of its neighbors and served as a better steward of public health and the environment.

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This week marks the six month anniversary of Hurricane Harvey, a catastrophic storm that killed 88 people and caused about $125 billion in damages. Scientists have shown that Harvey’s strength was fueled in part by climate change.

Houston Mayor Turner has voiced concerns about climate change and pollution, recently through an op-ed published in the Huffington Post entitled “Cities Must Get Creative In The Fight Against Air Pollution.” In this piece, Turner says that cities must address the poor air quality that too often disproportionately impacts low-income communities. Specifically, he states that he will protest permits for new concrete batch plants. Turner also plans to address climate change through using renewable energy to power city operations and through electric vehicle adoption.

Yet, the city of Houston can do more. The Houston Climate Movement came together last year before Harvey because we know that Houston is at risk for the impacts of climate change. The Houston Climate Movement advocates for a community-wide climate action and adaptation plan.

In response to Turner’s op-ed, we penned this letter to him:

(more…)

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