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Mayor White challenges the EPA

I’m always happy to see action being taken on behalf of cleaner air.

Mayor Bill White on Thursday challenged the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s methods for calculating emissions from large refineries and chemical plants, saying that the approach significantly underreports the amount of pollution in Houston’s skies.

White said studies show that actual emissions can be 100 times greater than EPA estimates, which are based on industry-provided data.

To produce more reliable information, the federal agency should require refineries and chemical plants to verify the accuracy of their emissions with emerging laser technology and fence-line monitors, among other steps, White said.

“Up until now, the EPA has relied on rough estimates, and the companies themselves have done the estimates,” he said. “It’s a simple request, but it’s a very bold request. It’s a request that will allow the people of Houston to know what’s in their air.”

The mayor said federal, state and local governments must have reliable data to make decisions regarding public health. The push comes as state regulators work on a new pollution-fighting plan for the eight-county Houston region, one of the nation’s smoggiest.

It’s also White’s latest attempt to confront regulators in his fight over toxic chemical emissions. In May, the city challenged the permits from a nearby plant to force the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality to limit the levels of the carcinogen benzene in the air.

Challenging the agencies that are tasked with enforcing standards to do a better job of it is a good tactic. Someone needs to hold them accountable, and as things stand right now such pressure isn’t going to come from the federal or state level. So we may as well do it ourselves.

White said the EPA uses formulas, equations and assumptions to determine pollution levels from refineries and chemical plants that the agency itself described as flawed 12 years ago.

The formulas, for example, assume that equipment is operating as designed under normal conditions, and do not account for environmental variables, such as wind speed.

“The factors should be based on reality instead of idealism,” said Elena Marks, the mayor’s director of health and environmental policy.

EPA spokeswoman Cathy Milbourn said the agency would review the mayor’s request and respond accordingly.

Hector Rivero, president of the Texas Chemical Council, said he had not had a chance to study White’s request. Even so, he said, “Houston’s air quality is the most accurately measured in the nation, thanks to a combination of Houston’s extensive air monitoring network, industry’s voluntary use of infrared technologies to detect and report emissions, and industry’s efforts to strictly comply with EPA’s reporting requirements.”

Those efforts have helped to improve the region’s air during the last 30 years despite population growth, he said.

Well, if these other methods are accurate, then getting the EPA to use more accurate tools should simply serve to confirm what we already know. And if the EPA’s findings turn out to be different, then maybe what we’ve been doing wasn’t so hot and could stand some improvement. Either way, what’s the problem? Let’s make sure we’re doing this right across the board so we can feel confident in the results we get.

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