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benzene

What’s a little toxic waste among friends?

No big deal, right?

On the plus side…

The criteria Texas uses to determine how much — and whether — to clean up abandoned industrial facilities, waste dumps and other polluted sites are so lax that they may allow residential homes to be built in areas that neighboring states wouldn’t even consider safe for factories or oil refineries.

That’s according to a report by the Texas Campaign for the Environment Fund set to be released on Tuesday that compares benchmarks for more than 80 different pollutants that Texas, Arkansas, Louisiana, New Mexico, Mississippi and Oklahoma use to determine whether a site is contaminated enough to warrant cleanup and how much pollution should be removed from the soil or water there before it can be re-developed.

The overarching conclusion of the report: Texas’ formulas are “substantially weaker” than those used by almost every nearby state, in part because it tolerates a greater risk of cancer. That means that some polluted Texas sites that would be eligible for cleanup in other states may not be eligible here — and if the state does decide to clean them up, it may not remove as much pollution as its neighbors.

While some neighboring states — namely Arkansas and Oklahoma — rely on federal criteria, Texas uses its own benchmarks. Overall, they are so weak that Texas allows “pollution concentrations on land designated for residential uses that Louisiana, Arkansas, Oklahoma, and Mississippi wouldn’t even restrict to industrial uses,” the report found.

For example, Texas’ cleanup rules say that the ground at residential properties should contain no more than 69 milligrams of the carcinogenic petrochemical benzene for every 1 kilogram of soil; Louisiana, meanwhile, only allows 3.1 milligrams of benzene per kilogram of soil — and that’s for sites intended for industrial use.

The report comes a year after heavy rains from Hurricane Harvey flooded many polluted sites in the Houston area, sparking concerns about contaminants leaching into homes and waterways. And statewide, rapid urban revitalization and population growth means many contaminated sites are being remediated and redeveloped for both commercial and residential use.

You can see that report here. This right here is the reason why uniform federal standards are needed for some things. I don’t know about you, but I would not want to find out some day that the house I bought in some spiffy new development in, say, 2019, turned out to be in the 21st century version of Love Canal. Maybe if we insist on keeping the feds at bay we could elect some state leaders who cared about this sort of thing? Just a suggestion.

Everybody sues the EPA

The state of Texas and our pollution-loving Attorney General do it because they think the EPA does too much to protect us from harm. Some other groups do it because they think the EPA isn’t doing enough.

Houston Ship Channel, 1973

Houston Ship Channel, 1973

In the suit filed on Thursday, Air Alliance Houston and three other groups accuse the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency of using outdated and inaccurate formulas to estimate levels of air pollution.

The groups say studies show that actual smog-forming emissions can be 132 times greater than EPA estimates, which are based on data provided by the industry. The agency, as a result, does not possess reliable data to protect public health, according to the suit filed in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia.

“The EPA has a history of dragging its feet on this issue,” said Jennifer Duggan, an attorney for the Environmental Integrity Project, a legal group representing Air Alliance Houston and the other organizations in the case. “It has been aware of these inaccuracies for some time.”

[…]

The lawsuit comes five years after the city of Houston raised similar issues with the federal agency, which uses the emissions data to develop pollution controls, establish limits and guide enforcement.

In response, the agency acknowledged flaws in its formulas and promised to make changes.

See here for the background; this was a part of then-Mayor Bill White’s plan to reduce benzene emissions in Houston. You can see a copy of the lawsuit and the notice of intent to file suit that was sent by the plaintiffs to the EPA in 2012 here. I think we can safely assume that Greg Abbott will not be filing an amicus brief for the plaintiffs on this one.

“Don’t ask, don’t smell”

The Chron takes the TCEQ to task for it’s screw-the-public decision regarding the Lyondell permit.

“They’re proposing to put thousands of tons of a cancer-causing chemical into our air,” says former Mayor Bill White. “They say they’ll reduce the amount that they’re emitting. But the city can’t tell how much they’ll reduce the benzene emissions. We can’t tell how we can verify that they’ve been reduced. And we can’t tell whether there are technological changes that could further reduce the amount of benzene in our air.”

Other refineries, the city noted, manage to do similar jobs with less pollution. Why can’t LyondellBasell? Can’t we at least ask? And given that we know a lot more about benzene’s dangers than we did 10 years ago, when the refinery’s previous permit was approved, isn’t it time for a new round of questions?

The TCEQ, which like every other agency in this state is an extension of Rick Perry, is not interested in such things. It all makes sense once you realize that.

Why TCEQ is broken

Back in 2008, Mayor White and the city of Houston made a request of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) to hold a hearing before a judge on the latest permit application for Lyondell Chemical Co.’s refinery along the Houston Ship Channel. The TCEQ got around to ruling on that request this week, and they said No.

The Texas Clean Air Act says the three-member commission cannot grant a hearing on a renewal unless the firm is seeking an increase in permitted emissions, and LyondellBasell isn’t, TCEQ’s executive director, Mark Vickery, wrote in response to the city’s request.

But other provisions in state law allow the commissioners to order a hearing on their own authority if they determine that it’s in the public interest.

Vickery concluded that the city’s arguments for a hearing “are not based on any unique facts nor compelling issues that would support a decision to grant a hearing in the public interest.”

The commission’s Office of Public Interest Counsel, which represents the general public in permit disputes, supports Houston’s request, citing the refinery’s potential to adversely affect public health.

That’s an interesting view of what the public’s interest is, isn’t it? Imagine the squawking we’d hear if this had been a federal agency disregarding the wishes of state officials. As it turns out, that still might happen.

The refinery has what’s called a flexible permit, which caps overall emissions at a plant without regulating each emission source. The EPA has said that type of permit, which has been given to about 100 Texas industrial sites, violates the federal Clean Air Act in part because it denies the public an opportunity to review a plant’s operations.

[…]

If the EPA begins rejecting flexible permits, as it has threatened, then the refinery might be forced to seek a new permit, said Kelly Haragan, who heads the environmental law clinic at the University of Texas at Austin.

“It’s crazy that the TCEQ is still approving these flex permits,” she said. “They’re vulnerable.”

Just keep that in mind for when the EPA (hopefully) smacks down the TCEQ. The TCEQ can’t say they never saw it coming.