by Stephanie Coates, UH Energy, University of Houston
When a waterway is deemed too heavily polluted, there is a federal protocol that state and local authorities can follow to measure pollutants, evaluate and enforce cleanup of the waterway. When air becomes too heavily polluted in an environmental “hotspot,” there is no similar mechanism.
And people living in these hotspots too often pay the price.
It’s essential to regulate air pollution, not only for the sake of clean air but also for the health of communities living nearest the highest concentrations. We already have a model for how to do that in the Clean Water Act.
Under the Clean Water Act, if a state identifies a waterway that is “impaired,” or in danger of not meeting water quality standards, the state is supposed to calculate the pollution affecting the waterway and determine a plan, or Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL), to reduce the pollution to levels that meet water quality standards. Part of the plan includes identifying the sources of pollution and, determining how to allocate responsibility among the various sources for reducing the pollutants to an overall acceptable level.
The plan is implemented and the waterway is then reassessed.
As the graphic demonstrates, states are constantly reevaluating and updating their plans throughout this process and moving their waterways toward meeting cleaner standards.
A key feature of this process is that if a body of water is threatened by more than one pollutant, TMDLs account for the heavier cumulative load posed by multiple pollutants, then permits for sources of pollution are issued through the Environmental Protection Agency’s National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System, or NPDES program.
There isn’t a comparable plan for air pollution.
The EPA sets limits for six pollutants, including carbon monoxide and lead, but what if an area is already exposed to several pollutants and a company there is seeking a permit for another? Or if an area experiences emissions of a chemical not on the EPA list?
Since there is nothing like a Total Maximum Daily Load for air pollutants – which would set overall levels allowed, adjusting for how many types of pollution are found in one geographic area – communities in “hotspots” are pitted against individual emitters and have to fight each new pollutant one at a time, without federal support. The situation is exacerbated by the lack of a flexible process for evaluating and lowering those pollutants.
Public health is potentially at risk.
As an example of how this is playing out, consider the permit fight between Valero Refining – Texas, LP, and the community of Manchester, the southeast Houston neighborhood where the refinery is located.
The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) in June held a public meeting to take comments on a permit Valero requested to authorize already existing emissions of hydrogen cyanide from the Fluid Catalytic Cracking (FCC) Unit. Emissions of hydrogen cyanide (HCN) have been occurring since the cracking unit was deployed, but Valero was not previously required to track them. However, the EPA recently started requiring testing for HCN, meaning the company needed an addendum to its existing permit for other types of emissions at the site.
According to the notice published by TCEQ, after reviewing the technical aspects of the amendment, the agency’s executive director “made a preliminary decision to issue the permit because it meets all rules and regulations.” The executive director of TCEQ appeared to see it as a straightforward issue and granted preliminary approval.
But to the citizens testifying at the public meeting, the permit feels like another nail in the coffin.
The town of Manchester, zip code 77012, straddles Interstate-10 and sits in a fork of Buffalo Bayou at the Houston Ship Channel – the interstate and ship channel are both heavily trafficked. Other prominent features of the immediate neighborhood include a fertilizer plant, two recycling facilities, two refineries including Valero, and the Union Pacific train yard. A number of chemical plants sit within a three-mile radius.
The University of Texas School of Public Health found a possible link between cancer risk in the area and the air pollutants. In 2016, the Union of Concerned Scientists concluded similarly and also noted that the risk of respiratory hazards is 24 percent greater in Manchester than in more affluent parts of Houston.
At the public meeting with representatives from TCEQ, residents reported health-related issues, including frequent nosebleeds, asthma and headaches. Without regulations on total air quality, it was easy for TCEQ to dismiss the complaints. It is not the hydrogen cyanide alone that causes all the noted health problems, but that was the only issue being considered.
HCN is a neurotoxin, and at high concentrations causes death. Lower chronic exposure can cause headaches, weakness, nausea and enlarged thyroid, but HCN is also lighter than air. That means when it’s released from the refinery, it usually rises rapidly and since it is being emitted from a tall stack, it will be able to disperse into the atmosphere to break down (albeit slowly). At that point, most people would not consider it a health risk.
In July 2017, TCEQ wrote an interoffice memo regarding the health effects from the emissions related to the new permit. It concludes that they “do not anticipate any short- or long-term adverse health effects to occur among the general public as a result of exposure to the proposed emissions from this facility.”
However, this memo intended to attest to the health risk does not examine the already existing total accumulation of emissions, nor how allowing the HCN emissions impacts the risk. It does not consider the possibility of potential leaks or other unplanned emissions, or potential explosions.
Without an overarching federal rule requiring it to do so, TCEQ, although it could do otherwise, grants permit requests for each individual chemical emitted at each individual facility instead of considering the overall impact of adding hydrogen cyanide to the pollution mix over Manchester.
In this permit fight, Valero is not to be seen as an enemy or villain – many Manchester residents work at the refinery, which by at least some accounts has been a good and responsive neighbor.
In fact, we can’t blame any individual refinery, especially since emissions only come as a by-product of supplying the gas, chemicals and other valuable consumer products we all demand.
The cumulative risk – not only the air quality risk posed by total pollutants, but also the health risk from pollutants in an area already made vulnerable by the fact that so many residents are poor, members of a minority ethnic or racial group and speak limited English – should be considered when permitting an additional facility or more emissions. We have a system for reporting air pollution emissions through the Toxic Release Inventory, for example, but after we collect and report the data, we don’t do enough to ensure the safety of affected communities. As it is now, health risk is only assessed as individual chemicals newly become regulated, as in the case of HCN; even then, the assessment is incomplete since it does not address total ambient air quality.
Limiting the overall load of air pollutants is a better way to address hotspots and is already working well under the Clean Water Act.
Residents haven’t given up the fight against allowing hydrogen cyanide emissions at the Valero refinery, but the odds aren’t in their favor. Until Manchester and similar communities have a better way to deal with the source of public health problems, they will need to keep fighting, one chemical at a time.
Stephanie Coates is a member of the staff at UH Energy and is a graduate student, pursuing her master’s degree in public policy, along with her master’s degree in social work at the University of Houston. She has received several awards including the Phi Alpha Honor Society Scholarship, Women’s and Gender Resource Center Scholarship and the Hobby School of Excellence Scholarship. Stephanie is a member of MACRO Student Organization and serves on the Student Center Policy Board, where she chairs the subcommittee for Facilities Use and Planning. She serves on the UH Sustainability Committee and volunteers with Staff Council. Stephanie has a bachelor’s degree in Spanish from the University of Houston.