Sheila McNulty Houston’s battle against air pollution beginning to get traction

In addressing the recent oil slick in the Gulf of Mexico, the US government has swung into action, mobilising the military and high-level officials for months on end. But roughly 350 miles east, the slow-motion environmental disaster above Houston continues unabated.

Because air pollution is not only invisible, but its impact on health and the environment is not immediate, it provokes little outrage; there are no images of oil-soaked birds or devastated fishermen to provoke media ire and political action.

In Houston, the energy capital of the world, there are 497 industrial facilities with a total of 27,463 flares, boilers and the like, emitting chemicals that have been linked with everything from nervous system damage to cancer. And yet environmentalists have been fighting a tough battle bringing attention to this cause.

Robert Sanborn, president of Children at Risk, a think-tank dedicated to improving the lives of Houston’s chilldren, explains:

In Texas, we do put business first. This is a good case of David and Goliath, and the state pays attention to Goliath. It’s a reality of Texas. The oil industry is the lifeblood of Houston. It’s the lifeblood of Texas industry.

The city’s petrochemical facilities grew up along the Ship Channel waterway because of the access it provided the oilfields and refineries. It has, over the years, been deepened and widened as traffic and the size of ships wanting to access the waterway has grown. Today, it is 50 miles long, 530 feet wide and 45 feet deep.

Charlotte Wells, who lives along the Ship Channel in Galveston Bay, believes more could be done to ensure better air quality. Although the refineries, plastics makers and pesticide companies regularly report when they emit toxins into the air, she’s more concerned about the emissions that go unreported. And so she keeps a watchful eye, calling regulators to report flares or other signs of unplanned emissions when she sees them. But she believes it does little good; It takes the officials an hour to get out, and by then the release has mixed in a stew and sits out over the bay in a cloud. Ms Wells said in an interview:

We’re heavily lacking in enforcement. The only instrument they come out with is their nose. They sniff. They say, ‘I can’t smell anything’.

While state regulators deny that, the EPA’s Al Armendariz, Regional Administrator, told FT Energy Source the agency has “some serious concerns” about air quality permits issued by Texas to large industry, as being not federally consistent:

The permits are issued in a way that potentially allows for numerous operational modifications. We do believe this improperly allows for increases in emissions in some circumstances. The permits might allow for changes in emissions neither we nor the public can track, so we have to fix that problem.

Permits are a crucial check to emissions. The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) , which grants permits, insists it follows state and federal statutes, rules, and available guidance when evaluating air permit applications.

Yet the EPA has been cracking down in recent months, giving environmentalists hope. Elena Craft, a PhD in toxicology who is Air Quality Specialist for the Environmental Defense Fund, a non-profit, says she is “pleased the EPA is showing strong leadership in improving the permit process in Texas.”

She points to the EPA’s decision in March to reject an exemption submitted by TCEQ allowing companies that have Texas-issued air permits to avoid certain federal clean-air requirements – including public review when they modify their plants. The EPA has determined this does not meet several federal Clean Air Act requirements. “We hope that these changes will lead to improvements in air quality across the state,” says Ms Craft.

On August 31, the EPA disapproved aspects of the TCEQ clean-air permitting program, saying they did not meet federal Clean Air Act requirements, noting it has been with “the state and interested parties to better align TCEQ’s air permitting program with federal requirements and existing state programs, so that air permitting in the state will better protect air quality for all Texans.”

In addition, the EPA has ruled that carbon dioxide and five other gases pose a danger to human health, clearing the way for the agency to regulate emissions from large industrial sour ces without waiting for legislation from Congress.

It is worth remembering that Houston is just one of a number of US cities in various stages of non-compliance with federal air quality reguations. While Houston was, at one time, according to some measures, listed among the worst, there are lots of different ways to to measure air pollutants. And now there are many different cities across the country in various stages of noncompliance.

Besides, state regulators say federal statics have yet to reflect marked improvements recorded last year, when they say their own readings show Houston improved so much its status should now be classified as “attainment” – as in meeting standards – leaving cities such as Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Atlanta, Charlotte, Riverside, Sacramento, San Diego and San Juaquin Valley now worse off. There are about 30 cities in the US classified as having “nonattainment” status for ozone. Yet regulations are expected to tighten this year under the Obama Administraion, which will put Houston back out of compliance.

Juan Parras, founder of the non-profit organisation Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services, regularly gives “toxic tours” through Manchester, a tiny section of blocks just outside of Houston that is literally surrounded by industrial facilities. The the air is laced with the rich scent of pollutants. And a mural on the side of the community centre underscores the dilemma for residents in the heart of the biggest petrochemical manufacturing complex in the US.

In bright colours, an artist has painted an image of children skipping and playing on swings in the park outside the centre. Behind this carefree scene, the artist has chosen a backdrop of red and white industrial towers, spewing orange emissions into the air above them. Mr Parras is clearly upset and wants the Environmental Protection Agency to get even tougher:

Kids can’t live in neighbourhoods like this. We hope the EPA will force a retrofit of facilities with better anti-polluting equipment or relocate these families.

A solution must be found, but, given the difficulties in galvanizing support for their cause against air pollution, people like Charlotte Wells and the children of Manchester are not holding their breath.