By Leslie Ness
(Leslie is CEC’s intern. She has degrees in communication and nursing. We sent her to the EPA hearings to report her impressions. For other reports, see this Chronicle article and this Houston CLEAN report.)
As I drove into Houston’s Manchester neighborhood to attend Tuesday’s hearing on the EPA’s proposed emissions standards for hazardous air pollutants from refineries, I was struck by the billowing plumes of white smoke and realized that a person like me, who is not knowledgeable about petroleum refining, hasn’t a clue whether the smoke is harmless steam or poisonous benzene-laden pollution.
This struck me as an analogy for the east-end community. It’s obvious that there are problems to be addressed. The symptoms are visible. As I listened to the testimony, however, it became clear that pinpointing the problems and isolating their causes and contributing factors are far from easy tasks.
According to the EPA’s fact sheet about the proposals, the Clean Air Act requires EPA to review existing control technology standards that reduce emissions of air toxics (chemicals that are known or suspected to cause cancer and other health problems) from industrial facilities and to tighten those standards, if needed, to protect public health. EPA analyzed emissions at petroleum refineries and determined that the risks to human health are low enough that no further controls are warranted.
One EPA proposal is to retain the current standard. Its second option is to amend the standards to provide additional health protection. See the EPA website. However, many people who testified requested a third option of stricter standards.
The hearing provided a diverse and colorful tapestry of testimony. A few speakers represented the petroleum industry, many more were from environmental groups or were elected or government officials. Several had well-laid-out presentations with statistics and graphs, others told their personal stories.
The testimony that was most important, in my estimation, was that of the residents of the community. Many times, they said, their voices are not heard or heeded.
The issue most frequently addressed was “What is an acceptable health risk?” For the general population, EPA’s definition of an acceptable health risk is one (more) cancer case per million people for the general population, but, to the EPA, the acceptable risk is 100 cancer cases per million people if a person lives close to a refinery.
One industry representative, Jeff Holmstead of Bracewell and Giuliani Law Firm, later identified to me as a former EPA assistant administrator and now (again) a lobbyist, claimed that a one in one million risk is 27 times less than the risk of dying by a lightening strike. One in one million, he said, is simply the point at which risk is inconsequential. Holmstead continued to say that it would be silly to hold petroleum refineries to that standard, implying that getting struck by lightening is a hazard virtually no one considers in a risk/ benefit analysis of life.
This made me wonder. There is clearly risk inherent in living near a refinery, but what is the acceptable number considering many of us face risks greater than 100 per million (like a car accident for example) simply by getting out of bed in the morning?
However, several speakers questioned why people who live close to refineries should be less safe than the general public. To have one standard for the general public and a lesser standard for those living close to refineries is an example of environmental racism, they said.
Physician Bonnie New pointed out that people in communities like Manchester are often vulnerable populations (youth, age, illness, low income) and should therefore be more protected than the general population.
This hearing brought many issues to my attention. Which are steam, and which are benzene? Is it the petroleum refineries or the lack of health insurance (which one resident mentioned) that exacerbates health problems? Or something else entirely? Five or six Manchester residents testified that Texas Port Recycling, a newcomer to the neighborhood, is also a big concern. They claimed the company, which shreds cars, causes metallic dust and a cacophony of noise in the middle of night, causing health and morale problems.