We're No. 1!

Houston seems destined to remain the country's biggest stink hole

Image-conscious Houston has finally achieved world-class status as the millennium draws to a close. As of October 7, when ozone levels in Deer Park left citizens gasping for breath, Houston became a world-class Shit City, the most polluted in the United States.

Trying to put the best possible spin on a grim situation, Governor George W. Bush and his mouthpieces on the Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission have announced "historic" and "aggressive" measures to reverse the trend that has catapulted Houston past smog-bound Los Angeles as the nation's dirtiest. These measures, still being considered, include reducing industrial emissions by 90 percent, mandatory restrictions on personal vehicle use and other, lesser sacrifices (such as a ban on lawn mowing in the early morning).

Keith Henderson has an idea that can help Houston get a handle on its air pollution problem. The chemical engineer from Louisiana has developed a way to calculate emissions from petrochemical storage tanks that appears to be far more accurate than the method used by the state of Texas and most everyone else. With more than 13,000 tanks in the region pumping out tons of emissions by the day, an accurate estimate would seem necessary, especially as Houston desperately scrambles to meet federal clean-air mandates.

Do hold your breath: The state's plan to clean up Houston's air smells like a loser.
Joe Forkan
Do hold your breath: The state's plan to clean up Houston's air smells like a loser.

Henderson has been pitching his method, which he calls EquiVap, to state and federal environmental authorities and industry officials. The collective response has not been positive. Not because the science is deficient: Henderson has published and presented his research numerous times, most recently at a November gathering of private- and public-sector chemical engineers, with nary a challenge. In fact, the U.S. Department of Energy's Strategic Petroleum Reserve has adopted his method to calculate the emissions from its 575 million barrels of crude.

Rather, the problem with EquiVap is that it tends to show that storage tank emissions are much higher than are predicted by the existing method, known as Reid Vapor Pressure. According to various researchers, Reid can understate actual emissions by as much as 1,000 percent; Reid misjudged Strategic Petroleum Reserve emissions by 300 percent, which equates to thousands of tons of toxic gas. "Storage tanks are undoubtedly the largest source of undetected emissions that industry is putting out," Henderson says.

All of which spells big trouble for EquiVap's chances for widespread approval. If Henderson's method were employed in Houston, for example, then the estimated volume of emissions on which the "historic" and "aggressive" cleanup plan is based would have to be adjusted upward. Reductions even more far-fetched than those on the table would have to be found to satisfy the EPA. "It has huge implications, because it means the numbers they're using [in the plan] are completely bogus," says Neil Carman, Clean Air Program director for the Lone Star chapter of the Sierra Club.

Against that backdrop, EquiVap seems more like a giant headache to those with vested interests than a tool to help ensure the public health.

The state of Texas, always cozy with Big Oil, won't be demanding accurate data anytime soon. Reid Vapor Pressure is actually written into TNRCC regulations as the required method for estimating storage tank emissions. Still, says Kathy Pendleton, program director of TNRCC's Emissions Inventory Section, if the EPA or industry asked the state to use EquiVap, it would certainly be considered. Until that happens, Pendleton says, "We haven't seen the need to spend our resources [employing EquiVap]."

The EPA has looked at Henderson's method and concluded that further testing would be a good idea. "We don't have any problems with it necessarily," says David Misenheimer, group leader of the agency's Emission Factor and Inventory Group. "Basically we needed more information."

Even if his method were further validated by more testing, which Henderson would himself have to fund to the tune of at least $25,000, it might flounder around in the bureaucracy for years before formal adoption. Using EquiVap might then become an option -- along with Reid. "It's something that each industry or state would make a decision on," Misenheimer says.

The odds of companies embracing a technology that would show higher emissions (which they would then have to curtail) are zero. Karen Madro, a Shell environmental official in Houston, says the company has other pollution priorities at the moment. "Our feeling was that fugitive emissions was something that we would deal with down the road," Madro says.

A more telling comment came from Exxon-Mobil executive Jeffrey Siegell, who sits on a federal panel that addresses environmental management issues in the petrochemical industry. He'd be willing to consider new methods, Siegell wrote in an e-mail to Neil Carman (who also sits on the panel) -- as long as the results showed no increase in the numbers. "Any improvements in the prediction of [storage tank emissions] would still need to result in the same actual emissions," Siegell wrote.

Siegell was at the meeting in November when Henderson presented EquiVap and had ample opportunity to challenge the method. "He just sat there, silent," recalls Carman.

Clearly, industry and its minions would rather cling to Reid, which was developed in 1926. Petroleum refining and storage technology has changed dramatically since then, but Reid hasn't. "Can you imagine NASA using 1926 methods to put up the space shuttle?" Carman asks.

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