By Chris Lane
By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
It was just after dawn along the Houston Ship Channel when all hell broke loose inside the Valero oil refinery. What had begun as a small fire in a storage tank quickly sparked an explosion, sending 3,461 pounds of sulfur dioxide into the air and five workers to the hospital.
None of the toxic pollutant, which can trigger a range of respiratory, heart and lung diseases and forms acid rain, was permissible under the refinery's state-issued permit.
Shortly after the blast, television news stations broadcast images of burning equipment and charred debris. People living in the nearby Manchester neighborhood were ordered to close their windows and doors and stay inside.
On that humid morning of August 4, 2008, Delia Del Valle was among them. The 68-year-old retiree had spent the majority of her days living and raising her now-grown children less than ten blocks away from the Valero plant. She has lymphoma, and believes that her cancer was caused by the toxins and carcinogens routinely belched into the air by the scores of refineries and petrochemical plants that dominate east Houston along the ship channel, seven miles from downtown.
Del Valle, a petite woman whose wrinkled face is swollen from chemotherapy, remembers the explosion and being able to write her name in the ash that settled on top of her car afterward. Though that in itself was not unusual. Del Valle often found her car coated in debris, thanks to a never-ending drizzle of legal and illegal pollution.
Within days of the Valero explosion, other nearby plants also unexpectedly spit up huge amounts of toxins. On August 8, a tank overflowed at an ExxonMobil chemical plant in Baytown, releasing 3,623 pounds of benzene into the atmosphere. Benzene is one of the longest-known carcinogens and is used to make plastics, lubricants and rubbers. It also appears naturally in crude oil. The EPA requires that any accidental release of benzene greater than ten pounds must be reported, and doctors say there is no known safe level of exposure to any carcinogen.
Nine days later, at the same ExxonMobil plant, an equipment failure caused the release of 16,325 pounds of pollutants in six hours, including carcinogens and other chemicals that can cause birth defects and damage the nervous system. That's the equivalent of eight toxic elephants stampeding into Houston. Two days after that, there was a valve malfunction at one of LyondellBasell's plants in Channelview, sending 6,346 pounds of benzene into the air, exceeding the unit's yearly allowable benzene emissions in a single incident.
On October 4, Houston Refining coughed 28,641 pounds of sulfur dioxide into the air, more than eight times as much as was released during the Valero explosion. And the day after Christmas, a gasket failure at another one of LyondellBasell's chemical plants in the Houston area emitted 11,542 pounds of a known carcinogen in less than five hours.
Out of all of these emission events, most caused by some type of equipment failure, only the Valero explosion — the smallest and the one to make the afternoon news — received an enforcement citation from the state's regulatory agency, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. It penalized the plant $20,900 but then reduced the fine to $8,000, cutting the penalty by 62 percent. The other incidents slipped by, unnoticed by the public and unpunished by TCEQ. They represent just a small handful of the emission events that occur almost every single day of the year at the nearly 150 chemical and petroleum plants in Harris County.
The health and environmental costs of air pollution are not shouldered solely by people such as Del Valle who live close to the refineries and chemical plants. Once the toxins and carcinogens are air-borne, they know no bounds, and doctors say they can just as easily find their prey in River Oaks or Katy as they can in Manchester.
During a four-month investigation, the Houston Press examined emission reports submitted to TCEQ over the past six and a half years by 20 facilities along the Houston Ship Channel (see "Twenty Emitters"). The Press looked at hundreds of thousands of data entries for individual pollutants that were emitted during non-routine operations. The Press found that:
• More than 20 million pounds of pollutants, 450,000 of which are known carcinogens, were emitted due to equipment breakdowns or unscheduled maintenance, startup or shutdown events;
• TCEQ rarely took enforcement action, and when the agency did, the fines were nominal and in most cases later significantly reduced;
• The plants with the most violations paid the lowest percentage of their fines;
• TCEQ is so understaffed that it can take years to finalize penalties, and some critics say it avoids assessing time-consuming violations altogether.
• And, as a matter of policy, TCEQ strayed from federal law by combining multiple federal permit violations into a single state violation, thereby giving industry a break by assessing fewer and less costly penalties.
TCEQ is run by three commissioners who are appointed by the state's governor, currently Republican Rick Perry. Studies show that Perry (as well as other politicians throughout the state) has received more campaign money from the oil and gas industry than any other governor in the country, and critics say he has a vested interest in keeping air pollution regulation and enforcement at a minimum and appointing commissioners who share his pro-business agenda.