A Quiet Hell

Thanks to lax enforcement by TCEQ, plants along the Houston Ship Channel launch tons of toxic gases into our air, and face little penalty even when they exceed pollution limits over and over again.

But even those supposedly trustworthy flares may not work as well as we think. When companies calculate emissions, they assume a 98 to 99 percent combustion rate from flares.

"In reality," says Joshua Kratka, an attorney with the National Environmental Law Center in Boston, who has worked on several cases dealing with emission events in Texas, "it is most likely extremely rare that those flares are operating at that efficiency."

Kratka, like many others, blames underreporting and an enforcement system that puts too much trust in companies and is easy to abuse.

From the Houston Ship Channel, it is easy to see the otherwise hidden world of giant industrial complexes such as the Valero refinery.
Courtesy of GHASP
From the Houston Ship Channel, it is easy to see the otherwise hidden world of giant industrial complexes such as the Valero refinery.
Delia Del Valle, who has cancer that she believes was caused by air pollution, wants desperately to move out of her industrial neighborhood not far from Houston's downtown.
Chris Curry
Delia Del Valle, who has cancer that she believes was caused by air pollution, wants desperately to move out of her industrial neighborhood not far from Houston's downtown.

In an e-mail, TCEQ says that the facilities use "widely-accepted methods" and are "thoroughly familiar with their plant and have information about the event...to calculate the emissions."

The Press contacted 20 facilities, fewer than half of which responded. Emily Thompson of Kinder Morgan, which owns a plant in Pasadena, says that the facility follows federal guidelines to calculate emissions and that the numbers reported to TCEQ "represent worst case estimates." Kevin Allexon of ExxonMobil also says his company complies with state and federal calculation methods, noting that its plants have reduced flaring and "reportable air incidents by more than 40 percent in the last several years."

Rick Hagar, spokesman for the French company Total, defends the industry, saying that if anything, the plants overestimate their emissions to avoid getting in trouble later on.

"It's better to be more open than less open," he says.

Critics, however, say the agency seldom audits the calculations that companies use to determine how much pollution was emitted.

"Those numbers in the reports have zero value unless they can be documented," says Tarr, "and the agency doesn't look at the documentation and doesn't require the companies to justify their numbers in general. Whatever the company says, the agency buys. It's like taking Bernie Madoff's word that your investments are soaring."

Soward agrees the system is not ideal, but says given the finite number of staff at TCEQ and the large number of facilities across the state, relying on industry-reported information is a "practical problem" that is tough to fix. "The agency doesn't have the manpower to monitor all of those things on any kind of a regular basis," he says.

TCEQ claims that investigators may ask companies for calculations and other materials not submitted in an emission event report.

"If industry knew that the teacher was going to check the homework," says Tejada, "industry would do a better job."

With such puny penalties, activist groups have begun filing an increasing number of lawsuits against companies for illegal pollution during emission events.

Kratka is one of the lawyers representing Environment Texas Citizen Lobby and the Sierra Club in two such lawsuits against Shell Oil's Deer Park plant and Chevron Phillips's chemical plant in Baytown. The two groups claim that the plants have emitted millions of pounds of pollutants during emission events, resulting in thousands of violations under the Clean Air Act.

In June, Shell settled its lawsuit, agreeing to cut its emissions by more than half in the next three years, improve emissions accounting, fix and replace equipment, and pay $5.8 million to local environmental programs. That's more than double the amount that TCEQ made all 20 of the plants that the Press investigated pay in fines over the past three years.

"It's pathetic," says Kratka. "We got [Shell] to pay nearly $6 million and spend probably several times that on upgrades, and what TCEQ has done to all of those other facilities is just a drop in the bucket compared to what one company really needed to do."

Many see these citizen-group lawsuits as a sign that TCEQ is derelict in its enforcement duties.

"I've been doing environmental work all over this country for 30 years," says Tarr, "and TCEQ is without a doubt the worst environmental regulatory agency operating in the United States of America in 2009. That's my experience. And it's extremely disturbing and extremely sad."

It's hard to see cancer coming. Benzene, for instance, is colorless and can only be detected by its faint, sickly sweet smell. It attacks bone marrow, which can lead to anemia. It damages the liver, lungs, heart and kidneys. It breaks up DNA strands and can cause cancer.

Rhonda Radliff, who grew up in Milby Park, a neighborhood near the Houston Ship Channel, is not angry that she has acute myeloid leukemia. She is, however, furious over how she believes she got it.

"The only known causes of my cancer are exposure to high doses of radiation and benzene," says the 45-year-old woman. "I haven't had much radiation, but I did live near all those plants, and they emit a lot of benzene. I'm so frustrated and pissed that something as violent as cancer can happen to people through neglect. Neglect by the companies and neglect by the regulators."

Radliff was diagnosed in 2007, more than 20 years after she left her old neighborhood to go to Georgetown University, from which she moved on to a legal career in Houston. Every day she undergoes chemotherapy. She says the drugs make her face swell, her lungs fill with liquid, and give her rashes, headaches, nausea and "bone pain that just makes you crazy, like they're pulsing, just bursting from the inside." Every month she suffers a battery of exams and medical tests from a bevy of doctors, including cardiologists, dermatologists and leukemia specialists.

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