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.

It all takes its toll. She is constantly exhausted.

"If you're a working person like I am," she says, "by the time you get home, that's it, you're done. There's no more energy and you're so sore. Your life is cut in half between survival and sleeping, and you don't have the energy to go camping or do dinner with friends. It steals your right now, and it steals your hope and ability to plan your future. And it's not something that's going to go away. It's here with me forever. Overcoming it is just learning to cope."

There is little question that Houston has a benzene problem. According to the EPA, oil and chemical plants in Harris County coughed up 567,422 pounds of benzene in 2007, the latest year for which data is available. That's significantly less than the 907,114 pounds those industries emitted in 2003, but critics say it is still far too much.

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.

According to the City of Houston, a six-month survey in 2008 showed that six out of seven air monitors near the ship channel detected benzene levels above what the EPA says can cause cancer in ten out of every million people. That's ten times higher than what is considered an acceptable risk.

"Until recently I didn't even know they were releasing any benzene into the atmosphere," says Dr. Charles Koller, a leukemia specialist at MD Anderson. "It's shocking to me. It seems, frankly, criminal."

It can take more than ten years for anemia to develop in someone who has been exposed to benzene, says Koller, and even longer for leukemia. A person also needs to be genetically susceptible.

"We don't know how susceptibility works," he says, "we just know that it works."

Because genetic Russian roulette plays a role in whether someone is at risk of getting leukemia from benzene exposure, and there is almost no way to know if someone is susceptible, that means everyone should be concerned, says Koller.

"Once benzene gets in the air," he says, "it's everywhere. So even in Katy, there's someone who, if they're susceptible, will get [sick] from what's going on in the Houston Ship Channel."

Radliff says she never thought itwould be her.

"I'm grateful for the plants, for how they help the economy and people's families, and of course I drive a car that uses gas," she says. "But we need to do better. Every time the number goes up of people here who get cancer every year, that's a number on a piece of paper to everyone else, but that's not just a number, that's one of me. No one ever believes it will be them, but it could be."

Volumes have been written about the connection between benzene and cancer, but doctors say that there has been very little research into what effects the entire toxic soup of chemicals and pollutants that exists in Houston's air has on people.

"Our entire focus on air quality is because of health," says Dr. Bonnie New, an occupational and environmental consultant. "And that has not been given the attention that you would think it would. We, the general public, depend on TCEQ to be acting on behalf of our best interests healthwise, and they have not really performed that function for us."

Robert Clowers, a city commissioner in Galena Park, a blue-collar suburb just north of the ship channel, agrees. He's lived there since 1947 and says he's seen "too many people die of cancer for the air to be clean. There's not a lot that working people here can do, though, until the powers that be decide it's important to stop killing us and letting us be killed."

When asked why he hasn't moved out of the area, Clowers says, "I'm just a dumb-ass, I guess."

Radliff got away from Milby Park, but she did not escape the toxic exposure of her youth. And she is still paying, literally. In the two years since her diagnosis with leukemia, Radliff has spent more than $250,000 on medical care.

"What's happening," says Koller, "is that the companies are transferring the costs from their bottom lines to patients' bottom lines."

If true, then companies have a lot more money to spend in other places.
_____________________

The oil and gas industry gives more money to Texas political candidates than to those in any other state, and Rick Perry, the longest-serving governor in Texas history, leads the pack.

According to The National Institute on Money in State Politics, a nonprofit that tracks campaign money, Texas candidates hauled in more than $15.2 million in oil and gas industry campaign contributions during the three election cycles from 1999 to 2004, more than double that of the next closest state, California. That accounts for 25 percent of all campaign dollars that the industry donated to state political candidates across the country during that time.

Some of the largest individual contributors have operations around Houston, including Chevron, ExxonMobil, Valero and the Texas Oil & Gas Association, a 2,000-member organization that promotes petroleum interests. From 2001 to 2004, the industry gave Perry nearly $2.4 million, making him tops among all state candidates in the nation.

In the current election for governor, the energy and natural resources industry has given Perry more than $2.3 million, according to Texans for Public Justice, a political watchdog organization. That's more than any other special interest group has given to Perry.

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