Benzene Leaks From Pipelines Have Been Quietly Adding to the Ship Channel Toxic Mix

Midway through his presentation, about just-discovered potentially dangerous levels of benzene in their neighborhoods, Jay Olaguer saw the blank looks on the faces in the audience and realized they weren’t getting it. Olaguer, the air-quality science program director at the Houston Advanced Research Center, had spent years getting to this point in February 2015. He finally had the funding to conduct his research projects using everything from CT scans to human lung cells in order to measure the levels of benzene and other toxic emissions found in Manchester and Galena Park.

The monthlong study would be focused on these two low-income, mostly Hispanic neighborhoods along the Houston Ship Channel that have been dealing for more than 20 years with air pollution from the petrochemical industrial complex that lines the waterway, and he was there to tell community members about what he and the other researchers would be doing. But he’d overlooked one thing: Many of the people in the crowd only spoke Spanish, and he didn’t have an interpreter.

“I would have brought someone to translate, but honestly it’s not easy to find someone who knows enough science and Spanish to make these concepts make sense,” Olaguer says now.

Sitting in the audience of about 30 people gathered in Hartman Community Center, in the middle of Manchester, Yudith Nieto, a community organizer who grew up in the neighborhood, started whispering a clumsy translation of the presentation, groping for the words to explain HARC’s Benzene and Other Toxic Exposure Study (known as BEE-TEX for short). “Afterward, everyone was asking me to explain it and I couldn’t really tell them anything else,” Nieto, 27, says.

Olaguer and his fellow researchers plowed on through the presentation and then went to work. Using light beams and mirrors connected to build three-dimensional air pollution maps of Galena Park, a city of about 10,000 residents on the north side of the Houston Ship Channel, the scientists detected plumes of benzene and other substances associated with the petrochemical industry drifting from the nearby refineries, the rail yard and the barges on the Houston Ship Channel — all places they expected to be linked to volatile organic compounds drifting into the air.

But then they noticed streams of benzene, a known carcinogen that has been tied to cancer and birth defects such as spina bifida, coming from the ground in sporadic, unpredictable belches. They figured out the emissions originated in the intricate web of pipelines that tote oil and natural gas to the refineries and petrochemical plants for processing.
“Looking at the map, we realized we’d found something,” Olaguer says. “We were seeing the real emissions going into this neighborhood, and no one has been measuring that.”

The discovery also fit in with Olaguer’s reason for working for more than eight years to cobble together support and funding from various universities and government entities to enable him to go into the neighborhoods wedged in among the refineries and conduct air-quality tests. The goal of BEE-TEX was to help establish affordable, state-of-the-art monitoring systems that could be used to collect real-time data about the pollutants found in each neighborhood.

“The monitoring systems that are in place now are so far apart they can’t detect the hot spots, and, depending on which way the wind blows, they may not even pick up what’s right nearby. You have to be lucky to catch things,” he says. “In some ways, we need to destroy the whole system and put in a new one to monitor all of this, but that takes years. This way we get data quickly and we don’t have to wait for years to figure out what’s going on. If we could change the system over, it could change the whole game.”

Last fall the group started releasing findings from BEE-TEX in various scientific journals. The final paper, published in February in the Journal of the Air & Waste Management Association, examined the previously undetected benzene emissions from pipelines. The emissions were much higher than the levels recorded in the same areas in the 2011 National Emissions Inventory, the Environmental Protection Agency’s air pollution data-collection system that is composed of information gathered from state and local agencies.

The HARC study shows that no matter what the fence-line monitors report, benzene is escaping into the air in Galena Park and nearby Manchester at rates that are close to dangerous for short-term exposure, and at levels well over the safety limits for long-term exposure. And until now, no one has even been looking at the pipelines.

Over the years, people living in the Ship Channel communities have grown accustomed to the “toxic tour” vans that roll through the streets periodically, and the researchers that use the communities as science projects, gathering up their stories of smelly air from the refineries, of asthma attacks and nosebleeds and cancer diagnoses, all possibly linked to the refineries and chemical plants that pump out thousands of tons of emissions each year. Community members used to get excited, Air Alliance Houston Executive Director Adrian Shelley says, but now many are wary of outsiders who come in promising change. “They’re sick of research and they don’t buy into it anymore,” Shelley says. “It’s actually hard to find people in these neighborhoods who are even willing to get involved.”

The irony is that right now, Olaguer has actually found out specific information about the emissions that have been a part of the reality of life in these neighborhoods for decades. But his findings seem to have come at a point when no one wants to hear what he’s learned — especially not the people who live near the Houston Ship Channel.

Houston, the petrochemical epicenter of the United States, is one of the most polluted cities in the country, having been in non-attainment of Clean Air Act standards since the rules went into effect, in 1975. Because of this, Houston’s air quality is heavily monitored by various companies and organizations. Between local governments, private industry and the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, there are more than 140 different types of air pollution monitors measuring the amounts of different chemicals wafting through the air.

The problem is that these monitoring methods — and everything from Summa canisters and adsorption cartridges to automated gas chromatographs is used — suffer from severe flaws, according to Olaguer and various other air-quality experts. Some benzene monitors are in place, but companies won’t be required by the EPA to directly record the fence-line levels of benzene until 2018. There are no required monitoring systems in the communities.

Houston environmental lawyer Jim Blackburn explains it as a funding problem. “We’re not using the most advanced devices in Houston,” Blackburn says. “TCEQ isn’t going to do it unless it’s privately funded, and I don’t think that will change. And it’s a pity, because it should. The EPA is requiring companies to use fence-line monitors starting next year, but the monitors will be the same old equipment, too. It’s better than nothing, but they could do better.”

The first refineries started springing up along the Houston Ship Channel shortly after it opened, in 1914. The large tracts of cheap land with easy access to the sea helped turn the area on both sides of the channel into the throbbing heart of the oil and natural gas industry over the following decades.

From the very beginning, these plants, rapidly expanding and run by workers lacking good training, were prone to leaks, spills, fires and explosions. Fumes from all points in the refining process went into the air. A survey conducted by the U.S. Bureau of Mines in the early 1920s concluded that Houston had already become heavily polluted.

As early as 1956, a study sponsored by the Houston Chamber of Commerce found that the areas around the Houston Ship Channel had a more concentrated level of air pollution, but the findings were dismissed in the report. “It seems safe to say that if any community-wide health hazard exists in Houston due to air pollution, then an equal or greater hazard exists in many other cities in the country,” the report concluded.

Despite the fact that commercial airline pilots were reporting a mile-wide plume of industrial haze streaking across Houston in the 1950s, it was common for industry to deny there was a problem, according to Robert Fisher, professor of community social work at the University of Connecticut. At the same time, the petrochemical industry was so new to the region that those working inside the refineries and plants were exposed to largely unregulated discharges of potentially harmful emissions, including benzene, a substance now known to cause bone-marrow issues, birth defects and leukemia, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Benzene was once used as an aftershave because of its sweet smell, but it has been linked to illness and death since the late 1800s. Studies in 1928 and 1929 linked the compound to abnormally low white blood cell counts and leukemia in workers exposed to benzene. In 1948, the American Petroleum Institute concluded that the only absolutely safe level of exposure to benzene is zero, but recommended 50 ppm or less. A study of workers in 1977 directly linked benzene exposure to leukemia.

Benzene has been a key component and product of the petrochemical industry for decades. It is used as an industrial solvent and a precursor in the production of drugs, plastics, synthetic rubber and dyes. Although benzene comes from naturally occurring petroleum deposits, including crude oil and natural gas, it is typically produced from other compounds present in crude oil through chemical processes.

Thus, it’s been a part of the refineries since the plants first started running. In 2005, then-Houston mayor Bill White, fulfilling a campaign promise to work on the city’s air pollution levels, formed a task force of doctors, researchers and community health specialists and charged them with identifying the substances in the air most likely to cause health problems. The next year, the task force came out with its findings, identifying 12 pollutants that were viewed as “definite risks.”

“Definite risk pollutants were defined as substances for which there was compelling and convincing evidence of significant risk to the general population or vulnerable subgroups at current ambient concentrations,” according to the report. Benzene was listed as one of the pollutants.

White proposed a voluntary benzene reduction program, but not a single company agreed to participate. At the same time, the TCEQ raised the acceptable level of public exposure to benzene to 1.4 parts per billion, the least protective of the Clear Air Act risk ranges for toxicity, and three times higher than the EPA’s recommended standard. The TCEQ standard is still the only one used in air permit reviews, and is the only benzene ambient air standard in Texas.

In 2012, Air Alliance Houston, Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services and other groups brought a lawsuit against the EPA to push the federal regulators to install fence-line monitoring systems for benzene. The systems should be fully installed by 2018, according to the EPA.

Despite the fact that these monitors will use older technology, Shelley notes it’s a victory to get any type of device in place to measure benzene levels coming from the plants. And these types of monitors can still be useful, he says. “They won’t be anything like what Jay did with BEE-TEX. These older monitors don’t identify sources, they don’t record in real time and they’re only measuring from the fences, but it’s better than nothing,” he says. “It’s a question of politics and of resources. Jay’s study took years to get together and $3 million. It’s very difficult to get that kind of interest and support in this issue.”

The controversy surrounding benzene is also part of the reason there’s a lack of research, Alex Cuclis, an independent air-quality scientist who formerly worked with HARC, says. “The tendency of science is to generally avoid getting caught up in anything that could come with lawsuits and politics, because it takes them away from the actual science, and they aren’t lawyers; they aren’t good at politics,” Cuclis says.

The catch is that there are a lot of different viewpoints, Cuclis notes, and the way the emissions levels are measured — with one standard that is purportedly safe, according to the TCEQ, and another, more stringent regulation that is deemed a safe level of exposure, according to the EPA — tends to be understood according to the views of the interpreter. “Juan Parras, the founder of Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services, will say everything is terrible and everyone is dying of cancer,” Cuclis says. “Then Valero will look at the same numbers and say everything is okay. Then I’ll come in and say really, it all depends on where you test for emissions and on what day you look at the numbers and what standards you’re using. It’s not simple.”

Olaguer got the idea for BEE-TEX back in 2007, but it took years to secure funding to do the field work. “I was looking at gaps in the air-quality research, and I wondered why no one was looking at the hot spots, why no one was tracing the emissions back to the sources, so I decided to do it myself.”

Companies self-report their emissions estimates, and there’s a huge difference between the average emissions being reported and the real-time information in which you see these big spikes in emissions and how long they last and where exactly they are, Olaguer says. Once he finally secured funding for his project, in 2012, he decided to use the money to try different approaches and see what worked.

In addition to CT scans, the BEE-TEX researchers used human tissue to test how lung cells responded after being exposed to the air near the Ship Channel. (University of North Carolina scientists cultivated the lung cells from cancerous human lung cells, and Olaguer snapped up the opportunity to use this new technology in his study.) After four hours of being left out in the air in Manchester near Valero’s Houston refinery, the lung cells showed signs of inflammation and asthmatic symptoms from the air pollution.

The researchers also found that they were getting more-accurate readings of air pollution in the neighborhoods by using vans and collecting the data in real time. State and local government air-quality monitoring stations are designed to stay in one place, so they won’t necessarily catch everything being released into the air. But being able to move around made it easier to track any sudden changes in emissions, like a huge release of benzene, and measure how those releases sent the current air pollution levels in a specific area through the roof. The stationary monitoring equipment is unlikely to catch things like that, Olaguer says.

“Everybody has been looking for a single magic bullet to monitor the Ship Channel and the refineries and petrochemical plants,” Olaguer says. “I think there can be more than one magic bullet; we should be using all kinds of ways to examine air pollution. That’s how you create a true picture of what is really in the air.”

Juan Parras has been working as an environmental activist in the Houston Ship Channel communities for years. He maintains that the entire petrochemical complex needs to be eradicated. When he read the HARC study, he just shrugged. For years he’s been saying that the emissions levels weren’t being measured correctly. “Of course there’s benzene coming out of the pipelines. Who knows where else it’s coming from or what else people living in these places are having to breathe,” he says. “Houston is the belly of the beast.”

As a child, Yudith Nieto suffered bloody noses and asthma attacks regularly, just like her cousins living in Manchester and the other Ship Channel communities. One classmate got leukemia and lived; another got leukemia and died. “It’s a part of the way things are there. I didn’t even realize the air there was making me sick until I went away to school,” she says.

When Pat Gonzales moved to Manchester in the 1990s, she’d just turned 20 years old and she and a friend were thrilled to find a house for rent that they could afford. “It was cheap over there, but we didn’t realize why until we moved in,” Gonzales says now. That first night, she could easily walk through the place without turning on a light — the refinery flares guttered on the edge of the neighborhood, acting like enormous, old-fashioned streetlights. The next morning, Gonzales noticed a green film on her car. She shrugged, and rinsed it off with a garden hose. But shortly after that, the coughing started, then the wheezing, and soon she was having full-blown asthma attacks, even though she’d never had asthmatic symptoms as a child.

It took a visit to a specialist for her to connect the dots. The doctor asked Gonzales to describe where she lived, and the moment she mentioned the refinery next door, bought by Valero in 1997, the doctor told her that was the problem. “Until you’re living there, you have no idea what the reality of life is there in those neighborhoods. And once you do live there, it’s so common to get sick from walking to the park and back, and to see kids with nosebleeds, that people don’t even talk about it anymore,” Gonzales says now. She moved out of the area shortly after having her first child. “I heard the baby wheezing, and I knew we had to go.”

However, some people never realize that the health problems they’re wrestling with may be connected to the air they breathe, Juan Flores, a Galena Park city commissioner, maintains. Flores and his family moved into the community when he was four years old. His father went to work at Chevron, and his parents, who didn’t speak English, didn’t realize that the odors that permeated the area were indicators of pollution. The disconnect is still a problem today, he says. “They work, take care of their families, and a lot of them don’t speak English. The smell in the air smells like money to them, and they don’t take the time to find out about the health issues. If their kids are coughing or having trouble breathing, it’s probably never even occurred to their parents that it might have something to do with the air.”

After the HARC study came out, Flores, who also works as the Air Alliance Houston community organizer, posted the results on his Facebook page. Online, people responded with shock, pointing out that many of them lived in the neighborhoods singled out in the study. But then the interest died down.

“Keep in mind, a lot of people live here because they work in the refineries,” Flores says. “People dismiss the air pollution thing, partly because it’s not always something you can see. You see the refineries all around us, of course, but the actual toxic emissions, a lot of them are invisible. And that’s the problem; since people can’t see them, they tend to dismiss them.”

Olaguer’s work confirms what some people have been claiming for years — that the pollution levels are much higher than what is being reported by the refineries and plants. The plumes of benzene traced back to the pipelines will never even be picked up by the fence-line monitors. “The fence-line approach is expected to protect against some big event, a huge emission, but they can’t pick up the smaller emissions, the ones that can still make people sick,” he says.

“I think a lot of people in the neighborhoods are frustrated because they’ve seen researchers come and go for years,” Olaguer says. “We have to keep our end of things purely technical because otherwise the research won’t be taken seriously, but the community is looking for political help, a champion, and when someone comes in with all this technology, it’s hard to explain that we can’t be political champions. For us to be successful, we cannot be advocates.”

Olaguer has been trying for months to organize another meeting so he can share his findings with the communities, but so far he’s been unsuccessful. “I’ve called Yudith and asked when would be a good time to come back, but she’s not returned my calls,” he says.

Nieto isn’t interested. “Did we really need another study to tell us what we already know? It hasn’t changed anything,” Nieto says. “When research actually does something to push out new policies and regulations that will finally protect these communities, then we’ll be able to say something has really been done. Right now it’s still business as usual around here.”

In April, a pair of girls were the only ones on the playground in Hartman Park in the center of Manchester. Their mothers, who are sisters, watched as the children clambered up the playground ladder, over the bridge and down the slide, giggling the entire time. The Valero refinery stood off in the distance, rumbling and spitting out tendrils of smoke and steam. The wind shifted, and a sharp odor, like that of burned fertilizer, filled the air.

Asked if they were worried about pollution, both women registered surprise. “No, what pollution?” one said, glancing over at her daughter. The sisters bring their children here every weekend because the park is always empty, she explained. “I had no idea there was a reason no one was outside.” 
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Dianna Wray is a nationally award-winning journalist. Born and raised in Houston, she writes about everything from NASA to oil to horse races.
Contact: Dianna Wray