Air Alliance Houston Report Shows High Benzene Levels in Galena Park

It's been known for years that the air in Galena Park is laced with benzene, but a new study from Air Alliance Houston has shown varying amounts of benzene have been found at different sites in the town, each site clocking benzene emission levels higher than those considered acceptable by the Environmental Protection Agency.

The idea to collect air monitor samples came about because of a lawsuit Air Alliance Houston and other environmental groups filed against the EPA in 2012. The lawsuit was filed to push the federal regulators to install fence-line monitoring systems to catch the amount of benzene emitted from nearby oil refineries and Air Alliance Houston and company won. The systems should be fully installed by 2018, according to the EPA. Since then Air Alliance Houston has worked closely with the EPA to put together the fence-line monitoring requirements for the refineries.

When EPA officials opted to mandate the use of canisters for the fence-line monitoring program Air Alliance Houston executive director Adrian Shelley says they decided to try out the canister system themselves. “We wanted to get our hands on the equipment and try it out since nobody really knew how to use it, so we got together with the Environmental Integrity Project and the Environmental Defense Fund and a local canister company and everybody put in a little money so we could do a test run,” Shelley says. “We chose Galena Park because it's an area with levels of benzene, one we'd expect to see benzene in.”

Since the Houston Advanced Research Center had recently conducted some innovative and revealing tests on Manchester, as we've previously reported, Air Alliance Houston decided to focus on Galena Park instead. They set up seven sites throughout the community and then the canister filters were swapped out once a week for eight weeks to collect data for benzene emissions.  Researchers sent the information to Loren Raun, an environmental statistics professor at Rice University, to analyze. 

Raun and Air Alliance Houston shared the unpublished findings with the Houston Press.

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.

In its earliest days, Galena Park, nestled on the edge of the Houston Ship Channel, was a farming and ranching community whose only distinction was having a train depot, but the town turned into a refinery town (aka a town where just about everyone worked in the oil refineries) when the industry sprang up along the Gulf Coast during the first half of the 20th century. Galena Park landed on the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality's pollutant watch list in 2000 and the city has remained on that list ever since. 

The reality of that shows in the Air Alliance Houston sampling. Raun says she was careful to simply analyze the samples collected, but her findings still alarmed her. “Galena Park has been on the pollutant watch list for 16 years, and that's troubling,” Raun says. “EPA risk screening levels for benzene are triggered when there's an increased cancer risk of about one in a million. I don't think there's any site in that area that's below one in a million. They're all higher than that.” 

In fact, all of the monitors consistently exceeded both the EPA screening level of benzene (.36 micrograms of benzene per cubic meter of air) and the National Air Toxics Assessment (.81 micrograms of benzene per cubic meter of air) during the time period sampled at each location. The benzene levels also came in higher than the TCEQ effects screening levels (4.5 micrograms per cubic meter of air) during every test at the Avenue J location except for the ones conducted during third, fourth and seventh weeks of the sampling, according to the report. 

“You can tell someone the concentration is higher in one area than others and that could mean a higher risk of cancer, but it's not that simple. There are different ways of looking at this,” Raun says. The odds of getting cancer change depending on the amount of exposure, so people who live in the area but don't work there will have a different level of risk than those who are in the area all day every day.

“This is all about probabilities,” she explains. “Here's something we can say with absolute certainty: Benzene causes cancer, and we know this to be true because it's documented. And benzene concentrations are higher here than they are in the rest of Houston. The monitors prove that."

Juan Flores grew up in Galena Park and still lives there. Community members have known about the pollution for years but it's been an issue for so long that in some ways it's slipped into the background. “It's very concerning," Flores says. "We've known living close to the port and refineries can be a problem, but the actual read-outs of the numbers are something else. They're high.” 

Now, the question is what happens next. “The results left a lot of uncertainty, and it's uncertainty that is difficult to clear up because these monitors don't get into specifics about when these emissions occurred,” Shelley says. “We got great data but it's troubling because we don't know what exactly is causing it or where exactly these emissions are coming from.”
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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