Well, this is an interesting development.
Galena Park has been on the Texas Commission of Environmental Quality Air Pollutant Watch List since 2000 to track the level of benzene in the air of the community, which abuts the Houston Ship Channel and thus the beating, belching petrochemical center of the United States. For more than a decade, TCEQ has measured the ambient concentrations of benzene, a known carcinogen that has been tied to cancer and birth defects such as spina bifida.
The agency even ramped up its data collection in 2008 and has since then watched the ambient benzene concentration levels decline.
And now, like magic, the amount of ambient benzene in the air of the neighborhood is within acceptable limits, according to a TCEQ release issued Monday. Thus, state environmental regulatory agency officials have proposed to take Galena Park off the Air Pollutant Watch List for benzene entirely.
Why? Because things have gotten better, obviously, measurably. The level of ambient benzene in the air has fallen to the point that the people living in the area and breathing that air every day will no longer have benzene-related health effects, according to TCEQ.
The report issued with the proposal to de-list Galena Park notes, very helpfully, that the air monitoring comparison values the state agency uses "are set well below levels at which adverse health
effects are reported in the scientific literature to provide a margin of safety."
So even when various pollutants have exceeded these air monitoring comparison values, that doesn't "necessarily" indicate adverse health effects or odors. So yeah, the air in Galena Park is now supposedly safe enough for the TCEQ to take the city off the Air Pollutant Watch List for benzene. But if you live in the area and have ever smelled something sickly sweet or gotten asthma or some kind of weird cancer, that's definitely not because of benzene, according to TCEQ.
But we digress.
Anyway, this would all be exciting, except that it doesn't take into account the fact that we've found out just this year that benzene isn't just coming out of the petrochemical industry at a steady-and-steadily-declining rate. See, it turns out that the pipelines laced beneath the city of Galena Park are also emitting benzene in large and unpredictable belches, according to a study from Houston Advanced Research Center that was an April cover story, "Silent and Deadly."
The HARC report was based on research conducted in 2015 and published last spring. It found benzene coming from the nearby refineries, the rail yard and the barges on the Houston Ship Channel — all places the researchers expected to be linked to volatile organic compounds drifting into the air.
But the scientists conducting the HARC study also discovered streams of benzene 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.
The study was a part of HARC’s Benzene and Other Toxic Exposure Study (a.k.a. BEE-TEX), a project focused on using affordable, state-of-the-art monitoring systems that could be used to collect real-time data about the pollutants in neighborhoods like Galena Park.
The approaches the BEE-TEX study came up with were cheaper and more accurate, Jay Olaguer, the head of air quality research at HARC, said, because the monitoring systems in place now are so far apart the monitors don't detect hot spots, and if the wind blows in the wrong direction, they may not pick up what's right next to them.
The BEE-TEX study found very different results from those being touted by the TCEQ as the reason to de-list Galena Park. 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, including TCEQ.
Which raises the question, why is the state environmental agency taking Galena Park off the naughty list, so to speak, when it comes to benzene emissions? We asked TCEQ, and a spokeswoman told us she'd get back to us on this. We'll update as soon as we hear back.
But meanwhile, we have to say it's an intriguing development. If the state does take Galena Park off the benzene watch list, that won't mean the area is no longer being monitored for benzene emissions. There are more than 140 different types of air pollution monitors measuring the amounts of different chemicals wafting through the air all across Houston.
Sure, most of these methods are flawed, but they exist and some are stationed in Galena Park. Plus, in 2018 companies will be required by the federal Environmental Protection Agency to record directly the levels of fence-line benzene drifting out and into Galena Park and other neighborhoods.
Or at least, that's what's supposed to happen. If President-elect Donald Trump guts the EPA the way he has promised to, these plans for monitoring may change.
Keep the Houston Press Free... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Houston with no paywalls.