In the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, a preliminary air sampling taken by Houston’s Health Department shows a heavy concentration of the carcinogen benzene.
(ANTIMEDIA) Houston, Texas — On Tuesday health officials in Houston confirmed the presence of high levels of the carcinogen benzene in a neighborhood near the local Valero Energy refinery.
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In the wake of Hurricane Harvey, Houstonians who live near the cities refineries and chemical plants are concerned about their health and safety due to possible damages and leaks. The New York Times reports that Houston’s Health Department has found benzene above the levels at which federal officials recommend workers wear special breathing equipment.
“Preliminary air sampling in the Manchester district of Houston showed concentrations of up to 324 parts per billion of benzene, said Loren Raun, chief environmental science officer for the Houston Health Department. Health officials also detected high levels of volatile organic compounds, which have been linked to a variety of health problems, including liver damage and cancer.”
Manchester is a low-income minority neighborhood in the East End of Houston that has chronically dealt with the effects of industrial pollution. As the Times notes, Manchester is one of several areas of Houston found to have higher levels of childhood leukemia. Many employees of the plants and residents nearby believe the chemicals are the source of the pollution and health issues. Now Houston is dealing with the possibility of an increase in dangerous chemicals because of the destructive flooding of Hurricane Harvey.
Dr. Raun told the Times that Houston’s Health Department would continue monitoring the situation. A spokesman for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency also said the agency would continue to test pollution levels around the Valero refinery. Environment Texas, an environmental advocacy group, reports that Houston’s petrochemical refineries shut down in preparation for Hurricane Harvey and, in the process, released more than 2 million pounds of harmful chemicals into the air. Environment Texas gathered this information from the refineries’ initial reports to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. Chevron Phillips even admitted it was expecting to exceed the legal limits for several harmful chemicals, including benzene.
In April, environmental activists and local residents celebrated a win after a federal judge ordered ExxonMobil to pay nearly $20 million for releasing millions of pounds of toxic air pollution from its Houston-area plants. ExxonMobil was sued by the Sierra Club and Environment Texas after being accused of releasing more than 8 million pounds of dangerous chemicals and contaminants from the Baytown facility about 25 miles east of Houston.
Despite the financial victory, the lawsuits and benzene leaks are nothing new in the fight to preserve air quality in the Houston area. The Houston Chronicle reported on rising levels of benzene as far back as 2008.
“According to data collected by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality and analyzed by the city of Houston, 13 air monitors that track benzene south and east of downtown, from Lake Jackson to Wallisville, saw increases in the amount of time that benzene concentrations exceeded healthy levels,” the Chronicle reported at the time.
Unsurprisingly, the International Business Times is now reporting that two of the companies involved — ExxonMobil and Valero — were recently involved in lobbying against a rule that would allow tighter regulation of benzene. The IBT reviewed federal records that show Valero, API, Chevron, and Phillips 66 were involved in lobbying congressional lawmakers. Ultimately, the EPA did pass a rule for regulating benzene, but after the lobbying efforts, the agency allowed the companies to be exempt from the limits during “force majeure” events like weather emergencies. This more than likely means these companies will be protected from any legal consequences for the purposeful or accidental release of carcinogens like benzene.
In 2014, the Obama administration’s EPA proposed a new rule designed to strengthen the requirement for refineries to take corrective action when benzene emissions are detected. The rule was aimed at curbing emissions from companies such as Valero, ExxonMobil, Shell, and Chevron — all of which reported benzene emissions in Texas after Hurricane Harvey, according to state records reviewed by IBT.
The situation unfolding in Houston is yet another example of corporations and the State partnering together to enforce their rule and escape accountability. The people of Houston have long been the victims of a city government willing to work with petrochemical companies that have no regard for the health of those closest to their facilities.
This issue should also remind all readers that these facilities are producing oil and gas products (plastics) that the average person uses every single day. How can we complain about the dangers of these industries while we continue to support them through our purchases and habits? If we honestly want to change these despicable outcomes we must do more than simply beg government to fine or punish these companies — we must rethink the very way we are living our lives, acquiring our food, and the type of transportation we are choosing.
Change is possible, but it will require rapid individual change around the world. Are you willing to change your lifestyle to benefit the planet and the future?