A Three-Valdez Spill: In the environmental henhouse, the fox counts the chickens
In fact, it's much worse.
That is one of the conclusions to be drawn from a recent study of Houston's air that underlies newly proposed changes to the Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission's plan to reduce Houston's ozone smog by 2007. The Texas Air Quality Study, based on field research conducted in the air over Houston, has found that the amount of certain toxic air pollutants -- specifically some "volatile organic compounds," or VOCs -- is consistently three to 10 times greater than previously estimated. At certain times, the study reported, the VOC levels are as much as 100 times higher than estimated. (The specific VOCs are known as "olefins," highly reactive and toxic hydrocarbons used in the manufacture of light plastics.)
Alarming as that news may be, it can't be called surprising, since the official government numbers -- known as "toxic release inventories" -- are almost entirely based on industry self-reporting of those releases. "I'm not surprised at all," said Neil Carman of the Sierra Club. "We've known for over 10 years that the inventory was off. For a long time at public meetings, it's been a private joke between industry and agency officials that the actual releases are much worse [than the estimates]. ... The [petrochemical] plants are so big and complex, and there's just not enough monitoring."
If you think that we dodge the Houston bullets by living in Austin, recall that there's nowhere to run. A significant element of the air pollution problem in Central Texas -- as well as much of East and even North Texas -- originates in the Houston-Galveston area. "This is a huge issue for all the S.I.P.s," said Carman.
The "S.I.P.s" are the "State Implementation Plans" to reduce pollution, mandated by the Environmental Protection Agency under the federal Clean Air Act. If the state S.I.P.s -- the Houston-Galveston S.I.P. is one of five in Texas -- can't meet federal standards for pollution reduction, the EPA is supposed to step in and take over. The Houston-Galveston S.I.P., based on the conventional estimates, was already in trouble -- somewhere between 50 and 80 tons of pollutants per day short of compliance -- so this latest news is not exactly encouraging.
Maybe we can ask everybody in Texas to hold their breath until 2007.
As this column went to press Wednesday, the TNRCC commissioners were meeting to consider proposed changes to the Houston S.I.P. that would require tighter restrictions on VOCs. But in return, industry is demanding looser restrictions on nitrogen oxide -- the other major pollutant that reacts with VOCs to form ozone. The current plan calls for industrial reductions of 90% of NOx, but a group of major petrochemical and energy companies (such giants as Reliant Energy, ExxonMobil, Occidental Petroleum, Dow Chemical, and Chevron) took the TNRCC to court to argue that an 80% reduction of NOx -- accompanied by an as yet undetermined reduction of VOCs -- would achieve an equivalent reduction of ozone. The Air Quality Study was done pursuant to the court's consent order -- and it's possible that even the industry players were surprised at how badly the toxic release inventories have been skewed.
Who's Guarding the Henhouse?
Industry and the TNRCC blames the low estimates on the EPA's approved method of calculating releases. "Obviously there's been a massive underreporting," TNRCC spokesman Patrick Crimmins told the Chronicle. "But the EPA method doesn't fit Houston well, where there's such a concentration of facilities." Carman counters that the study has confirmed what citizen and environmentalist groups have suspected for some time: that the companies have been "fudging the numbers" to their advantage and the disadvantage of the rest of us. In Carman's opinion, the decade-long underreporting of toxic releases "borders on criminal negligence." "At least the truth is beginning to come out," Carman added. "We can't trust these numbers that the companies have been reporting."
Underreporting is not only a statewide but a nationwide issue; according to a report published last week by Bill Dawson of the Center for Public Integrity (www.public-i.org), an earlier study in Philadelphia produced similar results, "raising questions about whether petrochemical facilities nationwide, such as oil refineries and chemical manufacturing plants, are underestimating the real volumes of air pollution they release."
In light of the already dicey record of the Houston S.I.P., citizens' groups are understandably reluctant to accept the NOx rollback and trust the companies to reduce VOC emissions to make up the difference -- especially since the TNRCC admits that it doesn't yet know what that "difference" should be. "The plan already has no breathing room," said Tom Smith of Public Citizen, "and this looks like a major cave-in to industry. ... We think that it's bad policy to do this without having proof that it will be effective in meeting the ozone standard."
Crimmins said the agency will adjust the 90% NOx reduction requirement only after it confirms the equivalent VOC number, and "only if we get enough [ozone reduction] from the reductions of the VOCs. And that number has to be known by this fall or December." Crimmins says the agency's hands are tied by the court order generated by the industry lawsuit, but that for the present, the only changes in the S.I.P. will impose greater restrictions on VOCs. "The VOC rules are necessary," Crimmins added, "whether the NOx is lower or not."
John D. Wilson, executive director of the Galveston-Houston Association for Smog Prevention (www.ghasp.org), argues that the proposed revisions will in effect reward the companies for years of underreporting emissions, by allowing them to "reduce" emissions that they never should have released in the first place. "What they're saying is, industry has underreported these emissions ... so instead of enforcing the existing limits based on what they have reported, we'll have them start reducing the emissions they've underreported. So there was no incentive for them to tell the truth."
Three Tankers of Oil
By GHASP's calculations, the underreported emissions alone amount to 131,000 tons a year, or "roughly equivalent to three times the weight of the oil spilled by the Exxon Valdez," said Wilson. "Imagine three tankers, cracked open, steadily spewing chemicals into the air all year long. These massive chemical leaks into our air produce hazardous levels of ozone, harming the health of Houston residents." Wilson says that instead of adjusting the S.I.P. to industry demands, the TNRCC should "keep the S.I.P. as it is for industrial NOx, put stronger controls on VOCs, fully fund efforts to upgrade diesel equipment in the area, and provide major funding for a re-evaluation of regional transportation planning."
Wilson is hoping citizen support for that position will "stiffen the backbone" of the TNRCC and the EPA, but he's also a realist. "If they keep the S.I.P. as it is, there's still a gap [of excess emissions], but we might be able to get close to federal standards by 2007. But if they make this change on Wednesday, and industry begins to act by this policy -- we have no hope."