Naked City

Texas air: dirty, dirtier, dirtiest

Naked City

Everything's bigger in Texas, according to the Environmental Integrity Project and the Galveston-Houston Association for Smog Prevention. The two enviro groups recently released "Who's Counting: The Systematic Underreporting of Toxic Air Emissions," a highly critical report of state and federal regulators' performance at data collection. Applying the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality's own methodology, the report finds refinery and chemical plant emissions to actually be four or five times greater than the amount stated, with Texas leading the nation in misinformation.

The problem lies in the outdated emissions data the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency utilizes. As EIP Project Counsel Kelly Haragan says, "most air pollution is estimated, not actually monitored," and even these findings are reported under an honor system by the polluters themselves. Obviously, this can lead to a grave situation, like that in Houston, where, in GHASP Director John Wilson's words, "the gap between the reality and the industry data just grew too large to ignore."

To combat this, the two groups drew on TCEQ findings, which addressed the underreporting problem by selecting chemicals reported in the EPA's Toxic Release Inventory – the annual report of emissions releases – and compared those numbers to actual air samples taken in Houston. When the resulting adjustment factor was applied to other sites in Texas, emissions of ozone-producing and carcinogenic chemicals shot sky high, with 159.6 million underreported pounds statewide, 155% higher than the official EPA number.

Several Texas plants are responsible. Using the updated TRI information, Eastman Chemical Co. in Longview, whose reported emissions increased 348%, is the third dirtiest in the nation. According to a Greenpeace report, Dow Chemical Co.'s plant in Freeport reported releasing 387,356 pounds of airborne carcinogens in 2000 alone. The "Who's Counting" report, which revises 2001 data, finds a 344% increase, making the Dow facility the eighth dirtiest in the nation. Details on these two sites and dozens others from Texas can be found at the EIP Web site, www.environmentalintegrity.org.

In anticipation of controversy over applying the Texas methodology nationwide, "Who's Counting" concedes that "it is not possible to have confidence in any set of air pollution data." What can be proven, according to the report, is that toxic emissions into our atmosphere have been definitely underreported. Until the EPA demands stricter, empirical emissions reports, the real nature of the threat remains unknown. As Wilson said of quantifying Houston's level of pollution, "'Impossible' doesn't quite capture the challenge."

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