Tougher standards on air emissions draw debate in Houston

EPA hosts public hearing in Texas on proposed standards for oil refinery air pollution

By Robert Arnold - Investigative Reporter

GALENA PARK, Texas - Dozens of speakers converged on a Galena Park auditorium Tuesday to discuss the Environmental Protection Agency's proposed rule regarding emissions from refineries and petrochemical plants.

The EPA is considering forcing plants and refineries to cut the amount of hazardous chemicals and other pollutants released into the air by thousands of tons a year.

"You always have different smells," said Ismael Villarreal, who's lived in the same Pasadena neighborhood since he was a child. "Make it safe for us."

The issue is drawing debate, even among those living in the shadow of plants and refineries along Highway 225 and near the Houston Ship Channel.

"Naturally we want to have emissions bettered, but not at the cost of something that hasn't been harming us," said Jacqueline Vick, who's lived near plants and refineries for more than 30 years.

The EPA's proposed rule would force plants and refineries to cut the release of toxic air pollutants by 5,600 tons a year and 52,000 tons a year for volatile organic compounds. The EPA also wants companies to better monitor their own fence lines.

"So we can get an idea of how much pollution is getting off the refinery site," said Alison Davis, with the EPA's Air Office.

This issue was pushed to the forefront by a lawsuit from several environmental groups, many of whom spoke Tuesday during a public hearing on the proposed rule.

"It's critical federal regulations be far stricter across the board," said Luke Metzger, Director of Environment Texas.

Some argued the EPA's proposed rule doesn't go far enough in cleaning up the air around plants and refineries.

"There's definitely more that can be done. We need strong fence-line monitoring for our community," said Adrian Shelley, Executive Director of Air Alliance Houston.

Federal regulators also heard from medical experts, who quoted studies showing those living near plants and refineries faced increased health risks, especially pregnant women and children.

"Increase the risk for childhood cancers, birth defects and other major health problems in our children," said Rebecca Bruhl, Associate Professor of Medicine and Associate Director of Environmental Health Service at Baylor College of Medicine.

Houston Democratic Congressman Gene Green also spoke at the hearing and said he thinks the proposed rule is unnecessary.

"Both the Bush and Obama administration recognize that the public is adequately protected under the previous rules," said Green.

Industry leaders also argued emissions have already been greatly reduced over the last three decades.

"We are faced with a rule with significant costs, but little or no health or environmental benefits," said David Friedman, Vice President of Regulatory Affairs for American Fuel and Petrochemical Manufacturers.

To achieve these reductions the EPA estimates companies will have to initially spend $240 million in capital costs, with an additional yearly cost of $40 million. However, federal regulators believe the cost passed on to consumers would be "negligible."

The EPA has until next year to determine whether this proposed rule should go into effect.

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