Texans urge Gov. Abbott to act now on harmful air pollution

Thousands sign letter in support of policies to reduce people’s exposure to harmful chemicals during natural disasters, like Hurricane Harvey

(HOUSTON – June 1, 2018) With the start of this year’s hurricane season, One Breath Partnership today released a letter signed by more than 3,000 Texans and 20 organizations urging Gov. Greg Abbott to act now to protect people from harmful air pollution before the next storm.

The letter to Gov. Abbott comes after Hurricane Harvey unleashed a second storm of air pollution. By industry’s own estimates, the Houston region’s network of oil refineries and petrochemical plants released more than 2 million pounds of harmful chemicals into the air during and after the storm – the equivalent of six months’ worth of unauthorized air pollution in just a few days.

Many industrial plants in Harvey’s path released extra pollutants into the air when they shut down in preparation for the storm and when they resumed operations. Harvey damaged other facilities, allowing hazardous gases to escape. Houston officials, for example, detected alarmingly high levels of benzene in Manchester, a neighborhood adjacent to a storm-damaged Valero Energy refinery. In Crosby, explosions at a flooded chemical plant triggered an evacuation of nearby residents and sent emergency workers to hospitals. Yet, for all the attention the Arkema episode received, industry reports showed that there were 10 larger releases of air pollution because of storm damage.

“Texans have enough to worry about when a hurricane hits. They should not have to also worry about pollution,” said Luke Metzger, executive director of Environment Texas, a founding member of One Breath Partnership. “Gov. Abbott and state leaders need to act now so, when the next storm hits, pollution is kept to a minimum and the public gets accurate information in a timely manner.”

Harvey was one of the largest storm events ever recorded, but it was not the worst-case scenario. The state must adopt better management plans to protect public health from the environmental catastrophe that a direct hit from a hurricane could present.

The letter asks Gov. Abbott to:

  • Restore chemical right-to-know standards so that first responders and those living near industrial facilities can fully understand the potential hazards of plants’ chemical inventories;
  • Leave state environmental rules in place, rather than suspending them in response to storms, to make certain that companies take every necessary action to protect public health and safety, and;
  • Ensure that the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality is fully equipped to respond to pollution events by funding additional staff positions and tools, such as a mobile monitoring unit for full-time use in Houston.

The letter also asks Gov. Abbott to direct the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, or TCEQ, to:

  • Use its authority to stagger startups and shutdowns in response to storms in order to minimize the cumulative impacts of pollution on the public;
  • Develop a plan for active air quality monitoring and surveillance, with the expectation that the agency deploys mobile sampling equipment during disasters and times of limited coverage from its stationary network, and;
  • Share as much information as it can about environmental sampling in real time – even if data is still under review for quality assurance – because the public should know about any pollution hazard. Also, refrain from making statements about impacts to public health – or absence of impacts – unless data fully supports them.

One Breath Partnership’s goal is clean air for a healthier and more resilient Houston. The founding partners include Air Alliance Houston, Environment Texas, Environmental Defense Fund, Environmental Integrity Project, Public Citizen and Rice University.

The organizations that signed the letter include the AFL-CIO, Asakura Robinson Company, Bayou City Waterkeeper, Coalition of Community Organizations, Connect Community, Houston Renewable Energy Group, Indivisible Houston, Local 350, Mi Familia Vota, SEIU, Sierra Club’s Houston regional group, Texas Campaign for the Environment, Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services, Texas Health and Environment Alliance, Texas Organizing Project and West Street Recovery.

Additional comments from One Breath Partnership:

“People have a right to protect their families from threats to their health and safety,” said Bakeyah Nelson, executive director of Air Alliance Houston. “Restoring the chemical right-to-know standards so that first responders and those living near industrial facilities can fully understand the potential hazards helps people keep their families safe.”

“TCEQ was unprepared to track Harvey’s air pollution in real time,” said Elena Craft, Environmental Defense Fund’s senior health scientist. “Although TCEQ has dozens of stationary monitors across Houston, many of them were turned off during the storm. That is why mobile, on-the-ground monitoring is so crucial. We need to be sure that the agency is there when it is needed, doing its job to protect the people from exposure to different environmental threats.”

“TCEQ has the legal authority and the moral obligation to protect people living near refineries and petrochemical plants from toxic pollution,” said Ilan Levin, associate director of the Environmental Integrity Project. “This pollution is most dangerous and widespread at times when multiple industrial plants shut down, break down, or start back up all at the same time, such as what happens during natural disasters. It’s time for TCEQ to take this health threat seriously and use its authority to protect the most vulnerable people from cumulative impacts of pollution.” 

“Natural disasters don’t have to become public health or environmental disasters as well,” said Adrian Shelley, director of Public Citizen’s Texas office. “We should take the lesson of Hurricane Harvey to heart. Gov. Abbott should send a clear message by leaving environmental rules in place. The petrochemical industry knows about the risk of hurricanes on the Gulf Coast, and it must take precautions to protect the public from the hazards it has created.”

“Houston faced a serious public health crisis from air pollution and other threats in the days after Harvey,” said Loren Raun, an environmental health researcher at Rice University. “We need a robust and fully equipped TCEQ to help cities and counties to limit pollution events, reduce exposure to harmful chemicals and protect people’s health.”

One Breath Partnership is a community-based effort to reduce air pollution for a healthier and more resilient Houston. For more information, go to www.onebreathhou.org or follow us on Facebook or Twitter @OneBreathHOU.

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