Design in a Time of Uncertainty
By Rives Taylor, Principal, Global Resilience Research Lead
Airborne toxic pollution is hardly a new issue in the Houston Ship communities where HARC’s BEE-TEX research project will measure and track health-threatening air contaminants this fall.
Air quality has been a contentious subject in the near-industry communities of Manchester, Galena Park and Milby Park for decades.
Just a few examples of media, government and scientific attention to the issue illustrate the fact that the issue’s difficulty and contentiousness have spanned many years.
An exhaustive Houston Chronicle series on living with air toxics and other air pollution from nearby Ship Channel industries described Manchester – tightly hemmed in by emission sources including a refinery, chemical plant, a huge rail yard’s trains, Loop 610’s thousands of vehicles, and the channel’s numerous marine vessels – as “a community that over the decades put up with air pollution – not to mention braving a harrowing series of industrial fires, explosions and emergency releases of noxious gases.”
Among the numerous past and then-current problems detailed by the Chronicle in its 1997 report was one massive pollution release by the neighboring refinery in 1980 that sent 54 Manchester residents to the hospital and “dozens of others were left nauseated and wheezing.”
One longtime resident described how routine pollution frighteningly crept into her home at night: “It would wake you up feeling bad. It started with a headache, then you felt a little dizzy. It made you scared for your children.”
Scrutinizing federal records in the Toxics Release Inventory, the Chronicle reported that the most recent records, representing companies’ admitted emissions during 1995, showed four plants within 1.5 miles of Manchester had divulged collectively releasing 2.3 million pounds of assorted toxic chemicals to the air that year.
Seven years after the 1997 report, the newspaper revisited the issue of air toxics near industrial facilities, this time using inexpensive monitoring devices to measure pollutants in collaboration with academic experts:
The Houston Chronicle tested the air in public parks, playgrounds and neighborhoods bordering some of the state's largest industrial plants and found the air in the Manchester area so laden with toxic chemicals that it was dangerous to breathe:
The Chronicle collected air samples on three days last summer in four communities in Houston, Baytown, Freeport and Port Neches. The test was carried out with the same equipment used by plant workers to detect hazardous chemicals in the air, and the samples were analyzed for 18 toxic substances by the University of Texas School of Public Health.
Levels of the human carcinogen benzene were so high in Manchester and Port Neches that one scientist said living there would be like "sitting in traffic 24-7.”
Some compounds detected by the Chronicle, such as the rubber ingredient 1,3-butadiene found at four homes in the Allendale area near Manchester, if inhaled over a lifetime at the concentrations found, could increase a person's chances of contracting cancer, according to federally determined risk levels. Concentrations here were as much as 20 times higher than federal guidelines used for toxic waste dumps.
Following the Chronicle’s 2004 report, then-Mayor Bill White of Houston took a number of steps, including legal actions, to try to reduce industrial plants’ releases of air toxics, though most in the region are located outside of Houston’s city limits.
One related action by White his the formation in 2005 of the Mayor’s Task Force a on the Health Effects of Air Pollution under the auspices of the UT School of Public Health. Environmental health experts from three UT medical and health institutions, Baylor College of Medicine and Rice University were members.
After reviewing numerous pertinent records and studies, the task force concluded in a 2006 report that seven carcinogenic pollutants pose “an unacceptable increased cancer risk” in the Houston area and that five additional pollutants “are present at ambient concentrations which represent an unacceptable increased risk for chronic disease in Houston.”
The expert panel zeroed in on an area it called “East Houston,” including the communities to be covered in HARC’s BEE-TEX study, as presenting particularly pressing public health concerns because of socioeconomic factors and the prospect of residents’ cumulative exposure to pollution from industrial plants and a range of mobile sources:
People may be more vulnerable to pollution’s health effects for a variety of reasons including whether they live closer to high concentrations of pollutants, already suffer from disease or disability, have inadequate means to cope with stresses, or fewer resources to recover. The neighborhoods of East Houston share many of these characteristics and provide a concrete example of how different risks can add up when they are concentrated in a few areas.
About half of the point sources for air pollution in the Greater Houston area are concentrated on the eastern side of Harris County. Over twenty of the largest industrial sources are located in East Houston. The Port of Houston, and the Ship Channel that feeds it, passes through the middle of this area and generates a variety of hazardous pollutants, adding to those from the nearby industrial sources. Four major highways intersect this area including, Interstate Highways 10, 610 and 45 and State Highway 225; each generating substantial pollution from high traffic density.
Earlier this year, Cite magazine of the Rice University-based Rice Design Alliance assessed the accomplishments of White’s efforts to reduce air toxics in the Houston area.
The article’s author noted that no area plants adopted his proposed Voluntary Benzene Reduction Plan and a business group blocked a new ordinance that would have let Houston take legal action against industrial polluters beyond its city limits, but added that White had persuaded the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to revise its emission-monitoring protocol.
The magazine sought reactions to a bottom-line question about the former mayor’s initiatives:
So did Mayor White’s leadership bring about a reduction in the levels of air toxics?
“Overall the trend has been good with a significant decrease from 2004 to 2011,” says Don Richner, an air quality expert at the city’s Department of Health and Human Services. He adds, “We are not sure what the future holds with the expansion of the [Port of Houston].”
Larry Soward, a former Commissioner at the [Texas Commission on Environmental Quality], concurs. “I think Mayor White’s aggressive approach counts for some of those significant reductions,” he says, though adding that “the people in Manchester still need to worry.”