By Aman Azhar March 15, 2021
For Vicki Cruz, a social worker who lives in the Magnolia Park section of Houston, her health situation couldn’t have gotten a whole lot worse since she came down with Covid-19 over Christmas.
And then it did, when a hard freeze and snowstorm hit Texas last month and the state’s oil refineries and petrochemical plants released almost 4 million pounds of extra pollution into the air, with nearly one-fifth of the load fouling the Houston region, according to estimates by the nonprofits Air Alliance Houston, Environment Texas and the Environmental Defense Fund.
The pollutants included human carcinogens like benzene and other toxic chemicals known to cause all sorts and health problems like asthma.
Cruz, 47, had a hard enough time breathing already.
“I wake up tired everyday with frequent headaches, and feeling nauseous,” said Cruz, who lives a block and a half from a metal crushing plant and three miles from the nearest petrochemical plant along the Houston Ship Channel. “It’s such an unfair situation to see some people taking advantage of the system.”
She was referring to a system in which refineries and chemical plants routinely exceed their permit limits and emit excess pollution during extreme weather and are almost never sanctioned by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, environmental lawyers and activists said.
The TCEQ allows companies that emit excess pollutants to mount an “affirmative defense” and argue that the emissions were beyond their control because of events like last month’s freeze, or Hurricane Harvey in 2017. TCEQ says it “carefully considers the facts” in deciding whether excess emissions were unavoidable.
According to the Environment Texas 2020 report on illegal air pollution in Texas, TCEQ has penalized companies for less than 3 percent of the illegal emissions events since 2011. Even when they are penalized, they pay about a penny per pound of illegal air pollution.
“This is a recurring problem,” said Elena Craft, senior director for climate and health at the Environmental Defense Fund. ”During the largest emissions events involving extreme weather, we see the least monitoring…This extra air pollution is an additional threat to people’s health and safety at a time when they are their most vulnerable.”
There is growing scientific evidence—at least 17 peer-reviewed studies so far—showing that areas with high levels of air pollution have higher coronavirus death rates or more severe outbreaks. Some studies were able to trace the higher mortality specifically to fossil fuel pollution.
Death rates for Covid-19 are two times higher for Black and Hispanic people compared to whites in the United States, and rates of hospitalization are three times higher, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
“Corporations repeatedly engage in behaviors that put the most vulnerable communities in harm’s way, and the state rarely holds them accountable, choosing to protect profits over people,” said Bakeyah Nelson, executive director of Air Alliance Houston. “This is untenable, especially for communities of color and working-class neighborhoods.”
Gov. Abbott Suspended Environmental Rules Before the Freeze
Under TCEQ rules, oil and gas facilities are required to submit an initial report of such emission events during maintenance and shutdown within 24 hours, and a final report in 14 days. The initial estimates can go through changes as the facilities submit updated emissions data towards the close of the 14-day period.
In their initial submissions to the TCEQ, companies cited power outages, system failures and shut downs, among other reasons, for the releases of extra pollutants during the snowstorm. During power outages, safety procedures often call for venting or burning gases in tanks or pipes, through a process called flaring, to reduce pressure and prevent explosions and fires.
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott suspended several environmental rules ahead of February’s freezing weather that caused massive power outages across the state power equipment and pipelines frooze. The move came at TCEQ’s request because those rules, the agency said, “may prevent, hinder, or delay necessary actions needed to respond to the severe winter weather event.”
The suspended rules provide for compliance mechanisms relating to general air quality, air pollution from visible emissions and particulate matter and air pollution from nitrogen compounds, among other forms of industrial pollution from petrochemical facilities.
TCEQ also reported 39 of its air quality monitoring sites suffered power failures or communications problems, including 14 in the Houston area, during the winter freeze. A week after the power outages began, TCEQ conducted some mobile monitoring in Corpus Christi, Houston and the Beaumont-Port Arthur areas.
According to the latest figures analyzed by Air Alliance Houston, the extra emissions for Harris, Galveston, Brazoria and Chambers Counties totaled 383,000 pounds and were about 52% greater than initially estimated. That puts emissions totals over a million pounds for Harris, Galveston and Brazoria Counties alone.
About 18 of the emissions event reports are yet to be finalized. Corey Williams, policy and research director with Air Alliance Houston, says it is very likely that the statewide emissions would be higher than initial estimates once all the reports are in.
Some individual plants are capable of sizable excess emission. A petrochemical facility operated by Performance Materials NA Inc. near Beaumont, for example, reported releasing a massive 262,522 pounds of methane into the air in less than two hours on Feb. 16, citing weather conditions. The company did not respond to questions about the extra emissions from their facilities and health impacts related to them.
Around the same time, the ExxonMobil Olefins plant in Baytown, Houston, released excess emissions totaling 131,719 pounds that an analyst at Air Alliance Houston said included carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides and a mix of hydrocarbons. The emissions were nearly 3.5 times greater than releases from the unit during Hurricane Harvey.
Asked for comment on the excess emissions, Jeremy Elkenberry, an Exxon media relations advisor, said in a statement: “As a result of the freezing weather conditions, coupled with the curtailment of natural gas supplies throughout the State of Texas, we safely ceased manufacturing and shut down or idled virtually all of our units across the Baytown area … We are committed to operating in an environmentally responsible manner that protects the safety and health of our personnel, customers and the public.”
By the time Houston’s refineries and petrochemical plants began emitting hundreds of thousands of pounds of excess pollutants into the freezing air last month, Cruz still had not tested negative for Covid-19. She’d felt feverish since Christmas.
She wouldn’t test negative until March 2, meaning she was at greater risk for hospitalization during the February freeze as she trudged to her mother’s, or to her gym, to take a shower during the days when her power and water were out.
Cruz, the social worker in the Magnolia Park section of Houston’s heavily Latino East End, helps families and kids with urgent needs. Her grandparents were born in Mexico, and her parents in Texas. Her father was a machinist who worked for the Houston school district, and her mother worked in manufacturing. She served in the Navy reserves from 1999 to 2004 as a Petty Officer Third Class.
Now divorced with three adult children, Cruz is president of the local chapter of the League of United Latin American Citizens, living sandwiched between the metal crushing facility and the Houston Ship Channel lined with petrochemical plants.
“It’s been six years I have been complaining about the noise and pollution from the metal crushing unit. I wake up tired everyday with frequent headaches, feeling nauseous,” Cruz said, adding she is still struggling with damage to her water pipes from the snowstorm. “I had to go look for the parts myself because plumbing services are stretched and price gouging is widespread right now.”
She’s thought about moving, but rents in other Houston neighborhoods “have almost doubled in the past five years because of people moving in from California and other places.”
And her health remains fragile. She suffers from a medical condition related to a bacteria known as H. pylori, which causes stomach inflammation, ulcers and a wide range of other diseases, including certain cancers.
“I have to eat well and stay mindful of my condition. But air pollution and now Covid makes it much more difficult for me to manage myself,” she said. “And nobody does anything about it. We can only complain, but nothing gets done.”
Almost 200 Companies Released Extra Pollution During the Freeze
The analysis of the excess emissions during the deep freeze by Air Alliance Houston, Environment Texas and the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) shows that almost 200 facilities in 54 Texas counties reported extra releases of toxic chemicals between Feb. 11 and 22 that included benzene, carbon monoxide and Sulphur dioxide.
The extra pollution in the Houston region, the analysts indicated, came from the same facilities responsible for excessive emissions following Hurricane Harvey, the largest rain evident in American history, which dumped more than 50 inches of precipitation on the city in two days.
“We have not seen TCEQ take any enforcement action for the extra pollution released during extreme weather events, including Hurricane Harvey,” said Craft, of EDF. “Every day, dangerous air pollution is illegally released in Texas. This happens because it can cost corporations less to be caught polluting than continuing to pollute.”
Ilan Levin, an attorney with the Environmental Integrity Project, said it is highly unlikely that the TCEQ will penalize companies for releasing extra pollution during events like the snowstorm.
“Their releases happen on a daily basis in Texas when there are no storms,” he said. “But the state regulators rarely impose penalties on companies even when there are no extreme events. It’s a conservative state and its policies are tilted in favor of industry.”
Levin said that the Environment Protection Agency (EPA) shifted many of its regulatory responsibilities to the state under the Trump administration.
“The ‘Affirmative Defense’ argument in Texas and some other states allows the companies to argue the emissions were beyond their control such as during the freeze,” Levin said, “And then it’s the state’s discretion whether to accept that excuse. And in most cases the regulators don’t dispute these claims.”
Greg Rasp, a TCEQ media specialist, explained the process: “TCEQ reviews these events against criteria located in the Texas Administrative Code (TAC) to determine if the event was avoidable and assesses whether or not operators took measures to minimize emissions. Based on the results of an investigation of a reportable incident the TCEQ may pursue enforcement actions when appropriate against regulated entities which may include the assessment of a penalty.”
Whenever a company cites the “affirmative defense,” Rasp said, its argument “is evaluated on a case-by-case basis by reviewing each incident that is reported. Once a report is received, investigators first determine whether or not the event was excessive. This determination hinges on six criteria, to determine if the event was avoidable and assesses whether or not operators took measures to minimize emissions.”
Rasp said that excess emissions that occur for reasons other than an unavoidable excursion are not eligible for the affirmative defense and are considered for enforcement action. “TCEQ carefully considers the facts of incidents of excess emissions when responding to citizen inquiries and complaints, and in evaluating events that are reported,” he said.
Craft remained highly skeptical, saying the agency needs to do much more “because these events can release six month’s worth of extra air pollution in a few days, like after Hurricane Harvey.”
Nelson, of Air Alliance Houston, said neighborhoods like Magnolia Park, where Cruz lives, have suffered grievously.
“These communities are unable to fully recover before the next man-made disaster due to a long history of environmental racism that has put them at greater risk of suffering the adverse impacts from disasters and with fewer resources to rebuild their lives,” she said. “For too long, Texas decision-makers have treated them as expendable while giving fossil fuel corporations everything they want.”
Once the Flaring Starts, People in Pasadena Talk of Being Unwell
From her home in Pasadena, about 13 miles from the oil company skyscrapers in downtown Houston, Pat Gonzalez remembers seeing bright towering flames and plumes of flared gas being released from nearby refineries during last month’s freeze.
“There was a lot of flaring when these facilities shut down during the storm and then came back online,” said Gonzalez, 54. “It burns a lot of fuel and the winds carried the toxic fumes into Pasadena. Once the flaring starts, people complain about being unwell, having difficulty breathing and often feel headaches and nausea.”
She lives in predominantly Latino north Pasadena, which is closer to the region’s petrochemical center and bears the brunt of its excess emissions. “South Pasadena is the rich, uppity town where they light up the Christmas tree and put up decorations. We get nothing of that sort on this side,” Gonzalez said.
A major voting rights case brought by the Justice Department against Pasadena’s predominantly white City Council ended in 2017. A federal judge in Houston ruled that a change in the city’s election system violated the Voting Rights Act by intentionally discriminating against Pasadena’s majority Latino population. The City Council ultimately settled the case, and Pasadena remains under Justice Department Supervision until 2023.
These days, Gonzalez, head of an environmental advocacy group called Caring for Pasadena Communities, has even more immediate concerns. Like breathing. She suffers from asthma, headaches and nausea. She’s using her inhaler more and more. And ever since all that extra pollution was released during the deep freeze, she finds it hard to breathe outside.