Are Chemical Plants Doing Enough to Prevent the Release of Benzene?

It's called benzene and it's a chemical compound, and a component of crude oil. As well as being found in vehicle emissions, benzene is a key product in Houston's petrochemical industry. It's widely used as an industrial solvent and is essential to produce plastics, rubbers, nylon and more. However, the colorless, sweet smelling liquid has a dangerous side: It's also a human carcinogen. And Houston's got a lot of it.

"It is highly prevalent in certain parts of the city and the Greater Houston area particularly around the industrial complexes."

That's Elena Marks. She's the Mayor's Health and Environmental Policy Director. In 2007, Mayor Bill White proposed a voluntary benzene reduction program. Well, it's been two years and Marks says not one company has adopted the plan.

"I think the bottom line is that they didn't have to."

The City of Houston has no legal framework from which to enforce such a policy. The EPA has set federal ambient air guidelines for toxins, but delegates the creation of standards to states themselves.

"The states have the authority to implement their own standards and many states have done so, but Texas has not done so."

That leaves the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, or TCEQ, as the overarching authority on the regulation of emissions. They say they actively regulate and penalize companies who exceed emission levels. But Matthew Tejada, the Executive Director of the Galveston Houston Association for Smog Prevention, or GHASP, says the penalty system is a pay to play process.

"It is cheaper for facilities to pollute and pay the nominal fine that the TCEQ will come up with, rather than clean up their act."

And Tejada has major gripes regarding the state's air permitting process as well. In fact, in a June 24th letter sent to the TCEQ, the EPA states that the Texas air permitting program authorizes emissions — namely benzene — significantly above levels allowed by federal permitting programs.

"That is a very good indication of the extent of how flawed our air permitting regulations are. They don't work. They're not protective."

The good news is that according to TCEQ monitoring, benzene emissions are going down. And both Marks and Tejada agree that levels are indeed decreasing—at least in most places. But since part of the reduction in benzene levels can be attributed to the more stringent policies on vehicular emissions, Tejada says without proper policy, the reductions will not be great enough. He says it's all in the permitting.

"That is the core of air quality, is giving those air permits and regulating industry at it's source — at the air permit"

From the KUHF News Lab, Wendy Siegle. KUHF Houston Public Radio News.
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