Just east of Houston, in the town of Pasadena, parents are pulling up at Kruse Elementary to pick up their kids.
Poking up over the top the school building, you can see the stacks of oil refineries less than one mile away.
"Sometimes you get a strong odor from something, you don’t know if it’s bad to by breathing in, or your kid to be breathing in, playing outside in it and stuff."
Shelley Myers has a six year old boy.
"I make my son come inside."
Dave: "You make your son come inside."
"If there’s an alarm, shut the windows, and shut the doors, and he has to come in."
The alarms are supposed to warn residents when there’s a major release of chemical vapors. Talking to people here like Shelley Myers, you get the impression it’s just something you have to live with. But is it?
Uncovered by NPR is an EPA list of "high priority violators," polluters that regulators were supposed to crack down on. Yet, some were still out of compliance with the Clean Air Act despite years on the list.
In the Houston area alone, 19 plants are listed with violations that have gone un-addressed, some for over eight years.
"Sadly the history of the state of Texas, in protecting people, especially people here on the Gulf Coast from environmental contamination is pitiful."
That’s Terry O’Rourke with the office of the Harris County Attorney. Harris County is enforcing environmental laws on its own.
O’Rourke says the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, the TCEQ, is supposed to take the lead on regulation, but hasn’t.
"The people in Austin are compliance agencies and they look at the polluters as their clients or their customers. They even call them customers. It is so offensive to us, whose job is protecting people."
Case in point, says the County, is a refinery just north of that elementary school. Pasadena Refining System Inc.
Thousand of barrels of crude a day run through its pipes and tanks. Or did, until a fire in September temporarily shut down part of the plant.
Dave: "As I walk along the public road that borders the plant, it sounds like it’s back up running, you can hear it."
The EPA’s most updated list shows Pasadena Refining System had been a high priority violator for five years.
In 2009, the refinery sent nearly a half million pounds of chemicals into the air, more than in any of the previous eight years according to an EPA report.
"What they’re releasing are things like benzene and butadiene and strong powerful chemicals that have a negative impact on human health and the environment."
That’s Harris County‘s lead environmental attorney, Rock Owens.
He says the county plans to sue Pasadena Refining System, alleging that the company did not report certain emissions to the county or fix certain pollution problems.
The company told us it wouldn’t comment at this time.
What’s the State of Texas done? Plenty says the TCEQ.
By email it told us it’s investigated the plant many times, cited it for violations, gotten it to make improvements and assessed penalties of more than $300,000 over the past five years.
But that’s peanuts to a big company says Harris County. Its attorney’s office says it recently collected a half million dollars from another refiner for just one set of violations.
In the nearby neighborhoods, air quality has improved in recent years according to the state. Parents say it’s not something they worry about a lot, but when the alarms sound and they smell chemicals and close the windows…
Myers: “I’m sure it’s getting in somehow.”
They know it’s in the air they breathe.
For StateImpact Texas, I’m Dave Fehling.