Houston Mayor Pushes Voluntary Air Quality Improvement Plan

Houston Mayor Bill White put before council a voluntary plan to improve air quality by getting manufacturing facilities to reduce benzene emissions. While many on city council expressed support for the idea, there's also concern that the city is stepping outside its authority. Houston Public Radio's Capella Tucker has more on the debate about the plan laid out by Mayor Bill White.

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"We will act deliberately and the more deliberately we act in a bold direction the more likely we'll be able to implement real change."

Mayor Bill White says he wants the benzene reduction plan to survive court challenge and not be overturned by other levels of government.

"To the industry I have to say and our colleagues who are fellow regulators, I say don't hit panic buttons."

The plan to improve air quality focuses on one pollutant ... benzene. It calls for manufacturing plants to have customized plans to reduce emissions.City officials point out the state and federal levels of government have no framework to control benzene in the air. But Houston City Councilwoman Addie Wiseman says it's not up to the city to step in.

"This is a matter for the state to take its responsibility. We can ask them to be accountable. We can insist they be accountable. We can put the pressure on; we certainly have lobbyists in Austin. As to the comment that we're taking leadership of making this our responsibility, I feel we're gravely overstepping our authority in doing so."

TCEQ Houston Air Quality Director Rebecca Rentz says they do have a screening program in place.

"I can tell you over the past year we've put in extensive resources in using the monitors we have out there to investigate benzene sources. The benzene levels are declining. The benzene levels just in the past year have declined 30 percent. We expect because of emissions agreements that we have put in place with facilities out there for those levels to continue to decline."

Rentz says the agreements are enforced through permits. She says there has to be a cooperative effort going forward between the state and the city of Houston.Houston's Health and Environmental Policy Director Elena Marks says one way to reduce benzene levels is to ask industry to be involved in the plan. The other is through regulation.

"That says our air in the city of Houston will be at a healthy level. That level is X and the X is subject to debate. That is really what the delay is all about, to determine what the level ought to be for each chemical and what the timeline ought to be before we have an ordinance in place that requires the strictest level which is where we ultimately want to get."

City Council delayed voting on the matter for six weeks to also give industry a chance to weigh in on the topic. Automobiles are another source of benzene emissions. The city plan does not address cars saying that vehicle emissions programs on the state level are addressing that source. Capella Tucker, Houston Public Radio News.

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