Energy & Environment

Residents Tell EPA: We’re Not Secondary To Refinery Profits

People who live near refineries call for tougher, federal rules to curb air pollution.

Luke Metzger
Luke Metzger, Environment Texas, who testified at EPA hearing, passing by a photo of a refinery explosion in California.

People who live near refineries along the Gulf Coast are calling for tougher, federal rules to curb air pollution. The pleas were made at a Federal Environmental Protection Agency, (EPA), public hearing held Tuesday in Galena Park. The community is on Houston’s east side is in the heart of the oil-refining complex along the Ship Channel.

The industry says the new EPA rules would be a waste of money. But residents like Yudith Nieto say they are desperately needed.

“I’m from a community in Houston called Manchester which is surrounded on all fours by industry,” Nieto testified. She and other residents told a panel of federal EPA officials how childhood leukemia, asthma and bronchitis are unusually common here, citing health studies to back up their claims.

“This is something that is a disparity, an obvious disparity because other parts of the city, other parts of the area don’t bear that same burden,” said John Sullivan with the Sealy Center for Environmental Health in Galveston. He was talking about the burden of breathing what may be coming from refineries.

The EPA was holding the hearing because it’s proposing new rules for refineries. The list includes new equipment to reduce fumes escaping from storage tanks, cleaner burning flares to make accidental releases less toxic, and for the first time, making refineries install air monitors at their fence lines to see exactly what’s being released.

The rules are in response to a lawsuit filed by community and environmental groups in Houston and elsewhere. The groups said one of the biggest problems was that current regulations rely on estimates of pollution releases, estimates that have been found to be far below the actual emissions.

Adrian Shelley is with one of the groups, Air Alliance Houston. He testified that not only are the new rules needed, he said they need to be enforced by the federal EPA because he said Texas “state” regulators are far less strict than those in some other places, like California.

“This is Texas; this is not California. We do not have CAL-EPA or any state regulatory agency that has our interests in mind,” Shelley testified.

But the refining industry and some politicians slammed the new rules as a waste, saying air quality already has been dramatically improved over the last 20 years in Houston.

“These are incredible improvements, but they’re not cheap. They come at a high cost to the refineries with a price tag well into the billions,” said Congressman Pete Olson, a Republican from Sugar Land.

Some residents said they were offended by the suggestion that their health was being weighed against refinery profits.

“We are not just secondary to their investments,” said Yudith Nieto.

The EPA is expected to finalize the new rules by next spring.

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Dave Fehling

Director of News and Public Affairs

As Director of News and Public Affairs, Dave Fehling manages the radio news operation at Houston's NPR station. Previously, he was a reporter at the station, covering the oil & gas industry and its impact on the environment. He won top state honors for in-depth and investigative reporting as well...

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