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Air Monitors Detect Cancer-Causing Compound Near Texas Oil Refinery

Independent air monitors have detected a plume of cancer-causing benzene near homes and businesses outside a Valero Energy oil refinery in east Houston.

by Jordan Blum, Lise Olsen, Houston Chronicle / September 6, 2017
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(TNS) -- Independent air monitors have detected a plume of cancer-causing benzene near homes and businesses outside a Valero Energy oil refinery in east Houston, raising concerns among environmentalists and city officials who say the compound is nearly twice the state limits for short-term exposure.

The highest concentration was detected in an area near Manchester Street and 96th Street close to the refinery, which voluntarily reported an oil spill at the plant earlier this week in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, according to the Environmental Defense Fund, which worked with California-based Entanglement Technologies to measure the benzene levels.

Benzene is a carcinogenic component of crude oil and gasoline. Breathing it in can cause dizziness, headaches and even unconsciousness.

"It is alarming to see high levels of a dangerous pollutant go unnoticed by the Houston region's existing network of air quality monitors," Elena Craft, senior health scientist for Environmental Defense Fund, said Tuesday.

The reports come amid growing environmental concerns over the San Jacinto River Waste Pits, one of 13 Superfund sites in Texas that flooded during Hurricane Harvey. Environmentalists called Tuesday for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to provide additional information about whether dioxin escaped from the pits into the floodwaters.

Questions remain, as well, about chemical fires at the Arkema plant in Crosby east of Houston and last week's emergency shelter-in-place warning in La Porte following a chemical pipeline leak.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott temporarily suspended requirements that certain spills and emissions be reported to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality during the storm and its aftermath, allowing energy and chemical companies to file reports voluntarily.

In the Houston area, companies have reported releasing more than 2 million pounds of carbon monoxide and other chemicals into the region's atmosphere during facility shutdowns, according to TCEQ filings.

Voluntary reports

On Aug. 27, San Antonio-based Valero reported a temporary leak from a partially collapsed roof of a storage tank caused by "heavy rainfall complications with Hurricane Harvey" by its Houston refinery. Valero estimated 6.7 pounds of benzene were released, as well as more than 3,350 pounds of unspecified volatile compounds.

Valero spokeswoman Lillian Riojas said Tuesday that Valero crew members quickly contained the oil after it leaked from the roof drain at the refinery. She said the U.S. Coast Guard inspected the clean-up, and that Valero is working with TCEQ and the EPA "on monitoring for any potential emissions from the oil."

EPA spokesman David Gray said Tuesday the agency is conducting air monitoring and "focusing on an area of potential concern associated with reported air emissions from a Valero facility in Houston," but that none of the EPA readings rose above emergency screening levels. The EPA was conducting more monitoring in the area Tuesday, but had not yet released those results.

Just this week, however, the city of Houston and environmental groups began conducting independent air monitoring separate from the state and federal government. Although data is still being collected, the Environmental Defense Fund said the amount of benzene detected on Monday — 324 parts per billion — is nearly double the state's allowable amount of 180 parts per billion.

Luke Metzger, director of the advocacy group Environment Texas, is concerned the state and EPA are relying too much on companies to self-report.

"It's likely the first of many to come," Metzger said of the detections near the Valero refinery. "Now we also have independent air monitoring, but it's hard to trace to individual companies."

Metzger noted problems with "unbearable smells" in Pasadena after Houston-based Kinder Morgan reported a Harvey-related spill of petroleum products on Aug. 27 at its terminal. Kinder Morgan acknowledged the release of benzene and other potentially toxic compounds.

But the company took issue with Metzger's description.

"That assertion is difficult to believe because we set up an exclusion zone to keep the public safely away, covered the small release with a foam blanket to control emissions, and employed constant air monitoring to ensure that the blanket was effective," Kinder Morgan spokesman Dave Conover said Tuesday.

Waste pits worries

At the San Jacinto waste pits, meanwhile, advocates continue to push for information about the potential release of dioxin and other cancer-causing industrial waste that was stored in there in the 1960s.

The current owners of the site paid to cap the waste pits, but the caps have leaked and been repaired and replaced several times.

Scott Jones, of the Galveston Bay Foundation, said dioxin has already leached from the site in older flood events, creating hot spots in sediments in the river and in Galveston Bay.

He said the state has failed to properly monitor the site because of inadequate resources. The EPA and TCEQ officials have said the cap appears to be holding, based on preliminary inspections of the waste pits by boat and land.

Separate reviews were conducted Friday by a contractor and Monday by federal and state officials, who said they would inspect the cap more thoroughly when river conditions allow.

The cancer-causing dioxin and other wastes were byproducts from a nearby paper mill.

The EPA has said the waste pits were one of 13 Superfund sites in Texas that flooded during Hurricane Harvey and could be damaged. About half of those sites so far have been visited by inspectors who performed preliminary checks for damage, according to the TCEQ and the EPA. They promise to do more checks when the floodwater recedes.

Abbott said Tuesday at a news conference in Austin that officials "are unaware of any damage or danger that has occurred."

Several homes in the Channelview river bottom nearest the pits were blown off their foundations when the river rose over its banks. Four houses floated away and several others sunk into enormous sinkholes that formed in the floods.

Channelview resident Jennifer Harpster said she and her neighbors were continuing to clean up Tuesday despite their fears of tainted water.

"When you go down there, it looks like a bomb went off." she said. "The smell of chemicals is inside my house."

Harpster is the lead plaintiff in a civil lawsuit in which 600 people claim their lives and livelihood have been damaged by the waste pits. She believes dioxins have already affected her family's health — her granddaughter died of a rare form of cancer at age 6.

A plan to remove the wastes from the river entirely remains under consideration by the EPA.

Activist Jackie Young, who grew up in nearby Highlands and is the founder of the grassroots Texas Health and Environment Alliance, wants to see the pits removed as soon as possible.

"Harvey was not a routine event. Let's stop kicking this can to future generations," Young said. "We need the waste pits removed in a controlled, engineered environment, not in a hurricane."

Pam Bonta, with the nonprofit Texas Quality Water, said she's worried about 6,000 households that depend on well water and are located in the flood plain around the pits in the Harris County communities of Channelview, Highlands and on the Lynchburg peninsula.

TCEQ and county officials say they'll continue to provide updates.

"TCEQ and EPA toxicologists and technical experts are on the ground and in the air collecting real-time air monitoring and water quality data," EPA officials said Monday. "That information is being analyzed by experts now and will be provided to the public as soon as it is available. We encourage the community to continue to follow the expert safety advice of local officials."

©2017 the Houston Chronicle Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.