Why accurate reporting of air pollution after Hurricane Harvey matters

By Matt Tresaugue. This post originally appeared in Texas Clean Air Matters.

Hartmann Park, Valero Refinery, Manchester County, Houston Texas.

In addition to dumping historic amounts of rain across southeast Texas, Hurricane Harvey triggered a wave of air pollution, with petrochemical plants and oil refineries releasing 8.3 million pounds of harmful chemicals that exceeded state limits. At least, that is what they told state officials.

Companies, however, reduced those estimates by 1.7 million pounds in later filings with the state, a new Environmental Defense Fund analysis found.

The steep drop suggests that some companies may not have accounted accurately for all Harvey-related pollution increases in their reporting to the state. As a result, people’s exposure to hazardous air pollutants, such as cancer-causing benzene and 1,3-butadiene, may be substantially underestimated.

Industry frequently justified the changes in emissions estimates by arguing that flexible state-issued permits, as well as Gov. Greg Abbott’s suspension of several environmental rules in advance of Harvey, made the pollution legal.

The analysis is part of a new report, “Preparing for the Next Storm: Learning from the Man-Made Environmental Disasters that Followed Hurricane Harvey,” released by the Environmental Integrity Project in advance of the first anniversary of the storm’s Texas landfall. EDF and EIP are founding members of the One Breath Partnership, a media collaborative working to inspire action toward clean air for a healthier and more resilient Houston.

“People deserve to know what is in the air they breathe, especially at times when they are most vulnerable, like in the days after Harvey’s arrival,” said Grace Tee Lewis, EDF’s Houston-based epidemiologist, who worked with graduate students Katlyn E. McGraw and Arbor J.L. Quist on the analysis. “Many of the largest releases of air pollution happened in neighborhoods where most residents are people of color and low incomes. To fully understand the storm’s toll on their health and the environment, the state of Texas must collect accurate and transparent data.”

To produce the analysis, Tee Lewis and her team collected state data for all releases of unauthorized air pollution in the days after Hurricane Harvey began barreling toward Texas – from August 23, 2017, to October 25, 2017.

They looked at two points in time: October 2017 and June 2018. The two snapshots allowed them to quantify changes in industry’s reports to the state over the nine-month period. Their analysis showed significant differences in the reporting of pollution released.

In all, 18 companies lowered their pollution totals. Six facilities, for example, reduced their reported emissions from shutdowns in August. A Corpus Christi refinery cut its total from 53,750 pounds to just 226 pounds, citing its flexible state permit as the reason. A Port Arthur chemical plant completely removed data on additional emissions from shutting down, claiming that the air pollution was authorized under its permit. Three facilities, meanwhile, did not give any reasons for major reductions in reported levels of emissions.

The numbers in the state database may change over time as companies finalize initial reports or report new events. Some plants file initial reports out of caution and may overestimate the size of the release. Final reports are due within two weeks of the emissions event and must contain accurate data. In some cases, companies revise their initial reports if they determine the pollution is below reportable thresholds or authorized by a permit.

Yet EIP contends that the companies’ justification for revising their pollution numbers is legally questionable because the state’s program allows such reclassification only for planned shutdowns, startups and maintenance, not storms and other emergencies.

The alterations also raise questions about whether Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s Harvey-related suspension of pollution reporting requirements encouraged companies to downgrade or eliminate their pollution reporting after the fact. It is troubling because such activity may mask real health risks posed by air pollution released during natural disasters.

Houston, for example, suffered through the state’s worst day for ground-level ozone, or smog, for 2017 on Sept. 1, five days after Harvey began flooding the city. It was one of three days in a row with high ozone levels, proof and product of the large amounts of smog-forming pollutants in the region.

Families in Houston’s Manchester neighborhood, meanwhile, may have breathed high levels of cancer-causing benzene in the days after Harvey flooded the city. Valero initially reported the release of 6.7 pounds of the harmful chemical at its nearby refinery, but air quality measurements taken by Entanglement Technologies for EDF and Air Alliance Houston detected a plume, roughly as wide as a city block, but invisible to the naked eye.

Federal and state regulators did not test the air there until news outlets had published our results. The Environmental Protection Agency only later acknowledged the company “significantly underestimated” the amount of benzene and other volatile organic compounds released at the refinery, and Valero revised the size of its release to 1,881 pounds.

Texas officials have an obligation to protect people’s health during natural disasters. Before the next storm, the state should invest in mobile air monitoring units and create a surveillance plan to seek out and detect pollution hot spots.

The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality also should ensure accurate reporting of pollution releases.  This includes requiring facilities to provide justifiable reasons for substantial changes in reported emissions, use of standardized chemical nomenclature of released pollutants, adding geocoded location of facilities in submitted reports to better understand where releases may be clustered, and not suspending reporting requirements to ensure transparency for communities who bear the greatest burden of exposures.

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One Comment

  1. Jon A. White
    Posted August 26, 2018 at 5:29 pm | Permalink

    I am not following the logic in your interpretation that a decrease in the reported emissions vs original reports actually suggests higher emissions. The report may elaborate, but the article should be clearer. Are you suggesting that the later corrections are actually a misrepresentation facillitated by TCEQ's relaxation of rules? If so, you should explain how this happens. That would be, as you suggest, a very serious matter.