This blog post is part one of a two part series.
2011 was a year for extreme weather in Texas; epic wildfires and extreme drought have left Texas in a state of repair. As the fervor of our adherence to New Year’s resolutions may be starting to fade, I ask that we hold steady in the fight against harmful air pollution. As the heart of the energy sector, Texas pumps more benzene and other hazardous air pollutants into the air than any other state in the nation. And shelter in places and emergency responses happen way more often than they should. In thinking about the New Year and our resolutions for 2012, let’s remember how pollution and our actions affect our precious resources and climate. And let’s not forget the pollution events that occurred in the Lone Star state, and think about how we can do better.
Below is a list of some of the top environmental pollution events in Texas over the last decade:
Flint Hills Resources Benzene Spill- 2001
Koch Petroleum Group (now Flint Hills Resources) pled guilty in April 2001 to lying about benzene emissions coming from its petroleum plant located in Corpus Christi, Texas. Benzene is a known carcinogen, which can cause leukemia and other cancers. In 1995, Koch environmental technician Sally Barnes-Soliz found 91 tons of benzene emissions from the petroleum plant in Corpus, more than 15 times the legal limit. However, Koch only reported 0.61 tons of benzene the following year, 1/149 of the actual emissions found. Barnes-Soliz reported the falsification to the government and, as a result, Koch was charged $20 million in fines and penalties. The company earned a reported $176 million in profit from the plant in 1995; it is estimated to have cost only $7 million to comply with the Benzene emission standards.
BP Refinery in Texas City- 2005
On March 23, 2005, an explosion killed 15 employees and injured 170 as a result of workers re-starting a unit at the BP refinery that had been closed for repairs, an extremely dangerous process. The problem started when workers filled a tank with 138 feet of flammable liquid, when it should have only been filled with 6.5 feet of liquid. The window in the tower that should have let workers know the tank was too full was too dirty to see through and safety devices that should have sounded an alarm failed.
Upon further investigation, it was discovered that BP had cut costs, resulting in risky working conditions, which were likely the cause of the catastrophic event. An investigation by the Chemical Safety Board found numerous problems including out of date equipment, corroded pipes, and faulty safety alarms. This explosion has been characterized as the worst workplace incident in the U.S. from 1989 up until 2005.
Arsenic Contamination of Drinking Water- 2009
The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality foundthat 120 water utility systems across the state were not in compliance with the EPA standard for arsenic in 2009. Arsenic is a naturally occurring element in rocks and soil; it can contaminate drinking water as a result of mining runoff, erosion of natural deposits, emissions from glass and electronic processing and the use of compounds containing arsenic (ex: wood pesticides).
While most drinking water naturally has a small amount of arsenic, larger amounts resulting from improper disposal of industrial wastes can lead to lung cancer, bladder cancer and gangrene. Since 2004, the state of Texas has had 596 violations for arsenic levels over the maximum limit in drinking water. You can see a list of the top 10 most polluted communities for arsenic in Texas here.
American Smelting and Refining Company (ASARCO)- 2009
The ASARCO plant was built in El Paso in 1887. In the 1970s, a study by the Centers for Disease Control foundthat the plant was responsible for high levels of lead in children living near the facility. The copper smelter site contaminated the air with a variety of chemicals including lead, arsenic, cadmium, chromium, selenium, and zinc. Specifically, the study found over half of the children living within a mile of the smelter had levels of lead in their blood four times the limit considered acceptable by the EPA.
Research shows that even small amounts of lead in a child’s blood system can cause nervous system damage, neurological disorders, loss of IQ points, lowered attention spans, behavioral problems, and even an increase in delinquency. In February 2009, ASARCO closed the El Paso plant permanently after EPA intervened. To settle claims for hazardous pollution, ASARCO is in the process of paying $1.8 billion over the course of several years for environmental cleanup at more than 80 sites across the country, including the El Paso plant.
We will publish part two of this post on Wednesday, January 25.