12-Step Program for TCEQ to Clean Up Air Pollutant “Hotspots” in Texas

Playground with pollutionOur first post to Texas Clean Air Matters offers a 12-step program to TCEQ for cleaning up air pollutant hotspots around the state (and not just because it’s Earth Day, but if it helps promote the cause, we’ll take it).

1. Identify that we have a problem with toxic air

As with other 12-step programs, the first step toward recovery is admitting that there’s a problem. Texas, we have a problem: It’s called “hotspots.” The Texas Commission of Environmental Quality (TCEQ) recently released the 2009 Air Pollutant Watch List (APWL) report, which outlines areas around the state where pollution levels for one or more toxic compounds exceeds the state’s health-based levels of concern, referred to as “effects screening levels” or ESLs. Some of the pollutants within these hotspot areas can cause cancer, birth defects, or even death.

2. Develop a better process for defining the boundaries of air pollutant watch list areas.

Currently, TCEQ designates APWL areas based on convenient landmarks like highways and water bodies rather than on emission reports or modeling information.

3. Communicate with the public about the increased risks of living in hotspots.

TCEQ does not conduct formal outreach to the public living in these pollution hotspots or attempt to educate them about the increased risk that they have from exposure to these pollutants. The APWL should be a tool used in active outreach efforts to educate the public on the increased health risks of living in a pollution hotspot.

4. Increase the number of air monitors in hotspot areas.

While Texas claims to have more monitors than any other state, the coverage in some areas can be sparse, particularly considering that air monitors mostly capture pollution emitted within a limited distance. This is a problem in facility-dense areas, such as the Houston ship channel, where there are hundreds of industrial facilities within a large area.

5. Include advanced monitoring techniques as part of the remediation process.

Many of the successes that TCEQ has had in removing areas from the air pollutant watch list have been a result of redoubling efforts to require increased monitoring at facilities. The fenceline monitor at Texas Petrochemicals, for instance, has helped identify fugitive leaks around the facility and has resulted in about a 50% reduction of 1,3 butadiene (a toxic air pollutant used mainly in the synthetic rubber industry) in emissions, as reported to EPA through the Toxic Release Inventory (TRI).

6. Follow up mobile monitoring trips with immediate and aggressive remediation efforts.

In the APWL 2009 annual report, TCEQ describes a 2003 mobile monitoring trip in Beaumont: “A member of the monitoring staff required medical attention for a burning sensation in the lungs while monitoring downwind of Chemtrade Logistics (formerly Peak Sulfur, Incorporated) during the 2003 mobile monitoring trip.” This area – seven years later – continues to be listed as an APWL and continues to have regular exceedances of sulfur dioxide.

7. Work more effectively with city and county officials.

Some cities and counties have their own mobile monitoring units. When possible, TCEQ should coordinate more effectively with these localities in helping to identify problems. Although a facility is required to report an emission event to local authorities, in many cases, this does not happen and local officials are often unaware of the emission event.

8. Spend resources reducing emissions rather than trying to define the issue away.

Nickel pollution in the Dallas area has been a problem since 1987, and the area has been listed as a hotspot since 2004. Current and sustained nickel concentrations exceed what one might find at a Superfund site. TCEQ states that it has undertaken a special one-year monitoring study at the Dallas-Morrell site to help identify the percentage of inhalable PM2.5 (particulate matter) out of total suspended particulate. While interesting, this study will not help reduce the nickel dust in the area, nor will it reduce the potential risks to public health.

9. Incorporate emission reduction requirements more effectively into the air permitting process, and in between permit reviews.

While TCEQ attempts increased scrutiny during the permitting process, the reality is that more effort needs to be made to require real reductions from facilities operating in hotspots. Because ESLs are not actual standards, there are no specific penalties for an area that exceeds them. Additionally, since permit renewals are only reviewed every 10 years, and because of the limited authority that TCEQ believes that they have in requiring reductions during the permit review process, the opportunity for TCEQ to require additional control measures is infrequent and insufficient to solve pollution problems in these areas.

10. Increase enforcement actions on facilities located in hotspots that have emission events, especially when there are state standards for specific pollutants.

Only about half of the emission events that occur across the state are actually enforced upon by TCEQ. While the number of enforcement actions has increased over the years, more scrutiny is needed over affirmative defenses made by industry. Enforcement actions should be increased more frequently, especially when there are state standards for the pollutants of concern like hydrogen sulfide (as opposed to ESLs, which are not state standards).

11. Set a timeline for remediation of watch list areas.

Without goals and a formal remediation program, some areas within the APWL have languished on the list for over a decade. The longer that an area exceeds health-based screening guidelines, the more risk there is in developing adverse health effects from that exposure.

12. Develop a formal process for delisting air pollutant watch list areas.

There are no formal criteria for determining whether an area can be removed from the APWL – the decision is at the discretion of the toxicology department. In some cases, attempts to delist the areas have been made even though problems still exist. An example of that is this recent letter from a resident who has petitioned for an area to remain on the list even though the toxicology department had recommended it for removal.

Want to learn more?

Do you live in an area that is a hotspot of pollution? Check out the most recent table of APWL areas, as published by the TCEQ.

This entry was posted in Air Pollution, Clean Air Act, Climate Change, Flare emissions, TCEQ, Texas Permitting and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Both comments and trackbacks are currently closed.


  1. Elena Craft, PhD Elena Craft
    Posted May 21, 2010 at 5:34 PM | Permalink

    thanks everyone for the feedback. pollution hotspots are a real problem in this state and we need to keep working to get these areas cleaned up!

  2. Elena Craft, PhD Elena Craft
    Posted May 26, 2010 at 10:54 AM | Permalink

    Sure – I just posted a thank you to EPA for helping TCEQ issue better permits. If you let me know specifics about what you are interested in with regard to air quality in Texas, then I’d be happy to write about them. Thank you for reading and taking an interest in air quality!

  3. Elena Craft, PhD Elena Craft
    Posted May 26, 2010 at 10:57 AM | Permalink

    Thanks for reading and for your concern about air quality in TX!

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