A healthier, more resilient Houston needs cleaner air

This op-ed originally appeared in the Houston Chronicle.

In 2017, Houston endured 21 days with unhealthy levels of smog, triggering asthma attacks and missed school days for many of our children and hospitalizations for grandparents.

And, believe it or not, that was an improvement. As this century began, Houston took the unwanted title of America’s smog capital from Los Angeles, a sign of the region’s growing industries and traffic. Since then, our community, with the help of stronger federal safeguards, has made significant advances in air quality, allowing us to drop to No. 12 in the American Lung Association’s latest ranking of most polluted cities.

As the coughing and burning lungs from last year painfully remind us, Houston is still suffering from a public health problem that we cannot pretend is in our rear-view mirror. We must face the reality: There is a lot more work to do bring our air into compliance with health-based standards.

The worst days for ground-level ozone, or smog, in 2017 followed Hurricane Harvey. People in the flooded neighborhoods throughout Houston worked long hours outdoors despite significant concerns about dirty air. By industry’s own estimates, the region’s sprawling network of oil refineries and petrochemical plants released more than 2 million pounds of harmful chemicals into the air during and after the storm – the equivalent of six months’ worth of unauthorized air pollution in just a few days.

Many industrial plants in Harvey’s path released extra pollutants into the air when they shut down in preparation for the storm and when they resumed operations. For example, Chevron Phillips’ Cedar Bayou chemical plant in Baytown released roughly 750,000 pounds of excess emissions, including smog-forming volatile organic compounds.

Harvey damaged other facilities, allowing hazardous gases to escape. In Crosby, explosions at a flooded chemical plant filled the air with smoke, triggering an evacuation of nearby residents and sending emergency workers to hospitals. Meanwhile, Houston officials detected alarmingly high concentrations of cancer-causing benzene in Manchester, a neighborhood adjacent to a leaking storage tank at a Valero Energy refinery.

Industry says these pollution releases are rare. In fact, they are common but rarely punished. A recent study found that companies reported 24,839 illegal releases of pollution across Texas between 2011 and 2016, but state regulators imposed penalties for less than 3 percent of these violations.

Here is the bottom line: Houston’s stubborn pollution problem is a threat to public health and requires more attention from all levels of government. Yet many people believe the problem has gone away.

To draw more attention to the issue, Environmental Defense Fund is partnering with Air Alliance Houston, Environmental Integrity Project, Environment Texas, Public Citizen and Rice University on an awareness campaign funded by Houston Endowment.

We are calling it One Breath Partnership. Our goal is clean air for a healthier and more resilient Houston. Through our commitment to scientific evidence, community outreach and better communication, we can inspire people to take action to improve air quality and protect public health.

We created the partnership to be a catalyst for information and education. It provides an outlet for residents to share their stories about the harmful effects of air pollution. It also serves to amplify the work of Houston-area scientists, researchers, academics and physicians in order to educate community members about the impact of air quality on their health.

As part of this effort, and in response to the historic problems triggered by Hurricane Harvey, we have come together to advance smart policies that can reduce the public’s exposure to air pollution. These requests include more tools for the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality to protect public health and safety, as well as improving the exchange of information between state officials and residents about pollution hazards.

Here is what you can do. Learn more about clean air and public health. Share your story. Sign our letter to Gov. Greg Abbott that demands stronger protections. Write your representative. Connect on social media.

Please join us in this campaign to improve the air we share.

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