November 20, 2007
Cleanup can be done

As we know, Mayor White has upped the rhetorial stakes in demanding action from local plants on cleaner air. The plants have for the most part claimed that they can't meet his deadline. Turns out there's more to the story than that.

At least some measures to reduce air pollution from Houston-area plants are within reach, despite the industry's complaints that Mayor Bill White's six-month deadline for improvements is unattainable.

For less than $20,000 a plant could have an infrared camera crew scan its facility for major leaks. The scan would take a few days -- though fixing the leaks could cost much more and take much longer.

In about six months a plant operator could build a dome over the top of an 80-foot-diameter storage tank, preventing escape of fumes. The cost would be around $200,000.

And with better planning and training, a refinery could cut the time it flares off gases during startups and shutdowns.

"I think some of it's doable, what he's asking them to do," said David Furry, whose Texas firm developed a widely used infrared leak detection system.

But costs and timetables for specific pollution projects vary because of the complexity of chemical plants and refineries.

"These can be very big capital expenses, and it's usually a matter of years of planning, designing and optimizing changes," said Don Bellman, a former manager in Exxon Mobil Corp.'s chemical business who now teaches at the University of Houston's Global Energy Management Institute.

Sure these things take time, and maybe even a sincere effort can't be completed in six months. But what can be done by then is a demonstration of commitment to achieving the ultimate goals - a timetable of events, with checkpoints, a budget to provide for what's needed, and so on. Hell, a Gantt chart would be better than nothing, as long as what was on there was sincere, realistic, and verifiable. We've heard nothing but "we need more time" for decades now. It's time to provide for an endpoint.

Industry leaders say that isn't long enough to take action and evaluate results. At least one spokesman suggested that was the mayor's design.

"It's only logical to suppose the intent of the city is to create an unachievable target that, when it's not met, will be used to attack the industry," said David Harpole, a spokesman for Lyondell Chemical.

The mayor's environmental spokeswoman disputed that claim and said the city has tried since February to get companies to adopt some form of a five-year emissions reduction plan.

"Between now and then they have done nothing but meet and produce a report that talks about platitudes and public education sessions," said Elena Marks, director of health and environmental policy for the city. "Not a single company would agree to any plan on any timetable."

I'd say it's only logical to assume that the city is taking a hardline position to get the attention of people like David Harpole, and to allow for some negotiating room that still demonstrates actual progress towards a desireable outcome. The resistance and hyperbole are entirely predictable. The only real question is whether the city and the plants can come to some kind of negotiated agreement before the six month deadline passes, and the city chooses what action to take next. I'd say it's fairly likely, but far from guaranteed. Stay tuned. In the meantime, the EPA will be in town next week to discuss cleaner air. Click on for the details, courtesy of State Rep. Ana Hernandez:

State Rep. Ana E. Hernandez is asking for your support to help improve the air quality for our community and the entire state of Texas.

The Environmental Protection Agency will have a hearing in Manchester, a community in District 143, to hear testimony from residents living near refineries.

Please show your support by attending the hearing on Tuesday, November 27th at the Hartman Park Community Center (9311 E. Avenue P, Houston, TX 77012). The hearing will be from 9am - 9pm, please try to attend as long as your schedule permits.

Each person will be given 5 minutes to testify.

Also, there will be a Candlelight Vigil for Clean Air on Monday, November 26th at 7pm at Hartman Park.

We need your support!

Posted by Charles Kuffner on November 20, 2007 to Local politics