Great story about a problem that deserves mush more attention from the state.
One by one, the residents filtered into the small community center and found seats in the rows of plastic chairs. Some were teenagers wearing yellow-and-black Galena Park High School letter jackets. Others were parents and grandparents juggling children. Many wore white headphones to hear the Spanish translator standing nearby. Everyone looked worried.
They had gathered on that chilly November night to learn what two new, high-tech monitors had found in the air in Galena Park and Jacinto City, neighboring towns in eastern Harris County, the epicenter of North America’s petrochemical industry. They were prepared for grim news.
“Everyone here knows pollution is a big problem,” said Maricela Serna, a former Galena Park commissioner who has one of the monitors on the roof of her tax preparation office. “But we want to know just how bad things really are. We deserve to know. And those in power, especially at the state level, need to know.”
Serna, 66, has lived in Galena Park since 1988 and the stench of chemicals is part of her everyday life. The odor inside her home was so bad one day that a visitor from outside the community thought there was a gas leak and called the fire department. Still, Serna held out hope that the news that night might be positive — that maybe, just maybe, the pollution wasn’t as bad as the odors let on.
But the data from the monitors confirmed her worst fears.
Nitrogen oxides, which the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has linked to asthma in children and lower birth weight in newborns, were consistently above the agency’s one-hour limit. Ozone, which can aggravate lung diseases including asthma and emphysema, was well above the EPA’s eight-hour limit. Particulate matter, which increases the risk for strokes and heart disease by settling deep into lungs and seeping into bloodstreams, hovered above the EPA’s annual limit.
The readings from Serna’s office, located a block from a thoroughfare lined with petrochemical plants, were especially high. Monthly levels of nitrogen oxides, for example, averaged 170 parts per billion from June through August — nearly double what the EPA says is safe for just one hour.
The data was presented by Juan Flores, a lifelong Galena Park resident and clean-air advocate. He oversees community air monitoring programs for Air Alliance Houston, the nonprofit he works for, and Environmental Community Advocates of Galena Park, a smaller group he helped create and where he is vice president. Over the past few years, the two groups have built a network of air monitors that gives residents basic information about the dangers they are living with.
Regulators and scientists are often skeptical of community-gathered data, because it’s usually less sophisticated than the data state and federal agencies collect. But the community data is still important, because it can be used to rally residents and prod elected officials to acknowledge a neighborhood’s plight. It can also complement the ongoing work of researchers by providing hyperlocal information about wind patterns and chemical readings of volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, a diverse group of chemicals that includes some carcinogens.
“This lower-level monitoring … warrants further investigation, but it supports what we’re seeing at the city level,” said Loren Hopkins, the chief environmental science officer for the Houston Health Department. “There’s a huge educational component, too. Instead of just using traditional advocacy, they’re actually using science to support their claims.”
It’s great and necessary work being done by these residents, but they shouldn’t have to. This is what the TCEQ is for, except that it’s been neutered and corrupted to the point of uselessness. And unfortunately, that’s not going to change any time soon. In the meantime, folks like these will have to keep telling and documenting their story, so at least we can know what’s happening to them. Go read the rest.