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Another front in the air quality battle

Mayor White has a new plan to target chemical plants that have dragged their feet about reducing benzene emissions: Contesting their permit renewals with the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ):

The plan represents a shift in White’s focus from the chemical industry to the state’s clean-air officials. It comes after the mayor promised to use a city nuisance ordinance to punish plants, many of them outside the city’s borders, that did not reduce emissions of benzene within six months.

“This approach both takes into account some concerns that the city of Houston not act unilaterally and it will be effective in accomplishing our purposes of trying to reduce the amount of benzene in our air,” White said.

The city already has challenged the permits for one of Lyondell Chemical Company’s nine Houston-area plants, hoping the protest would lead to an administrative hearing before a judge, White said.

The mayor said the city notified TCEQ that it would use the hearing to publicly call on the agency to create an air quality standard that contains an acceptable limit for benzene. Currently there isn’t one in Texas, though other states have them.

The city’s stance is that TCEQ cannot regulate benzene from individual plants without having some limit on the total amount of the air pollutant.

“I do not understand how somebody could permit a particular amount of benzene from a particular source, without taking into account the amount of benzene that is in the atmosphere, basically in the same air current,” White said.


Andy Saenz, a TCEQ spokesman, said he had not seen the city’s letter contesting Lyondell’s permit, but denied that the agency is not doing enough to regulate benzene.

“We have volumes and volumes of data that show we’re making progress all over the state,” Saenz said. “We’re throwing everything but the kitchen sink at the problem in Houston.”

Given that the TCEQ chose to side with the polluters in their lawsuit to overturn that city nuisance ordinance, I’m not surprised by their reaction here. One may wonder if they’ll manage to be impartial when they review the city’s protests of the permits. Whatever the case, I’m glad to see the spotlight on them. The TCEQ could stand to have a little pressure applied to them for a good cause.

There is a way out for the plants here:

White issued his challenge to plant operators in November, after a task force composed primarily of industry members called for voluntary measures to limit chemical emissions and clear Houston’s air.

Industry officials said they needed a year to see results from the plan, which the Greater Houston Partnership endorsed. But White said he would give them only six months before trying again to enact a nuisance ordinance, which would enable the city to cite facilities outside its borders that contribute to pollution in Houston.

Plants found violating the ordinance faced fines of up to $2,000 a day.

White acknowledged some reductions recently in benzene concentrations on air-quality monitors around Houston, according to data collected by the TCEQ and analyzed by the city. But none of the plant operators provided plans for future cuts in emissions, as called for by the task force, he said.

“Nobody will tell us what those plans are,” White said.

White said the process for challenging a plant’s permits could take up to a year and that the city plans to set aside up to $500,000 for expert witnesses. But the whole thing could be avoided, White said, if industry helped create a multiyear benzene reduction plan.

If the plan that the task force came up with is more than a lame attempt to stall and obfuscate, then following through on its own recommendations shouldn’t be too hard. The ball is in their court. Mayor White has made his position clear. It’s just a question of how they want to go about resolving the differences.

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