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Mediation in Midlothian

I’ve posted a couple of updates recently on the situation in Midlothian, where residents are trying to prevent cement maker TXI from circumventing environmental regulations. Yesterday I got an email from Julie, my regular Midlothian correspondent, who sent me a link to this DMN story from June 7, which says that the residents of Midlothian are now in mediation with TXI over this issue. There’s supposed to be a ruling soon, so maybe, just maybe, the folks up there can get some relief. I’ll try to keep an eye out for it.

In the meantime, a subsequent DMN editorial asks why this is a debatable point at all.

Under EPA rules, the company’s only justification – that the controls are too costly – is no justification at all. Because the entire Dallas-Fort Worth area fails to meet federal standards for the deadly pollutant ozone, cost is not a factor the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality can consider when determining how much pollution each industry is allowed to emit.

Things would have been different for TXI if the EPA had opted last year to exclude Ellis County from the D-FW ozone “nonattainment” area. (It didn’t.) Or if TCEQ had granted the company’s request before last June 15, when the area’s new boundaries took effect. But on that day, TXI’s request became invalid.

“If this permit is not issued prior to June 15, 2004, the facility must withdraw its [pending] application and submit an application … subject to … more stringent permit requirements,” an EPA official wrote in May 2004. Nevertheless, TCEQ has allowed TXI to proceed as though the deadline had not passed.

Never underestimate the power of Smokey Joe.

At least elsewhere in Texas, there’s some moderately good news for those of us who prefer to breath real air.

Texas will stop evaluating the public health risk of toxic air pollution using 30-year-old guidelines long criticized for being more lenient than other states’ and based on questionable science, according to a Texas Commission on Environmental Quality proposal.

Instead, the state plans to use more scientifically valid, and in some cases more stringent, federal risk levels to analyze the health and environmental hazards of the air pollution data collected at monitors across Texas.

The TCEQ also will no longer base its guidelines on standards used to protect industrial workers, a practice that has been criticized by some toxicologists and environmental groups as outdated and scientifically inappropriate.

The changes will be the most significant made to Texas Effects Screening Levels — guidelines to assess air pollution’s effects on people, plants and odors — since the levels were first drafted in the 1970s.

“It’s a total departure” from what we’ve been doing, said Michael Honeycutt, manager of the TCEQ’s Toxicology Section, which began the review in October 2003.

This update isn’t perfect – there’s still controversy over risk levels – but it’s way better than what we had before. Kudos to the TCEQ for taking a step in the right direction.

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One Comment

  1. Dan Altman says:

    Really like your work.

    Wanted to forward this to you, FYI:

    On Tuesday, the TCEQ announced it was abandoning it’s Effects Screening Level or “ESL” system of determining public risk to chemical exposures. I’ll admit that it was the latest round of outrageous TCEQ behavior in Houston that pushed this over the edge into actually happening – but there is a pivotal North Texas role in this development as well.

    All through the 1990’s, ESLs were used against any citizens complaining of health effects from the Midlothian cement plants. Canisters were given to citizens with the instructions that when they felt they were being adversely affected by the plants’ emissions, they were to open the canister and it would take a sample of the air. Time and again citizens did this, and indeed the authorities found various strange chemicals in the air they had sampled. But the explanation from the TACB/TNRCC/TCEQ was that the concentrations of those chemicals “were below the ESLs” for that pollutant, and so could not possibly be the cause of the problems.

    There is one infamous example, mirroring one that also occurred in Houston, where a TCEQ employee doing sampling was overcome by the plumes from one of the plants – TXI I believe – and took a canister sampling of his own. Even though he got sick and he attributed his sickness to the air he was inhaling directly downwind of the stacks, and the canister sample came back positive for chemicals, they were “below ESLs” for any single pollutant. No problem was found.

    This became a big source of controversy and was on on-going battle from 1989 right up until the end of the TXI haz waste hearings in 1999/2000. (Since then, we’ve been concentrating on getting the kilns regulated in the DFW SIP). And in fact, the City of Midlothian is still using “below the ESL’s” in their defensive reaction to the Erin Brockovich meeting.

    Anyway, after hearing this excuse for years, citizens decided to investigate exactly what the ESL system was all about. Local grassroots group Downwinders At Risk spent thousands of dollars to comission Dr. Marvin Legator of the UTMB in Galveston to write an investigation into ESLs. We also asked a former Texas Air Control Board employee, Jim Tarr, to write an historical account of how ESLs were adopted in Texas and why, in his opinion, they were unethical to use as indicators of public health. The result was a report entitled “Sacrificing Science for Convenience” that came out in 1998. Copies were requested by quite a few out of state academic institutions and regulatory agencies. Citizens were the ones accusing the state of “junk science.” It gave the state its first real black eye publicly over the use of ESLs.

    As far as we know, this was the first in-depth examination of ESLs ever done by anyone – agency, academia, or non-profit group. It was a rag-tag outfit of North Texas suburban moms, local ranchers and others who paid for this report, knowing that it’s publication would not do anything in the immediate short term to help their cause, but also realizing it was probably one of the most important things they could do about their own, and other citizens’ situations in the longer term. It took a great deal of courage and foresight to spend scarce money on this kind of research, rather than say office rent, copies, telephone bills etc.

    Fast forward to yesterday and the Houston Chronicle article below. Turns out a group of consultants hired by the state to evaluate ESLs came to exactly the same conclusions as our little old report eight years ago, and I can guarantee you they spent a lot more money getting there.

    It took a while, but a group of North Texas citizens without one PhDs behind their names have finally been vindicated by the state itself over a matter most would think they were hardly qualified to take on. TCEQ is junking its original junk science approach to estimating human health damage from air pollution. The system that is replacing it is obviously not 100% correct either, allowing for a risk at least 10 times greater than EPA and other states recognize, but it is incremental progress to get rid of the ridiculous ESL system.

    The ending for ESLs came from TCEQ troubles in Houston in the 21st century, but the beginning of the end started in Midlothian in the 1990’s.