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Air cleanup progress report

Some good news about efforts to get manufacturing plants to pollute less.

In 2005, following Houston Chronicle and state reports about alarming levels of butadiene in neighborhoods near Texas Petrochemicals, the company signed a non-binding agreement with the TCEQ to cut emissions by at least half within five years and to keep pollutants from wafting over the fence line.

Not satisfied, the city later negotiated its own contract with Texas Petrochemicals that also held the company liable for damages if it failed to meet the terms.

The plant initially installed a system to recover gas from its flare — a device used to burn off gases during emergencies — and lowered its threshold for leak detection.

Among other steps to cut emissions, the company also installed monitors along two fence lines and began using handheld infrared cameras to detect leaks quickly. If the monitors uncover a potential problem, then state and local officials receive immediate notification by e-mail, under the contract with the city.

Kirk Johnson, the plant’s manager, said the improved technology has produced a culture change at the facility.

“Without the fence line monitors, we wouldn’t have reason to look for leaks,” he said. “We found the leaks whenever we found them. Now we’re finding them quicker.”

With the technological and behavioral changes, the plant’s butadiene emissions have been in steady retreat, dropping from 178,674 pounds in 2004 to 43,995 pounds in 2008, a 75 percent decrease, according to the most recent federal data available.

That’s a big difference, and it will have a large effect on the quality of life for folks who live nearby. Credit goes to Texas Petrochemicals for changing its behavior, the TCEQ for enforcing the agreement, and Mayor Bill White, who pushed for the stricter limits that Texas Petrochemicals agreed to. You may wonder why this approach isn’t being used at other big-pollution plants. The short answer is that the industry claims Texas Petrochemicals is a unique situation and that the same methods used there to monitor and measure toxin levels wouldn’t work as well. That strikes me as more excuse than justification, and I don’t see why we should be taking their word for it. But that’s the situation now, and as I’ve said before, it’s going to take a change in leadership in the state for things to be done differently.

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