Public health officials say it’s not strict enough.
Without public hearings, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality is proposing to adopt its 17-year-old standard that scientists and public health officials say fails to account for cumulative air pollution.
The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality has quietly proposed maintaining a target cancer risk level for air pollution permits that scientists and public health officials consider inadequate to protect public health, especially for communities like those east of Houston that are exposed simultaneously to many sources of industrial emissions.
The move comes after a state commission on accountability last year found “a concerning degree of general public distrust and confusion focused on TCEQ,” and the Texas Legislature adopted directives this year instructing the TCEQ to transparently review and approve “foundational policy decisions” that had never been publicly approved, including “the acceptable level of health-based risk” used in pollution permitting.
In response, TCEQ proposed, without public hearings or additional study, to formalize its existing target cancer risk level of 1 in 100,000, meaning that only one excess case of cancer among 100,000 similarly exposed people would result from each individual pollutant from each individually permitted site.
The agency has been using that risk level since 2006, said a TCEQ spokesman, Richard Richter. He said TCEQ’s target “is reasonable from a regulatory perspective and is protective of human health.” It “insignificantly contributes to an individual’s lifetime cancer risk,” he said.
But by looking at each site and chemical separately, scientists and public health officials say, the assessment method drastically under-represents the actual risks faced by communities situated near industrial complexes, like the great conglomerations of fuming refineries and chemical plants that dot the Texas coast.
“TCEQ should be proactive and change their cancer risk to protect individuals living in high risk communities,” wroteLatrice Babin, executive director of Harris County Pollution Control Services, in official comments. She asked for a target risk level of one in 1 million.
“TCEQ is scrambling to adopt work from nearly 20 years ago with no analysis,” wrote a coalition of Texas environmental groups led by Air Alliance Houston.
The City of Houston, the nation’s fourth largest city and home to its largest petrochemical complex, has also asked the TCEQto tighten standards. Bill Kelly, Houston’s director of government relations, said TCEQ should “absolutely” lower its target cancer risk level.
Richter did not respond to a request for interviews with TCEQ’s politically appointed leadership, but said that the agency, to satisfy the Legislature’s directives on public participation, sent its proposal for a target risk rate, along with instructions on filing comments, to more than 3,300 email addresses on its toxicology listserv, which goes to subscribers from both industry and the general public. The proposal also appeared Sept. 1 on page 182 of the Texas Register, a weekly journal of state agency rulemaking.
In response, the TCEQ received more than 200 official comments asking the agency to lower its target risk level to one in 1 million. Just one response came in support of its proposed risk level: the Texas Chemical Council, a chemical industry lobbying group, wrote, “the proposed level is protective of public health.”
Target Risk Levels
The target risk level helps determine the volumes of carcinogenic emissions that industrial operators are allowed to release in Texas, seat of the nation’s oil, gas and petrochemical industry.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency sets the upper limit of cancer risk level from permitted air pollution at 1 in 10,000, and sets a target level at 1 in 1 million. Richter called the TCEQ’s target rate the “logarithmic center” of that range, and said it allows ample space for corrective action before permitted pollution sources exceed the EPA’s upper limit for cancer risk.
He said the agency has used its target risk level since 2006 when it formalized its guidelines for toxicity standards. Those guidelines attribute the figure to standards set by California in 1986. Those guidelines also produced a broad loosening of air pollution health standards in Texas, according to a 2014 investigation by Inside Climate News and the Center for Public Integrity.
Richter pointed to a 2010 survey of state air permitting policy by Michigan’s environmental regulator, which found that 20 U.S. states didn’t evaluate cancer-causing “air toxics” when permitting new pollution sources. Of the 28 that did, 14 states used target risk levels to set limits. Eight used 1 in 1 million, including California. Just one, Louisiana, used the upper end —1 in 10,000.
Two, Texas and Minnesota, used 1 in 100,000. (Georgia and Rhode Island used 1 in 1 million for some toxins and 1 in 100,000 for others.)
Cumulative Impacts of Pollution
That figure doesn’t represent the target cancer risk for entire states. It’s the target cancer risk resulting from each individual pollutant from each individually permitted facility. Where many facilities emit chemicals across vast industrial landscapes, scientists say, all those supposedly insignificant contributions can add up — or even multiply when they interact.
“These numbers often underestimate the true risk,” said Tracey Woodruff, director of the Environmental Research and Translation for Health Center at the University of California San Francisco.
That’s why, scientists say, tighter standards are needed to account for the cumulative impacts of pollution that disproportionately impact underserved and vulnerable populations.
“The old way of doing things is to look at one pollutant at a time, one emissions source at a time, but in reality no one is exposed to one pollutant at a time,” said Jill Johnston, director of the Environmental Justice Research Lab at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. “There’s been a shift in moving towards cumulative risk characterization.”
The science isn’t new, said Wilma Subra, an environmental consultant in Louisiana who studied cumulative impacts of air pollution for the National Environmental Justice Advisory Council in the early 1990s. But it has been difficult to incorporate into air permitting.
“Sometimes you have 20, 30, 40 or more chemicals, some of which have standards and some of which do not, all in the air and crossing the fenceline,” she said. “You can make statements that each of these chemicals are meeting the standard in the air, and you just ignore the cumulative impacts.”
TCEQ guidelines say the agency assesses cumulative risks from pollution in accordance with state and federal law. But outside experts say that’s not always what happens.
“Right now when it comes to air toxics, TCEQ looks at one air contaminant, one site. Each air contaminant is evaluated on its own coming from one site,” said one air permitting consultant who used to work for the TCEQ and requested anonymity to preserve his business relationship with the agency. “If you’re only looking at benzene at just one site, but you’re surrounded by refineries that have a high concentration of benzene liquids being stored, that may not be a comprehensive view.”
The mixture of different pollutants can drastically increase toxicity, according to Dr. Bruce Lanphear, a clinician scientist at the British Columbia Children’s Hospital and a professor of health sciences at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver.
The effect has been shown with tobacco, which is relatively easy to study, Lanphear said. Smoking tobacco can increase a person’s risk for lung cancer by a factor of 10, while exposure to arsenic can increase the risk by a factor of two. But the combination of smoking and arsenic exposure has been shown to increase risk by a factor of 25.
“There is a big multiplicative risk because you have two toxic pollutants that magnify the effect of each other,” he said. “That’s got huge implications if you’ve got lots of different chemical plants in a place like Houston.”
With tobacco users, he said, it’s easy to measure individuals’ exposure and compare that with non-smokers. For the plethora of industrial air pollutants, gauging exposure and effects is much more complicated — and studying their combinations is even more so.
“It’s challenging, but the regulatory agencies should be doing it,” he said.
A Tradeoff of Costs
Short of modeling cumulative impacts for every new permit, agencies can lower their target levels to acknowledge that cumulative effects generally raise the overall cancer risk from emissions, scientists say.
The EPA’s risk assessment framework for air toxics permitting calls for “an ample margin of safety to protect public health.”
“I prefer a target risk of 1 in a million,” said David Ozonoff, chair emeritus for environmental health at Boston University.
When the cumulative effects of pollution are poorly understood, Ozonoff said, erring toward caution “is more in line with public health philosophy.” But it comes with an additional financial burden to the businesses that need air pollution permits to operate.
“The cost of more protection might be in terms of profits or jobs while the cost of less protection is in lives and suffering,” Ozonoff said. “The costs and the benefits usually accrue to different groups of people. One group gets the benefits and another group pays the costs.”
In Texas, public health advocates call the costs a reasonable burden to place on big industry, especially with major operators like ExxonMobil, which runs one the nation’s largest pollution sources east of Houston and posted a record $56 billion profit last year.
“I can’t throw trash over my fenceline. Why can industry throw trash over its fenceline?” said Jen Powis, managing attorney for Earthjustice’s gulf regional office in Houston. “Industry has the financing and the dollars to make it less with pollution control equipment.”
In their comments requesting a lower target risk level, the Texas environmental groups said TCEQ had not “provided any evidence that this would be cost prohibitive to applicants across the broad range of air permitting programs.”
The Texas Chemical Council, in its comments, said it “commends the TCEQ for its consideration of risk/benefit tradeoffs in establishing its [target risk levels] which make levels achievable.”
‘A Concerning Degree of General Public Distrust’
The standard is up for discussion in Texas because Texas Sunset Commission, which reviews each state agency every 12 years, found in its 2022 report on TCEQ “a concerning degree of general public distrust and confusion focused on TCEQ and its ability to effectively regulate in the public interest.”
Distrust, the report said, stemmed from a lack of transparency and of opportunities for public input. Many of TCEQ’s core policies, like its target cancer risk level tucked into its 347-page toxicology guidelines, are encoded in lengthy scientific documents that had never been publicly approved.
“This scientific information must ultimately be transformed into regulatory standards,” the report said. “Deciding the acceptable level of exposure and effects on the public… is a policy decision that governs what facilities may be built, what technology they must employ, and what level of safety monitoring must occur.”
It recommended that TCEQ “affirmatively and publicly adopt these policies” and “provide opportunities for the public to make comments before the commission on what those standards should be.” The Legislature adopted the recommendation as a directive this year.
Carolyn Stone, a 62-year-old community advocate who lives nearby Houston’s industrial sector and regularly engages with the TCEQ, didn’t find out about the proposed cancer risk level until late September, when local environmental groups began to spread the word. Her area of Channelview is in the 94th percentile of cancer risk from air pollution nationally according to EPA screening tools.
Stone, a retired office worker who runs a group called Channelview Health and Improvement Coaltion, said, “TCEQ has not sent me a flyer notifying me. And you would think that as a community in that high of a percentile, we would have been some of the very first they’d attempt to notify.”
The omission didn’t surprise her. She has lived in Channelview since 1981 and persistent frustration with environmental regulators finally moved her to start her group in 2019. In public meetings with the TCEQ, Stone has told the regulators that pollution from nearby facilities harms locals’ health, and she’s asked them to require better pollution control technology on applications for new pollution permits in the area.
“Their response is basically that the companies ran their tests and according to their tests, their actions won’t be above the limits,” she said. “I really haven’t had any positive interactions with TCEQ, I’m thoroughly disappointed in them.”
Alejandra Martinez of The Texas Tribune contributed to this report.
Reopenings bring new cases in S. Korea, virus fears in ItalyAssociated Press, by Nicole Winfield, Vanessa Gera, Amy Forliti, 5/1020
ROME (AP) — South Korea’s capital closed down more than 2,100 bars and other nightspots Saturday because of a new cluster of coronavirus infections, Germany scrambled to contain fresh outbreaks at slaughterhouses, and Italian authorities worried that people were getting too friendly at cocktail hour during the country’s first weekend of eased restrictions.
The new flareups — and fears of a second wave of contagion — underscored the dilemma authorities face as they try to reopen their economies.
Around the world, the U.S. and other hard-hit countries are wrestling with how to ease curbs on business and public activity without causing the virus to come surging back.
In New York, the deadliest hot spot in the U.S., Gov. Andrew Cuomo said three children died from a possible complication of the coronavirus involving swollen blood vessels and heart problems. At least 73 children statewide have been diagnosed with symptoms similar to Kawasaki disease — a rare inflammatory condition — and toxic shock syndrome. But there is no proof the mysterious syndrome is caused by the virus.
Two members of the White House coronavirus task force — the heads of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the Food and Drug Administration — placed themselves in quarantine after contact with someone who tested positive for COVID-19, a stark reminder that not even one of the nation’s most secure buildings is immune from the virus.
Elsewhere, Belarus, which has not locked down despite sharply rising infections, saw tens of thousands turn out to mark Victory Day, the anniversary of Nazi Germany’s defeat in 1945. Authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko has dismissed concerns about the virus as a “psychosis.”
That was in contrast to Russia, which skipped the usual grand military parade in Moscow’s Red Square. This year’s observance had been expected to be especially large because it is the 75th anniversary, but instead, President Vladimir Putin laid flowers at the tomb of the unknown soldier and a show of military might was limited to a flyover of 75 warplanes and helicopters.
Worldwide, 4 million people have been confirmed infected by the virus, and more than 279,000 have died, including over 78,000 in the U.S., according to a tally kept by Johns Hopkins University. Spain, France, Italy and Britain have reported around 26,000 to 32,000 deaths each.
Germany and South Korea have both carried out extensive testing and contact tracing and have been hailed for avoiding the mass deaths that overwhelmed other countries. But even there, authorities have struggled to find the balance between saving lives and salvaging jobs.
Seoul shut down nightclubs, hostess bars and discos after dozens of infections were linked to people who went out last weekend as the country relaxed social distancing. Many of the infections were connected to a 29-year-old man who visited three nightclubs before testing positive.
Mayor Park Won-soon said health workers were trying to contact some 1,940 people who had been at the three clubs and other places nearby. The mayor said gains made against the virus are now threatened “because of a few careless people.”
Germany faced outbreaks at three slaughterhouses in what was seen as a test of its strategy for dealing with any resurgence as restrictions ease. At one slaughterhouse, in Coesfeld, 180 workers tested positive.
Businesses in the U.S. continue to struggle as more employers reluctantly conclude that their laid-off employees might not return to work anytime soon. Health officials are watching for a second wave of infections, roughly two weeks after states began gradually reopening with Georgia largely leading the way.
Some malls have opened up in Georgia and Texas, while Nevada restaurants, hair salons and other businesses were able to have limited reopenings Saturday or once again allow customers inside after nearly two months of restrictions.
The reopening of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park along the Tennessee-North Carolina border was a bit too tempting a draw as scores of nature lovers crowded parking lots and trails and even trekked into closed areas, park spokeswoman Dana Soehn said. Many did not wear masks.
In Los Angeles, hikes to the iconic hillside Hollywood sign and hitting the golf links were allowed as the California county hit hardest reopened some sites to recreation-starved stay-at-homers.
Mayor Eric Garcetti urged “good judgment” and said the city would rely on education and encouragement rather than heavy-handed enforcement: “Not our vision to make this like a junior high school dance with people standing too close to each other,” he said.
In New York, a Cuomo spokesman said the governor was extending stay-at-home restrictions to June 7, but another top aide later clarified that that was not so; the May 15 expiration date for the restrictions remains in place “until further notice,” Melissa DeRosa said in an evening statement.
The federal government said it was delivering supplies of remdesivir, the first drug shown to speed recovery for COVID-19 patients, to six more states, after seven others were sent cases of the medicine earlier this week.
Italy saw people return to the streets and revel in fine weather.
Milan Mayor Giuseppe Sala warned that “a handful of crazy people” were putting his city’s recovery at risk and threatened to shut down the trendy Navigli district after crowds of young people were seen out at the traditional aperitivo hour ignoring social-distancing rules.
The Campo dei Fiori flower and vegetable market was also bustling in Rome. But confusion created frustrations for the city’s shopkeepers.
Carlo Alberto, owner of TabaCafe, an Argentine empanada bar that was selling cocktails to a few customers, said that since reopening this week, police had threatened to fine him over crowds outside.
“Am I supposed to send them home? They need a guard here to do that,” he said. “The laws aren’t clear, the decree isn’t clear. You don’t know what you can do.”
Elsewhere, Pakistan allowed shops, factories, construction sites and other businesses to reopen, even as more than 1,600 new cases and 24 deaths were reported. Prime Minister Imran Khan said the government was rolling back curbs because it can’t support millions who depend on daily wages. But controls could be reimposed if people fail to practice social distancing.
In Spain certain regions can scale back lockdowns starting Monday, with limited seating at bars, restaurants and other public places. But Madrid and Barcelona, the country’s largest cities, will remain shut down.
“The pandemic is evolving favorably, but there is a risk of another outbreak that could generate a serious catastrophe,” Spanish health official Fernando Simón said. “Personal responsibility is vital.”
Gera reported from Warsaw, Poland, and Forliti reported from Minneapolis. Associated Press journalists around the world contributed to this report.
Exclusive: Pennsylvania Family Dealing with Water Contamination Linked to Fracking Industry
The Chichura family has flammable well water, most likely due to a fracking job gone wrong in Pennsylvania’s Susquehanna County. Their water well, along with those of four of their neighbors, was allegedly contaminated with methane in the fall of 2011, shortly after Cabot Oil started drilling operations near their home.
The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) confirmed the Chichuras had methane in their water on September 21, 2011, and advised them to equip their well with a working vent to avoid a possible ignition.
Texas Family’s Water Well Explodes, Burns 4-Year Old, Father and Grandfather — and Fracking to Blame, Lawsuit Alleges
A family in Texas, including a four-year old, her parents and her grandfather, were severely burned when their water well ignited into a massive fireball after methane from nearby fracked wells contaminated their water supply, a newly filed lawsuit against EOG Resources and several related companies alleges.
Cody Murray, a 38-year old who previously worked in the oil and gas industry, suffered burns to his face, arms, neck and back that were so severe that he was left permanently disabled, no longer able to drive because the nerve damage has left him unable to grip steering wheels or other objects. Cody’s young daughter, who was over 20 feet away from the pump house when it ignited, suffered first and second degree burns, as did Jim Murray, Cody’s father.
The cause of the blast? Nearby fracked wells, the lawsuit alleges. …(continued)…
Repost from McClatchyDC
Maryland judge orders release of oil train reports
• Case marks first time railroads have lost on the issue in court
• Judge not persuaded that release would harm security, business
• Companies that filed 2014 lawsuit have until Sept. 4 to appeal
WASHINGTON – A Maryland judge rejected two rail carriers’ arguments that oil train reports should be withheld from the public, ordering them released to McClatchy and other news organizations that sought them.
The ruling isn’t the first time railroads have lost their bid to keep the oil train reports secret, but it is the first court decision recognizing the public’s right to see them.
The U.S. Department of Transportation began requiring in May 2014 that railroads inform states of large shipments of crude oil after a series of derailments with spills, fires, explosions and evacuations. Since February, six more major oil train derailments have occurred in North America.
Nonetheless, some railroads have continued to press their case that the reports should be exempt from disclosure under state open records laws. Most states shared the documents anyway, and Pennsylvania and Texas did so after McClatchy appealed. Maryland is the only state that was taken to court after it said it would release the reports.
Norfolk Southern and CSX sued the Maryland Department of the Environment in July 2014 to stop the state agency from releasing the records to McClatchy and the Associated Press. They have until Sept. 4 to appeal the decision, issued Friday by Judge Lawrence Fletcher-Hill of the Circuit Court for Baltimore City.
Both companies, which transport crude oil to East Coast refineries concentrated in Delaware, Pennsylvania and New Jersey, said they would review the decision.
Dave Pidgeon, a spokesman for Norfolk Southern, said the company would “respond at the appropriate time and venue.”
Melanie Cost, a spokeswoman for CSX, said the railroad “remains committed to safely moving these and all other shipments on its network.”
The ruling isn’t the first time railroads have lost their bid to keep the oil train reports secret, but it is the first court decision recognizing the public’s right to access them.
In his 20-page opinion, Fletcher-Hill was not persuaded by arguments that releasing the oil train reports would harm the railroads’ security and business interests. He also dismissed the relevance of the U.S. Department of Transportation’s May final rule addressing the safety of oil trains. The companies had argued that the final rule supported their claims.
He also ordered the companies to pay any open court costs.
In a statement, Maryland Secretary of the Environment Ben Grumbles said the agency was pleased with the ruling and that it is “committed to transparency in government.”
Rail transportation of Bakken crude oil, produced through hydraulic fracturing of shale formations in North Dakota, has grown exponentially in the past five years. However, a series of fiery derailments, including one in Quebec in 2013 that killed 47 people, have raised numerous concerns about public safety, environmental protection and emergency planning and response.
U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx issued an emergency order on May 7, 2014, that required any railroad shipping 1 million gallons or more of Bakken crude oil through a state to inform that state’s emergency response commission what routes the trains would take and which counties they would cross, as well as provide a reasonable estimate of how many trains to expect in a week.
Beginning in June 2014, McClatchy submitted open records requests in 30 states for the oil train reports, including Maryland.
McClatchy was able to glean some of the details in the Maryland report through a Freedom of Information Act request to Amtrak, which owns part of Norfolk Southern’s oil train route in the state. The subsequent release of oil train reports in Pennsylvania revealed more about such operations in Maryland.
On Monday, Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf released an 84-page assessment of oil train safety in the state, which examined derailment risk, tank car failures and regulatory oversight. Some Maryland lawmakers have called for the state to perform a similar assessment.