[Note from BenIndy: It is fascinating how hard it is to find and pin down good coverage of industrial accidents – especially refinery fires, plant explosions, and so on – when they occur in Texas. We have Common Dreams and ABC13/KTRK in Texas to thank for their coverage today. Perhaps more information about the source of the fire, the danger the toxic smoke and particles in the air in Shepherd may pose, and any additional impacts will be made more available tomorrow. From one refinery town to another, Benicia surely sends Shepherd its heartfelt hopes for a speedy recovery for the town, a thorough investigation of the root causes for this absolutely heinous disaster, and the creation of additional protections for the safety and health of its residents.]
The explosion resulted in a massive fire as residents in and around the town of Shepherd were ordered to stay inside and turn off their HVAC systems to avoid contact with the toxic smoke and particles in the air.
At least one worker was reported injured and the surrounding community placed under a shelter-in-place order after an explosion at a chemical plant in the town of Shepherd, Texas on Wednesday resulted in a monstrous and toxic fire.
Roughly 60 miles north of Houston in Jacinto County, the explosion and subsequent chemical blaze took place at the Sound Resource Solutions facility, a petroleum processing plant. A source told ABC 13 News that a 1,000-gallon propane tank sits in the middle of the fire while various highly flammable toxic chemicals and materials are used at the plant.
Shelter-in-place order issued after chemical plant explosion in Shepherd, Texas; smoke visible for milespic.twitter.com/0krc7baQlk
“Polk County Emergency Management recommends that residents along US Hwy 59 from Goodrich to Leggett shelter-in-place and turn off HVAC systems in homes and businesses immediately,” said a local emergency response from officials in neighboring Polk County. “At this time, the effects of the chemical in the air are unknown.”
According to the Sound Resource Solutions website, the chemical products and solvents used or generated at the processing plant include: xylene, toluene, acetone, methy ethyl ketone, phosphoric acid, acetic acid, sulfuric acid 93, various isoproply alcohols, hexan, and others.
Local affiliate Fox 26 was providing live coverage:
There is no confirmed information about the cause of the fire, though some local outlets reported talking with workers who said a forklift accident may have been the initial cause that set off a larger chain reaction.
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.
In the first ruling of its kind nationwide, a Montana state court decided Monday in favor of young people who alleged the state violated their right to a “clean and healthful environment” by promoting the use of fossil fuels.
The court determined that a provision in the Montana Environmental Policy Act has harmed the state’s environment and the young plaintiffs, by preventing Montana from considering the climate impacts of energy projects. The provision is accordingly unconstitutional, the court said.
The win, experts say, could energize the environmental movement and reshape climate litigation across the country, ushering in a wave of cases aimed at advancing action on climate change.
“People around the world are watching this case,” said Michael Gerrard, the founder of Columbia’s Sabin Center for Climate Change Law.
The ruling represents a rare victory for climate activists who have tried to use the courts to push back against government policies and industrial activities they say are harming the planet. In this case, it involved 16 young Montanans, ranging in age from 5 to 22, who brought the nation’s first constitutional and first youth-led climate lawsuit to go to trial.
Though the cumulative number of climate cases around the world has more than doubled in the last five years, youth-led lawsuits in the United States have faced an uphill battle. Already, at least 14 of these cases have been dismissed, according to a July report from the United Nations Environment Program and the Sabin Center. The report said about three-quarters of the approximately 2,200 ongoing or concluded cases were filed before courts in the United States.
Experts said the Montana youth had an advantage in the state’s constitution, which guarantees a right to a “clean and healthful environment.”
Coal is critical to the state’s economy, and Montana is home to the largest recoverable coal reserves in the country. The plaintiff’s attorneys say the state has never denied a permit for a fossil fuel project.
Across five days of emotional testimony in June, the youths made claims about injuries they have suffered as a result of climate change. A 15-year-old with asthma described himself as “a prisoner in my own home” when isolating with covid during a period of intense wildfire smoke. Rikki Held, the 22-year-old plaintiff for whom the lawsuit is named, detailed how extreme weather has hurt her family’s ranch.
Held testified that a favorable judgment would make her more hopeful for the future. “I know that climate change is a global issue, but Montana has to take responsibility for our part in that,” she said.
Attorneys for the state countered that Montana’s contribution to global greenhouse gas emissions is small. If the law in question were altered or overturned, Montana Assistant Attorney General Michael Russell said, there would be “no meaningful impact or appreciable effect” on the climate.
The state began and rested its defense on the same day, bringing the trial to an unexpectedly early closeon June 20. In a pivot from its expected defense disputing the climate science behind the plaintiffs’ case, the state focused instead on arguing that the legislature should weigh in on the contested law, not the judiciary. Russell derided the case in his closing statement as a “week-long airing of political grievances that properly belong in the Legislature, not a court of law.”
Gerrard said the change in strategy came as a surprise: “Everyone expected them to put on a more vigorous defense,” he said. “And they may have concluded that the underlying science of climate change was so strong that they didn’t want to contest it.”
Though the state is expected to appeal the decision, experts said the favorable verdict for the youths could influence how judges approach similar cases in other states and prompt them to apply “judicial courage” in addressing climate change.The nonprofit law firm Our Children’s Trust, which represents the plaintiffs, has taken legal action on behalf of youths in all 50 states, and has cases pending in four other states.
Juliana v. United States, a 2015 case brought by Our Children’s Trust that drew international attention, is also back on path to trial after facing repeated setbacks. The case took aim at the federal government, alleging that it had violated the 21 youths’ rights to life, liberty and property, as well as failed to protect public trust resources, in taking actions that contribute to climate change.
Plaintiffs’ attorney Phil Gregory said the court’s verdict could empower youth everywhere to take to the courts to secure their futures.
“There are political decisions being made without regard to the best scientific evidence and the effects they will have on our youngest generations,” he said. “This is a monumental decision.”
Air pollution is helping to drive a rise in antibiotic resistance that poses a significant threat to human health worldwide, a global study suggests.
The analysis, using data from more than 100 countries spanning nearly two decades, indicates that increased air pollution is linked with rising antibiotic resistance across every country and continent.
It also suggests the link between the two has strengthened over time, with increases in air pollution levels coinciding with larger rises in antibiotic resistance.
“Our analysis presents strong evidence that increasing levels of air pollution are associated with increased risk of antibiotic resistance,” researchers from China and the UK wrote. “This analysis is the first to show how air pollution affects antibiotic resistance globally.” Their findings are published in the Lancet Planetary Health journal.
Antibiotic resistance is one of the fastest-growing threats to global health. It can affect people of any age in any country and is already killing 1.3 million people a year, according to estimates.
The main drivers are still the misuse and overuse of antibiotics, which are used to treat infections. But the study suggests the problem is being worsened by rising levels of air pollution.
The study did not look at the science of why the two might be linked. Evidence suggests that particulate matter PM2.5 can contain antibiotic-resistant bacteria and resistance genes, which may be transferred between environments and inhaled directly by humans, the authors said.
Air pollution is already the single largest environmental risk to public health. Long-term exposure to air pollution is associated with chronic conditions such as heart disease, asthma and lung cancer, reducing life expectancy.
Short-term exposure to high pollution levels can cause coughing, wheezing and asthma attacks, and is leading to increased hospital and GP attendances worldwide.
Curbing air pollution could help reduce antibiotic resistance, according to the study, the first in-depth global analysis of possible links between the two. It also said that controlling air pollution could greatly reduce deaths and economic costs stemming from antibiotic-resistant infections.
The lead author, Prof Hong Chen of Zhejiang University in China, said: “Antibiotic resistance and air pollution are each in their own right among the greatest threats to global health.
“Until now, we didn’t have a clear picture of the possible links between the two, but this work suggests the benefits of controlling air pollution could be twofold: not only will it reduce the harmful effects of poor air quality, it could also play a major role in combatting the rise and spread of antibiotic-resistant bacteria.”
Although air is recognised as being a direct pathway for disseminating antibiotic resistance, there is limited data on the different pathways that antibiotic resistant genes are carried via air pollution.
Potential pathways include hospitals, farms and sewage-treatment facilities that emit and spread antibiotic-resistant particles through the air and then across wide distances.
Until now, there was limited data on how much influence PM2.5 air pollution – which is made up of particles 30 times smaller than the width of a human hair – has on antibiotic resistance globally.
Sources of PM2.5 include road traffic, industrial processes and domestic coal and wood burning. Data indicates 7.3 billion people globally are directly exposed to unsafe average annual PM2.5 levels.
The authors created an extensive dataset to explore whether PM2.5 was a key factor driving global antibiotic resistance, using data for 116 countries from 2000 to 2018. The data sources included the World Health Organization, European Environment Agency and the World Bank.
The findings indicate antibiotic resistance increases with PM2.5, with every 10% rise in air pollution linked with increases in antibiotic resistance of 1.1%.
The association has strengthened over time, with changes in PM2.5 levels leading to larger increases in antibiotic resistance in more recent years. The analysis indicates antibiotic resistance resulting from air pollution was linked to an estimated 480,000 premature deaths in 2018.
A modelling of possible future scenarios indicates that if there were no changes to current policies on air pollution, by 2050 levels of antibiotic resistance worldwide could increase by 17%. The annual premature death toll linked to antibiotic resistance could rise to about 840,000. [Emph. added by BenIndy Contributor.]
The authors acknowledged limitations to their study. A lack of data in some countries may have affected the overall analysis, they said.
The study was observational, so could not prove cause and effect. Future research should focus on investigating the underlying mechanism of how air pollution affects antibiotic resistance, they said.
A second study published in the journal BMJ Mental Health found that exposure to relatively high levels of air pollution was associated with increased use of community mental health services by people with dementia. The long-term study focused on a large area of London with heavy traffic.