Houston is going backward. It ranked 12th out of 228 metropolitan areas for ozone pollution in 2017; moved up to 11th in 2018, and this year was ninth in the annual report by the American Lung Association. That disturbing news comes amid continued public health concerns after two recent chemical plant fires puffed poisons into the air near residences and schools in Deer Park and Crosby.
The Lung Association ranks metro areas based on their levels of ozone pollution, commonly known as smog, and particle pollution, soot. This year’s report ranked Houston 17th in particle pollution. That was a slight improvement from being ranked 15th last year and 16th in 2017, but it still spells trouble for people with breathing problems who fear going outside whenever Harris County has a bad air day.
That includes the 6,000 children with asthma who attend Houston public schools. Unfortunately, concern for children who stay home every time there’s an “ozone action day” hasn’t translated into more aggressive efforts to improve the air they breathe.
“We definitely need local leadership that is explicit about the need to address air pollution,” Bakeyah Nelson, executive director of Air Alliance Houston, told the Chronicle editorial board. “All the municipalities need to come together to address this problem.”
Nelson is right about taking a regional approach. Bad air doesn’t hover over one town; it blows across Texas, which is why action is needed at the local, county and state levels.
Mayor Bill White convened an air pollution task force of scientists and physicians in 2005 to assess Houston’s air pollution problem, but the panel’s data-driven report offered no specific solutions. Candidates in this year’s mayoral race should tell voters their plans to improve air quality. Vehicle emissions contribute to smog. They should tell voters how they would get more cars off the road.
Along with more mass transportation options, there must be stricter enforcement of environmental rules, especially at the state level.
Several companies guilty of releasing toxic chemicals into the air and water during Hurricane Harvey went unpunished, and the fires in late March and April at the Intercontinental Terminals Company and KMCO plants revealed that both facilities had been operating despite repeatedly breaking environmental and safety regulations.
The fires have prompted the Harris County District Attorney’s Office to ask for $850,000 to add four prosecutors and four staff members to its three-person environmental crimes unit. It makes sense for local authorities to step up their game, but it won’t matter much unless the state stops playing defense for firms accused of polluting.
Testifying before Congress in February, Nelson said the Environmental Protection Agency should be more aggressive because the Texas Commission for Environmental Quality too often blocks local enforcement. Local officials must notify the TCEQ before they can sue or sanction a company for violating environmental rules and step aside if the state agency decides to handle the case administratively. As a result, too many violators escape any penalty.
State data analyzed by the public policy group Environment Texas showed 275 Texas companies reported 4,067 breakdowns, maintenance incidents, and other emissions events in 2017, which resulted in the release of more than 63 million pounds of illegal air pollution. Yet, only 58 companies were fined by the TCEQ for those infractions and the agency fined them a fraction of what it was authorized to collect.
“I think the state has been incredibly hypocritical when it comes to protecting the environment,” Nelson told the editorial board. “It doesn’t like the federal government to interfere in Texas but limits what local authorities can do to promote (its own) political agenda.”
The poorest areas tend to suffer most from bad air quality. That’s certainly so for Houston neighborhoods near the port and ship channel, home to the largest petrochemical complex in the nation. Adding to pollution in the ship channel area are auto emissions from the constant traffic along interstates 10, 45 and 610 and State Highway 225.
“Everyone has a right to breathe clean air, and where you live should not determine your health,” said Nelson. Public officials at all levels of government need to take that message to heart. Too many seem more worried about protecting jobs than protecting the public from poisoned air.
Lax enforcement of environmental and safety rules not only endangers the lives of plant workers, it jeopardizes the health of anyone who lives within breathing range of a toxin-emitting work site. When agencies charged with protecting the environment and public health don’t do their jobs, people get sick — and some die. There’s no good reason for that to happen.