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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Houston, There's a Problem

Air Date: Week of

The air over Houston, Texas is known as some of the worst in the nation. But an investigation by the Houston Chronicle finds there's a lot Texans don't know about their air or the risks it may pose. Guest host Bruce Gellerman speaks with lead reporter Dina Capiello and resident Terry Nuñez.


GELLERMAN: From the Jennifer and Ted Stanley Studios in Somerville, Massachusetts, this is Living on Earth. I'm Bruce Gellerman sitting in for Steve Curwood.

If you've ever visited the Ship Channel, a manmade waterway leading from the Gulf of Mexico into Houston, Texas, you know - and there's no polite way to put this, but - it stinks. Some people say it's just the smell of money - the corridor stretching along Ship Channel is lined with refineries and chemical plants. In fact, it's the second largest petroleum complex in the world.

The area also has the dubious distinction of competing with Los Angeles for the worst air in the nation. How bad is it? Well, last summer the Houston Chronicle began sniffing around the region - planting a hundred monitoring devices to find out what people are breathing. The paper's five-part series ‘In Harm's Way' just hit the newsstands.

Reporter Dina Capiello is part of the Chronicle's investigative team. She joins us from Houston. Hi Dina.

CAPIELLO: Hello, how are you?

GELLERMAN: I'm well, thank you. Also joining us from Houston is Terry Nuñez. She's a resident from the area. And I understand, Terry, that you had one of the paper's air sampling devices planted near your home.

NUNEZ: Yes sir, I did.

GELLERMAN: Where exactly do you live?

NUNEZ: I live kind of behind the Ship Channel on a dead end street, and the water's right behind me.

Chronicle study volunteer Debra Prophet of Baytown sits on her back porch facing the Exxon Mobil plant and comforts her grandson Alonzo Mosley, 3. They both have asthma, and on bad, smelly days, Alonzo has to stop playing in the back yard and get on his breathing machine. (Credit: Carlos Antonio Rios/Houston Chronicle)

GELLERMAN: Well, didn't you smell the air?

NUNEZ: Oh, definitely, you can definitely smell it.

GELLERMAN: Didn't you think something was wrong?

NUNEZ: Well, we've asked a lot of questions and they just say it's a burn off that comes off and it's not harmful. And we just kind of left it at that until Dina came by and talked to us.

GELLERMAN: But why now? Why did the Chronicle take a closer look now? I mean, everybody knows if you live near a chemical plant you're going to be breathing in something you shouldn't.

CAPIELLO: Well, it was really generated by me. As a reporter I was doing a lot of stories on these flaring events, where a fireball goes off and it smells and there's black smoke, and people call me quite a lot. So I would talk to these residents and they'd be like, oh my God, the smell is just unbelievable, you know? My dishes rattle, my windows rattle, there's this film I can't get off my car -

GELLERMAN: You mean the dishes rattle because of these flaring events?

CAPIELLO: Because of, yeah, because they generate a lot of energy and basically, you know, the ground, you can feel the ground vibrate. At Terry's house her sliding glass doors vibrate. And I would hear this from residents, and then you would call up the company, or the county pollution control, and they'd be like, “well, we went out there and did these tests and it came back fine.” And I was like, “okay, something, something's going on here.”

GELLERMAN: But the state was monitoring the air, right?

CAPIELLO: Yeah, the state does monitor the air. But, you know, although we have a lot of monitors in and around Texas, the problem is most of them only monitor once every six days. And, as Terry will tell you, the two monitors near her house aren't really that near her house. Very few of these monitors that the state runs are really kind of up against the fence. You know, right near Terry's house along a street called Gober Street - I mean, the backyard ends at the chemical company's fence.

GELLERMAN: So, Terry, what's it like to live there?

NUNEZ: In the beginning we really didn't think about it. And then we started seeing, you know, different colors of dust on our vehicles. Our glass shattered a couple times, we had to have it fixed. And then we started wondering but we still didn't pursue anything. And the smells, obviously, most definitely. And until Dina approached us I guess we really just didn't know. We just kept living day by day not knowing.

GELLERMAN: I understand you kept a diary during the sampling, yeah?

NUNEZ: Yes, sir, I did. When Dina contacted me I decided to do that, you know, for her and for me just so I would know, and let my family know what was going on. And I did keep a diary of things happening.

GELLERMAN: Well, can you remember something from your diary?

NUNEZ: Yes, sir. I work a lot of weird hours ‘cause I work with the railroad, and I was getting up like three, four o'clock in the morning. And usually in between two and four they'd have really high flares and that's when the house was shaking. Sometimes it would shake so hard it would wake you up. And I noticed that and I started documenting it, and because of my weird hours I did catch a lot of things that normal people didn't catch.

GELLERMAN: So, what did you find? What are these monitors show?

CAPIELLO: We found basically three chemicals of concern in most of the areas. And those chemicals were 1,3-Butadiene, which is primarily used to make rubber. Terry's house was one of the houses that we actually measured butadiene.

This is pretty rare for a couple of reasons. One, these monitors actually degrade butadiene. So, typically, you don't see it even when it's there - which says that it was probably very high when we were sampling. Well, it just so happens that Terry lives next door to the third-largest emitter of butadiene in the state of Texas, which is Texas Petrochemicals. They make butadiene, which they sell to Goodyear next door to make tires.

Besides butadiene, we also saw benzene in two neighborhoods that a scientist said would be like sitting in traffic 24/7. The levels that we found, particularly in Terry's neighborhood, would definitely increase, you know, your cancer risks there. Typically, an acceptable risk level in a community is about one additional cancer case in a million people. In Terry's neighborhood, some of the levels were between 100 to 400 cases in a million people.

GELLERMAN: And what's the third chemical?

CAPIELLO: The third was chloroform, and chloroform's kind of a funny one because it has a variety of sources. And we saw it most prevalently in Terry's neighborhood again. Terry's neighborhood was a kind of ground zero for our study. I mean, she definitely lives on the most polluted block, based on our research. And that was actually just born out by the state who released some data from 2003 that showed butadiene in the Manchester area of Houston would cause - you know, if inhaled over 70 years at that concentration, 24 hours a day - 200 additional cases of cancer in a million people. That's a very heavy risk.

But chloroform can come from chlorinating wastewater. And it just so happens that Terry has the unique distinction of having the house with one of the highest chloroform levels. And shocker, she lives right next to one of the state's - excuse me, one of the city of Houston's - wastewater treatment plants. So that is probably the source there.

Gary Wood, an emissions evaluator for the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, sits in a mobile monitoring van last summer. The vans were measuring pollution in the vicinity for a week. "I'm fortunate because when we finish our trip, we go home," he said. "We don't have to live here." (Credit: Carlos Antonio Rios/Houston Chronicle)

GELLERMAN: So, Terry, this is the stuff you and your family are breathing in.

NUNEZ: Yes, it's very scary.

GELLERMAN: You got kids?

NUNEZ: I have five children. That's why we have a totally new view now.

GELLERMAN: Well, do you let them play outdoors? Are you planning to move?

NUNEZ: Yes, we are planning to move now. We just bought this house five years ago with no clue. We just thought it was harmful stuff because that's what the chemical plants always tell us - harmless, I'm sorry, they always said it was harmless. And now that we know different we are planning on moving.

GELLERMAN: Dina, I understand that some of these chemical companies and petroleum companies are actually buying up the private houses around their plants.

CAPIELLO: Yeah, this was really, you know, something I didn't expect, but one of the things I saw in county after county was just neighborhoods of foundations. No houses there, you know, weeds coming up where driveways used to be. And it's a trend throughout southeast Texas where these companies have just started buying what they call “buffer zones,” is what they call them, or “green zones” is another term. They start, typically, at the houses closest in. They typically get an appraiser and they go out there and they offer people money for their home and property. In some cases, they sell the home back to the person so they can move it. And, I mean, whole neighborhoods have disappeared.

And for some people it's a great solution - ‘get me out of here, I can, you know, afford a new mortgage.' But for some people - and a lot of them are elderly - they're kind of stuck. And so you see people that, you know, don't have anybody to play dominoes with. Or in this area called Worcester - which is just west of Exxon-Mobile's refinery, which is the largest in the U.S., actually - the city has to come out and let out the fire hydrants twice a month because there's so few people there, the drinking water backs up in the pipes, and the chlorine and all the other things concentrate.

When we started looking into it and started probing into it more, we talked to a lawyer in Houston. And, basically, we got some internal memos from a company in the Houston area that show - well, they call it “buffer zones.” It's really more for liability reasons, to reduce the risk of liability. It's much harder to prove somebody has a health effect or their property is encroached upon when they're farther away from a plant. And it's also to kind of shut down the complaints. You know, the people that are left behind, one of them says in the article, you know, there's nobody else to gripe out here anymore. There are so few voices to kind of stir up trouble and get things changed.

GELLERMAN: Terry, it's enough to make you sick - I mean, literally. Has it?

NUNEZ: We have noticed a lot of changes. We aren't sick people. We were constantly busy running and doing stuff, and we hardly ever get sick. And when we did move there, my husband started getting runny noses, I did, and my child did and my older children. And I have animals, and my horses' eyes would be draining, they'd constantly have draining from their noses. And we just couldn't understand it. And we thought, well, maybe it's change, or - we just didn't know.

GELLERMAN: Dina, what does the state say? And what about the chemical companies now, in light of your report?

CAPIELLO: Well, the state has already started to change some things. You know, it's been kind of ten years in the making. Some of the articles criticizing how the state deals with air toxics go back ten years. But there are no federal standards for air toxics, so one of the things that they're going to do is make every level set at the same level of risk.

Currently, in the state of Texas, you can have one chemical that's set at a level that's equal to one cancer case in a million people. And, then, another carcinogen could be set at a level that's 100 additional cancer cases in a million people. So there's just kind of no rhyme or reason about how these standards were set. And the state can't even tell you how they were set. You ask them, show me the data. How'd you get this number? And they can't really defend themselves. So they're going to actually step back and start doing that. And just recently they began to look at their air pollution data and, in a larger scale, look at it in terms of cancer risk.

But you know, again, Bruce, you have to remember, we're in Texas. The industry is very powerful, and the industry is very clear, in my story, and they do not want these to be standards. They do not want this to be, “you go above this, you're in trouble.” So it's going to be interesting. It's going to be interesting to see, you know, as the state kind of opens it up for debate, whose voice is heard.

GELLERMAN: Well Dina, thank you very much.

CAPIELLO: Thank you, Bruce.

GELLERMAN: And Terry, thank you.

NUNEZ: Thank ya'll for inviting me.

GELLERMAN: Terry Nuñez is from Southeast Houston, Texas, and Dina Capiello is a reporter with the Houston Chronicle. To read the Chronicle's entire five part series, “In Harm's Way” visit our website at Living on Earth dot org. That's Living on Earth dot O-R-G.

[MUSIC: Hank Williams III “Blue Devil” Risin' Outlaw (Curb) 1999]

GELLERMAN: Coming up: a river runs through it - again - Owens Valley, California, that is. Keep listening to Living on Earth.

[MUSIC: Duane Eddy “Ghost Riders in the Sky” Best of (Curb) 1997]



"In Harm’s Way" A Houston Chronicle Special Report


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