03/07/17 4:30pm

HARRIS COUNTY GETTING IN ON THE PASADENA REFINERY AIR POLLUTION LAWSUIT ACTION Pasadena Refinery System plant at 111 Red Bluff Rd., Pasadena, TX 77506In the wake of the lawsuit the Sierra Club and Environment Texas filed last week alleging that the century-old Pasadena Refining System plant has violated the federal Clean Air Act some thousands of times, Harris County attorney Vince Ryan has filed another suit against the plant.  This one’s to do with the facility allegedly breaking state level environmental laws, Diana Wray writes in this week’s Houston Press; incidents of particular note include last summer’s major sulfur dioxide leak, which briefly shut down both the nearby Washburn Tunnel and the rest of the Ship Channel (while sending Galena Park into duck-and-cover mode). Wray writes that both lawsuits seem mostly geared toward getting the plant to clean up its act; each suit also has the potential to require that some kind of compliance watchdog or overseer be assigned to plant to ensure that it’s doing so. [Houston Press; previously on SwamplotPhoto of Pasadena Refinery Systems, Inc. plant at 111 Red Bluff Rd.: Center for Land Use Interpretation (license)

02/13/17 2:30pm

UNIDENTIFIED CHEMICAL STENCH, HAZE DRIFTING ACROSS TOWN OFFICIALLY NO CAUSE FOR CONCERN Albemarle Corporation Facility, 13000 Bay Park Rd., Pasadena, TX, 77507Suggested and mandatory restrictions on hanging around outside were issued by the Memorial Village area’s fire department and by Katy ISD respectively for a while this morning, in response to the acrid odor and haze blowing in some 40 miles across the city from somewhere near the Ship Channel. The Houston emergency response folks say that their monitoring has turned up no air quality red flags, but that anyone who can avoid the stink should probably do so just in case. The particular origin and composition of the odor also still seems to still be up for debate this afternoon: The Albemarle facility at 13000 Bay Park Rd. (shown above) called into the CAER hotline this morning to report that they might be releasing natural gas odorizer throughout the day as their gas facilities got worked on, and LyondellBasell’s Sheldon Rd. facility also sent a message to the CAER line that they would be conducting flaring today in response to a “unit upset,” but no official suspects have been named by the city.  The extent of the odor’s inland spread is notably broader than last month’s quickie Valero tank overfill stench incident in Manchester: KHOU reports that some of its viewers on the southeast side of town started calling in about the smell around 10 am, and that “by 11 a.m. the smell and an apparent haze covered most of downtown Houston and the west side, with some reports from as far north as Bush Airport.” [KHOU; previously on Swamplot] Photo of Albemarle facility at 13000 Bay Park Rd.: April R.  

01/06/17 1:45pm

Urban wildlife cellphone videographer Christine Wilson sends some footage captured from Allen’s Landing documenting the eons-old nature vs. civilization struggle, which played out earlier this week in the form of tiny ducks dodging their way through the floating trash field where White Oak and Buffalo bayous join up. Wilson caught sight (and sound) of a duck and 4 ducklings struggling across the White Oak outflow toward the Buffalo side of the confluence, which she notes is significantly less debris-spangled. That’s the Harris County Jail in the background for most of the shot, across White Oak from the main building of the University of Houston Downtown. (The footage cuts out mid-scene, but Wilson says the ducks did eventually make it across.)

Video: Christine Wilson

Buffalo Vs. White Oak
11/07/16 11:00am

WHAT’S SO SPECIAL ABOUT THE PASADENA REFINERY THAT RELEASED 3 MORE TONS OF AIR POLLUTION ON THURSDAY? Pasadena Refinery System plant at 111 Red Bluff Rd., Pasadena, TX 77506“We worry about this plant more than we worry about the others,” Air Alliance Houston director Adrian Shelley tells Dylan Baddour after last week’s release of a 6,000-pound cocktail of toxic air contaminants from the Pasadena Refinery System complex, south of Buffalo Bayou just east of the Washburn Tunnel. The release occurred in the wake of a 7-hour power outage at the Petrobras-owned refinery (which played a role in the massive Brazilian corruption scandal that came to light last year); Baddour says this is the 8th contaminant release the company has reported so far this year (and the 65th since 2005). Shelley notes that the plant has a reputation for “large particulate matter (soot) release events that you really don’t see at other Houston refineries,” including the 2 tons of soot released on Thursday with sulfur dioxide gas and other contaminants; Shelley also notes that one of the plant’s key federal permits expired last year, resulting in a $7000 fine from the TCEQ. [Houston Chronicle; previously on Swamplot] Photo of Pasadena Refinery Systems, Inc. plant at 111 Red Bluff Rd.: Center for Land Use Interpretation (license)

06/09/16 2:15pm

San Jacinto River at I-10 Crossing, Channelview, TX 77530

Aerial View with Delineated San Jacinto Waste Pits Cap, I-10 at San Jacinto RiverAnother effect of the Memorial Day weekend and early June floods: the EPA says it has had to pause some of its latest study efforts near the 1960s industrial waste pits in the San Jacinto river (shown at the top looking a bit more submerged than usual on May 31, facing north from the I-10 bridge). New rounds of sample-taking were triggered by the discovery in December that the Superfund site’s armored cap (which is made of special tarp material held down by a layer of rocks) had a 25-ft.-long hole where the rocks were missing. The EPA also notes that the damage was found within an area of the cap where no tarp was actually initially placed, in light of concerns that the rocks would slide off of it. 

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More Fun With Superfund
06/08/16 3:30pm

GROUP FORMS TO CLEAN UP THE UPPER SAN JACINTO BEFORE IT GETS AS BAD AS BRAYS, BUFFALO, SIMS BAYOUS West Fork of San Jacinto River, Montgomery County, TX  The West Fork of the San Jacinto River (implicated in much of the latest flooding between The Woodlands and Conroe) is in a bacterial “sweet spot”, environmental planner Justin Bower tells Matthew Tresaugue in the Houston Chronicle this week  — more contaminated than is acceptable, Bower says, “but not so much that we can’t do anything about it.” Tresaugue writes that E. coli levels have been trending upward since 2002, in some cases running as high as 10,000 colonies per 100 milliters of water (around 80 times higher than the 126-colony limit recommended by the state of Texas). The river’s water quality problems are multifaceted, but generally boil down to increased development in the watershed causing increased runoff that carries more junk — from human and animals waste to sediment from a nearby gravel mining operation — into the river and ultimately the Lake Houston reservoir (from which the city pulls drinking water). The newly formed West Fork Watershed Partnership has no definite plan yet (other than to work with area stakeholders to develop a plan). But Lisa Gonzalez (VP of the Houston Area Research Council) notes to Tresaugue that not doing anything could allow the West Fork’s water problems to get as bad as those of other major urban waterways in Houston. [Houston Chronicle; previously on Swamplot] Photo of West Fork of the San Jacinto: West Fork Watershed Partnership

02/09/16 10:30am

Vehicle Recovery for Operation Submerge, Gulfgate, Houston, 77023

If you are the owner of the bottom half of a red Ford Ranger left in Brays Bayou near Wayside Dr. some time in the last 20 years, your vehicle may be waiting for you in HPD’s impound lot. The pilot program intended to test out a procedure for fishing out the 127-or-so vehicles mapped beneath the surface of a few of Houston’s waterways reeled in its 20th and final car over the weekend before the $49,500 project grant ran out.

The removals started near the Wayside bridge over Brays Bayou in late January, then moved upstream of the crossing of Lidstone St. on the 29th; last Friday, operations jumped down to Sims Bayou to score a few final sets of wheels. Harris County Flood Control District, which oversaw the fishing trips, tweeted that project executives will now meet to discuss future removal plans and compare notes on the process, which involved divers from Saltwater Salvage submerging to attach giant yellow floaties to the sunken vehicles:

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Stirring Up Mud in Gulfgate
12/01/15 10:00am

UT Houston Campus Site, Buffalo Lakes, Houston

Some zoomy conceptual renderings of the University of Texas’s coming Houston campus, centered on the largely undeveloped intersection of Buffalo Spdwy. and Willowbend Blvd., made their debut at last month’s Board of Regents meeting, where the intended purchase of land for the project was announced. Buffalo Spdwy. gently winds through the drawings of the new campus to a track and several baseball diamonds along Holmes Rd. (which runs horizontally across the top of the image above).

Although the images are only “concepts”, the pictures do provide a sense of how the campus might unfold: For example, that linear water feature shown at the center of the campus aligns with an existing drainage ditch on the property, and the 3 long, low structures in the foreground are good candidates for parking garages, which will be needed regardless of the new institution’s yet-to-be-decided purpose.

Existing residential communities and industrial parks are here rendered as sparsely-treed fields — the boundary of the land slated for purchase by UT currently houses several apartment complexes on the north side and the Orkin Industrial Surplus facility to the south.

But another conceptual rendering (this one looking northwest across Holmes Rd. towards the distant Williams Tower) shows the campus in place amongst some of its eclectic neighbors:

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Welcome to the neighborhood
03/06/15 2:30pm

COMMENT OF THE DAY: FOLLOW THE SMOG Map of Ozone Levels Over Houston, August 6, 2012“You do not escape smog in Houston by moving to the burbs. In the summer, Houston has a circular wind pattern that takes ship channel pollutants for a ride out to the suburbs. Go to the Houston Clean Air Network website and set the animation for Aug. 6, 2012. You will see a big area of ozone form over the ship channel that gets blown out to Pearland, then Sugar Land and spends the late afternoon in Cinco Ranch and just east of Katy before starting to drift back east. The worst of the smog slides south of the City and never really gets north of I-10 inside the loop. Ship channel industries account for about 2/3rds of the smog. The rest is motor vehicle emissions. Ship channel industries have made significant progress in reducing and controlling emissions. But more sprawl and more traffic threaten to offset the progress made on the ship channel. Thus, the smog issue is a very real consequence of sprawl that is not escaped by sprawl either.” [Old School, commenting on Holding Back on That Downtown Hotel Push; The Beer Garden, Greenhouse, and Food Court Growing in Prohibition’s Basement] Image: Houston Clean Air Network

01/06/15 1:30pm

Variance Sign for Living Green, MDI Superfund Site, 3617 Baer St., Fifth Ward, Houston

Signs have gone up around the former metal foundry site at 3617 Baer St. in the Fifth Ward indicating that a hearing is scheduled for this Thursday to get city approval for the latest rejiggering of homesites on the 35-acre tract. Developer Frank Liu of Lovett Homes, InTown Homes, and a few other local builder brands plans to put a total of 538 homes (down from 589) on the EPA-monitored property, known as the MDI Superfund Site after the last owner of the metal-casting operations, Many Diversified Interests, which shut down in the early 1990s (previously, the plants were owned by TESCO). The property, which lies just south of I-10 about 2 miles of east of downtown, was listed on the EPA’s list of priority Superfund sites in 1999, after tests showed the soil and groundwater was contaminated with lead and other hazardous metals.

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Living Green
12/19/14 3:30pm

COMMENT OF THE DAY: WHY IS ANYONE LIVING THAT CLOSE TO A REFINERY? Refined Homes Near Refinery“Tax policy should probably discourage residential habitation in neighborhoods near the Houston Ship Channel and encourage people to move away from them. As such, giving existing residents or residential property owners a tax cut in order to reward them for residing there or maintaining and leasing housing to other people would be extraordinarily counterproductive and stupid. Manchester in particular is a neighborhood where the City or State government should seriously consider its options with respect to eminent domain. There’s nothing quite like it anywhere else in the region. Even the furthest north residential bits and pieces of Pasadena are better isolated from refinery activities and more integrated into their city than is Manchester.” [TheNiche, commenting on Baytown Buc-ee’s Is Here; Goodbye Mission Burrito, Hello Überrito Mexican Grill] Illustration: Lulu

10/01/14 12:00pm

Area Surrounding Former Brio Superfund Site, Dixie Farm Rd. at Beamer Rd., Southbend Subdivision, Friendswood, Houston

Inspired by reading René Steinke’s new and recently optioned-for-film novel Friendswood, the plot of which centers on the aftermath of the Brio Superfund mess just south of I-45 and the Beltway, Cite magazine’s Allyn West returns to the former chemical waste facility at Dixie Farm Rd. and Beamer Rd. to snap some photos and have a look around: “The first thing you pass is a landfill. And then, incongruously, you pass archetypal subdivisions with bucolic names, much like Southbend must have been. There’s a dedicated bike lane on both sides of Dixie Farm, clearly marked and freshly painted. Then turning toward the site onto Blackhawk Boulevard, you pass Ashley Pointe, a new subdivision. That morning, I saw construction workers milling about around unfinished stick frames. If Southbend still existed, Ashley Pointe would sit right next to it.”

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Buried Secrets
09/10/14 1:15pm

A LOOK AT SOME OF THE LIQUID POO FLOWING ONTO COLQUITT ST. IN MONTROSE Raw Sewage Draining onto Colquitt St., Montrose, HoustonA reader wants to be sure Swamplot readers are alerted — as city inspectors, the HPD’s environmental division, and the property manager have already been, the reader says — to the “recurring” problem of raw sewage flowing out from the Takara-So Apartments at 1919 W. Main St. and into neighboring storm drains. The photo at left, taken on Monday, shows the sewage (“you can smell it”) along Colquitt St., pausing for a bit of sun on its way to lower-lying bayous and waterways. [Previously on Swamplot] Photo: Swamplot inbox

08/26/14 3:00pm

COMMENT OF THE DAY: POLLUTION CREDITORS Drawing of Duck in Polluted Waters“It’s good to see that the Feds will help clean up the CES Environmental Services site. I’m of the opinion that bankruptcy law should be revised to require that environmental clean-up be paid for before creditors can be paid. It would help in cases like this, but it would also make lenders push dirty industries to clean up their act. Companies with bad environmental records would feel it in their ability to get credit.” [ZAW, commenting on Predicting Houston Real Estate Hotspots; Drinking Water from Lake Conroe] Illustration: Lulu

06/23/14 11:45am

M+A Architecture Studio, 5910 Grace Ln., Houston

CES Environmental Services Trucks, 4904 Griggs Rd., MacGregor Terrace, HoustonFrom a top-floor perch in their tiny, handcrafted, award-winning live-work compound at 5910 Grace Ln. (featured a while back in Dwell magazine), architect Mark Schatz and designer Anne Eamon had front-row seats to the ongoing smelly, toxic, and deadly shitshow that marked the over-the-back-fence tenure of CES Environmental Services, in its facility at 4904 Griggs Rd., just a mile and a half south of the UH campus. Among the joys they were able to plug their noses and record was this tableau from July 2009: “In the first photograph [Schatz] took of the scene unfolding below him, shot like all the rest with the eye of an architect, perfectly framing the site, the tank farm is to the left, and a worker races from the right to the warehouse, which has a smoking hole blown through the roof. In a subsequent photo, oxygen tanks are wheeled in. Then the oxygen tanks fall over. Then a forklift shows up, and a crew starts setting the oxygen tanks upright. All this time, while they go through this Three Stooges routine, their co-worker is lying inside the warehouse covered in burns. You can see the back of a metal cylindrical tanker truck in the photos. [Schatz and Eamon] learn later that the fatally burned worker had opened the hatch on the tanker and switched on his flashlight to peer in. A spark from the flashlight set off a flash fire.”

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Toxics by Design