Comment of the Day: Both Options for Dealing with Run-of-the-Mill Houston Toxicity

COMMENT OF THE DAY: BOTH OPTIONS FOR DEALING WITH RUN-OF-THE-MILL HOUSTON TOXICITY lllustration of East Houston Scenery“My wife, until last May, worked at a school very close to this (but [which] was not mentioned). The air pollution on normal days is so bad that my wife’s doctor suggested that if we wanted to have children that she should think about changing jobs.  . . .  Attention is only drawn to the problem when major events happen — but perhaps long term effects of living and working in the area are greater ([and] simply tolerated as business as usual). I have said it before, but it is worth mentioning: I called the TCEQ and many agencies during my wife’s time working over there about the pollution . . .  they informed me that the area has regularly violated EPA standards and my only option was to ‘vote for people who care about government regulation’ of said pollution. Sounds like a tough project!” [Anon, commenting on This Morning’s LyondellBasell Refinery Fire Put Out 19 Hours after Yesterday’s ExxonMobil Refinery FireIllustration: Lulu

7 Comment

  • Yes, living right next door to a giant petrochemical complex is not a good idea, even people in 3rd world countries know that. Petrochemical industry is too important for national economy and national defense, no matter how many people get sick, complain, try to change laws, nothing will change in any foreseeable future. Good thing in the US we can easily move from place to place, and saying some people “don’t have a choice” is a cop-out. There are plenty of other areas to live at the same cost of living, just not inhaling daily dozes of chemical fumes.
    Be a realist, not an idealist, you’ll live longer.

  • I hear you, Anon. The TCEQ is spineless and gutless – though in fairness to the people who work there, they are forced to be spineless and gutless by the Texas State Legialature, which is more interested in doing Big Oil’s bidding than in enforcing environmental law in the Lone Star State.
    As Commonsense said, this isn’t going to change. But what can change is that our local governments can find ways to regulate the refineries and factories without regulating their emissions. It came to me when I was looking at an application for a concrete crushing plant in Westbury. They had submitted a two page application to the TCEQ and of course would get rubber stamped there, but there was no application that I could find for any curb cuts to give access for trucks; nothing for any signage, though presumably they would have signs; nothing affirming that they would follow required setbacks and easements on the site…. I came up with a list of almost thirty questions that needed to be answered: not for the TCEQ (they’re paid not to care); but for the City of Houston plan reviewers who are more likely to care.
    That seems to be the approach you have to take on environmental issues, in the face of a gutless, spineless (by design) TCEQ.

  • As an environmental engineer and former TCEQ’r I hear your pain. If the rules were not written with such a low bar, we’d still get told to work around them. The number of times I denied a permit or a modification for simple non-compliance with a low hanging rule, only to get a call a few hours later from my director telling me to just go ahead and send the letter, was far too many.

    The problem with your approach commonsense is that as long as there is housing there and the prices are low enough, people will make the often uninformed decision to be there. Only once they are in and settled might they realize the error of that choice. Or worse, it isn’t a choice, it is the only option. It’s easy to say find another hood, but the fact is there are jobs in that area and not everyone can afford to commute. Saying to just avoid the area because the industries are too important for us to enforce stupid simple regulations is ridiculous.

    To Zaw’s point, the level of concern from those persons looking to have an impact on the environment around them is criminally low. If the state wants to continue to promulgate crappy environmental regulations, they at least need to create a system for enforcement of those insufficient rules. A system that says all you have to do is X, if you cannot even do X, go right to jail, do not pass go, do not collect $200. Make it so easy for the citizen to turn in a violation that everyone in the lower economic areas consider narc’ing on environmental crimes to be a worthwhile source of income. Pollution is an economic issue, one though that is unchecked on both sides.

  • commonsense, please elaborate. For those folks living in the likes of Pasadena and the general east side without personal transportation,who both work and live on the east side, where can they move to that won’t hinder their ability to access their jobs?
    I know, the fact that you think it’s more worthwhile for a city to just turn many thousands and thousands of acres of valuable tax generating property into worthless toxic wastelands because we don’t want to inconvenience industry is so obviously dumb it doesn’t beget a response, but here I am. It just boggles my mind that people can’t understand that it’s so much easier for industry to pay to clean up their act rather than let the repercussions go unchecked costing taxpayers $MMs every year in avoidable health care issues and negative property value implications.
    Yeah, let’s all just be realist and keep Houston the 3rd world capital of the US. Better get going before MS and AL catch back up to us.

  • I totally agree, MH005. I would just note two things.
    First, even if you carefully avoid areas with heavy industry and pollution, you could easily wind up in a place with other problems. Westwood is nowhere near the Refineries on the east side, but the deteriorated housing stock and the murder rate more than make up for it.
    Really, you’re hard pressed to find a place to live in the Houston metro area, without a serious problem (be it poor air quality, crime, blight, or bad schools) for less than $200k. If you’re one of those who absolutely must live in a house Inside the Loop, up that to $600k.
    The other point, and I’m sure the industrial developers would cry foul over this, is that local city governments need to play a big role in permitting industrial developments, too. Allowing the TCEQ to be the only regulatory agency on a refinery is like letting the health department be the only regulator for restaurants. Sure, they’re a big one for those uses. But there are lots of other aspects of a refinery that fall under the purview of other departments. Fire codes for the buildings on site. Curb cuts and easements. Signage. Tree ordinances….

  • @ Commonsense- What about the people working in the area? Would your advice be to not work at or near these places? She spent 8-12 hours a day 5 days a week and often a few hours on the weekends at her job. That is almost equal to the amount of time spent at home.

    It is easy to focus on the people living in that area, but the force of my comment was to circle around the people that WORK in the area.

    My wife had and indeed took the option to not work over there. We did not live there at all.

  • Don’t get me wrong, I’m not excusing the industry or TCEQ in any way, I’m just saying no matter how much you huff and puff nothing will happen. What’s easier, fight the most powerful industry in the country through decades of court action or civil activism or just getup and move?

    @joel, people constantly bring up “what about people without transportation”. I’ve lived in Houston nearly 30 years and I’ve never known anyone permanently without transportation. If you can’t afford a beater car for $1000, then you have much bigger problems to worry about than long term effects of air pollution.

    @Anon, working somewhere is clearly a choice, even more so than living somewhere. By working at or near the refineries, one is making a conscientious decision to trade off a little health for a little more money.

    I’m not laying blame, just stating realities of life.