COMMENT OF THE DAY: CURRENT HOUSTON AIR SMELL RATINGS, MINUS THE COFFEE PERFUME “It seems like it’s getting worse. 4 out of 7 mornings when it used to be maybe 2 out of 7. I wonder if it’s because the east downtown coffee plant has been shutdown, no longer masking the more harsher notes.” [Jeff, commenting on The Houston Hurricane Pollution-Sniffing NASA Flight That Never Took Off] Illustration: Lulu
IN THE MISSOURI CITY AIR Wild West Well Control is expected to finish capping an oil well this evening on McHard Rd. just west of the Fort Bend Tollway that blew out last night, sending foul-smelling fumes southeast into Fort Bend County. Nearby residents got a nose-ful: “Winds carried the smell across a large portion of the area; it is believed that the smell was from hydrogen sulfide. Total Fire has been conducting air monitoring in the area and has been unable to detect significant amounts of the chemical in the air.” [Fort Bend County OEM]
Photo: Fort Bend County OEM
COMMENT OF THE DAY: THE REAL REASON WHY BUFFALO BAYOU SMELLS AND LOOKS THE WAY IT DOES “If Buffalo Bayou stunk so much, then no one would have built a bunch of expensive homes all along it (west of downtown). Most of the Houston area’s waste water effluent flows into the Bayou east of downtown anyways. The Clinton/69th plant (the largest in the city) is just east of downtown, and the Sims and Braes plants don’t enter until well past downtown. With that said, I don’t think the treatment plants are the big contributors to the overall unpleasantness of the Buffalo Bayou water (flood events not withstanding). Most of the effluent (when the plants are properly operating) is nearly clear and usually only has an ‘earthy’ odor to it if any at all. I think the big issue with the bayou’s water quality is the regular runoff and trash that flows into it and eventually lines the shores of it all along downtown.” [nmj, commenting on The North Canal, a New Downtown Island, and Other Secret Plans for Downtown Houston’s Future] Photo: Swamplot inbox
COMMENT OF THE DAY: WHAT YOU’RE SEEING AND SMELLING IN FLOODED APARTMENTS “I have a question regarding the apartments in Kingwood. There is a statement in the letter from the apartments indicating that there is a clear difference between mold and mildew. I understand it as they are both one and the same when it comes to interior livable spaces. If it smells and-or is visible you have a problem irregardless of the classification of mold or mildew.
Is this not correct? Is there a legal distinction per Texas Law? Can someone please chime in? Thanks.” [It Smells, commenting on The City That Will Be Building and Rebuilding Forever; Houston’s Long Amazon Odds; The Latest Poke Place] Illustration: Lulu
SMELLING BLIND IN THE EAST END A possible cause of the nasty smells that caused East End residents headaches, sore and scratchy throats, and itchy eyes as Hurricane Harvey approached and inundated the area? Houston-area industrial plants in the last week released more than 2.25 million pounds of emissions above legal limits, according to an Environment Texas tally of Texas Commission on Environmental Quality data. The reason: plant shutdowns before the onset of the storm and startups after it left. “So far,” writes Emily Atkin, “TCEQ has not indicated these events have triggered health impacts. . . . TCEQ Media Relations Manager Andrea Miller told me the agency or local emergency officials would contact residents if an immediate health threat were to occur. What’s more, Miller said companies were probably reporting higher emissions that what actually occurred, ‘since underreporting can result in higher penalties.‘ It’s unclear, however, how TCEQ would check many of the companies’ reports, since the agency turned off all its air quality monitors in the Houston area before Harvey hit. Miller confirmed as much on Monday, saying devices were either turned off or removed “to protect against damage or loss of these sensitive and expensive instruments.” [The New Republic] Photo of ExxonMobil Baytown refinery: Louis Vest [license]
UNIDENTIFIED CHEMICAL STENCH, HAZE DRIFTING ACROSS TOWN OFFICIALLY NO CAUSE FOR CONCERN Suggested 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.
The city of Pearland’s Odor Task Force is hosting a meeting on February 8th to give some updates on the saga of the Shadow Creek Ranch stench, the Chronicle‘s Margaret Kadifa reports. The map above shows industrial sites noted by the TCEQ in the vicinity of the master-planned community during the environmental agency’s long-running search for the source of the odor. Early last summer the come-and-go smell was finally officially linked to emissions from the slowly rising Blue Ridge Landfill, which sits across FM 521 from the subdivision, just outside the Pearland border in Fresno, TX. The agency says that 81 investigations had been launched in response to more than 1,900 complaints from the neighborhood, as of January 1st; TCEQ started sending enforcement letters to the landfill in October, and a class action lawsuit on behalf of area residents was filed in November.
Map of industrial sites and air sampling locations around Shadow Creek Ranch: TCEQ
Blue Ridge Mountains
What could be causing the mysterious unpleasant odor Pearland residents have been reporting through TCEQ complaint channels since August of last year — primarily from the Shadow Creek Ranch subdivision (shown above) between 288 and FM 521 south of Clear Creek? TCEQ’s Andrew Keese spoke with the Houston Chronicle recently about the 26 previous and ongoing investigations, which are triggered whenever a finger is pointed at a new possible emitter of the smell. So far, Keese says, no odors have been officially detected that qualify as a ‘nuisance condition’, but he encourages residents to use the TCEQ’s odor log form to help the search effort by describing “the precise character of the odor, [relevant] weather conditions, and times” when the smell is noted.
Before you ask, yes: TCEQ knows about the 60-ft tall mounds of garbage right across FM 521 from the subdivision, at Republic Waste Service’s Blue Ridge Landfill (visible in the bottom left corner of the above photo as a pinkish blob). Pearland residents previously sought to keep the landfill from more than doubling in acreage and nearly tripling in height (and blocking the operation of several Doppler Radar stations in the process). The landfill (which started accepting garbage several years before Shadow Creek Ranch’s developers broke ground nearby) will eventually get to pile as high as the 170 ft. allowed by its expanded TCEQ permit — but per a 2009 settlement agreement with the city of Pearland it will have to wait until 2021 before rising to only 130 ft., and wait another 8 years after that to reach for its full vertical potential.
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Sniffing Out the Culprits in Pearland
COMMENT OF THE DAY: WHY IS ANYONE LIVING THAT CLOSE TO A 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
WHY DARLING HOMES SMELL THAT WAY Just where does that Houston new-home smell come from? The cookies the sales agent baked in the oven just before you arrived? The formaldehyde holding together the OSB and MDF? The VOC-laden paints and finishes still off-gassing indoors? An errant breeze from the Ship Channel? Well, sure, but also, it turns out, from liquid aroma cartridges squirted out by the motion-detector-equipped ScentWave (pictured above right), which shoots out a “clean and crisp . . . sweet floral” aroma to woo potential buyers and passersby who’ve stopped to sniff out a model home display. Reps of Texas’s Darling Homes, now owned by Taylor Morrison, install the ScentWave wafting device strategically in every one of the company’s model homes. The exclusive sign-here-now fragrance the homebuilder employs was whipped up for that purpose by the ScentWave’s distributor, a North Carolina company named ScentAir. That Darling Homes scent isn’t available for purchase, reports the HBJ‘s Paul Takahashi, but the ScentAir website lists a matrix of “euphoric, invigorating, restoring, refreshing, relaxing, or restoring” olfactory options (from a total 1,600 available off-the-shelf) to “blow your customer’s nose’s mind.” [Houston Business Journal; ScentAir] Photo of ScentWave: ScentAir
SNIFFING OUT THE SUBTLE SECRETS OF THE ROTHKO CHAPEL Exploring the Menil’s quiet, deep-purple monument, the Chronicle‘s Leah Binkovitz turns up a couple new lines of investigation: “In a turn Rothko, with his proscriptions for proper viewing, could never have anticipated, the chapel has its own Yelp page. ‘Whatever, some people don’t like to think too much about life and what our place is and if you’re one of those people, this isn’t the place for you,’ writes Eric J. in his recent review, ‘You need to head on down to Moody Gardens for “Pirates” or whatever.’ Inside, there’s a collection of Rothko paintings — dark and turbid — that surround the viewer. When the sun sifting through the clerestory shifts, the purple panels shine like scars. People meditate on cushions on the ground or lean against each other on the benches. The occasional crinkle of a plastic bag breaks the silence. There’s a smell, a specific Rothko Chapel smell. That’s the first thing two dashing young men in khaki shorts comment on when they leave the chapel.” [Houston Chronicle] Photo: Ed Uthman [license; cropped]
From 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
COMMENT OF THE DAY: WHAT HOUSTON SMELLS LIKE “Ahhhh . . . the eau du Houston: a heady combination of ground level ozone, sewer methane, burnt coffee aroma (when the breeze/wind is blowing from EaDo), combined with various other odoeurs ranging from the slightly offensive to the occasional sweet smell of some heavily perfumed flower/tree/shrub . . .” [Patrick, commenting on The Sweet Smell of Houston History] Illustration: Lulu
THE SWEET SMELL OF HOUSTON HISTORY Embarking on a tour of Houston by means of a “site-specific narrative” created by 3 artists as part of the Mitchell Center for the Arts’ first CounterCurrent Festival earlier this month, critic Betsy Huete picks up her “survival pack” of a bottle of water, a Metro day pass, a phone charger, and a bottle of Purell hand sanitizer enclosed in a koozie, and heads to the first stop: Allen’s Landing. There she encounters one of the artists, Lacy M. Johnson: “Johnson suggested I begin reading the essays accompanying The Invisible City, a series of writings tied to specific coordinates within the city of Houston. I would have to read each excerpt at each location to fully understand the work. The writing tied to Allen’s Landing was a brief recalling of Houston’s history, starting with its birth as a settlement at Allen’s Landing and, eventually, a meditation on the city’s rabid desire to erase itself and rebuild, leaving a palimpsest of memory and history. As I descended the stairs overlooking the bayou’s lush greenery on that crisp spring morning, with an erect corporate sky line as backdrop to errant clothes and shards of glass, with the stink of urine-saturated concrete pervading my nostrils, Johnson’s statement could not have rung more true. It was beautiful.” [Glasstire] Photo: Scott Ehardt [license]
What more quintessential closeup image of Houston is there — the kind you really aren’t likely to come across too many other places — than the one that shows a 17-story office tower under construction right next door to a single-family home? So when you hear of a Montrose resident complaining that the huge and noisy construction crane planted just a few feet beyond his fence to construct the “boutique” building at 2229 San Felipe is causing cracks in the concrete patio and the interior walls of his home, that the smell of diesel is overwhelming whether he’s in the back yard or inside on the ground floor, and that the fumes and noise from the regular Saturday concrete pours cause regular headaches for family members — well, it kinda does make you sit up and pay attention, if not simply to marvel at the unique properties of Houston development regulations and practices that allow such remarkable juxtapositions in our midst.
Still, the owner of the home at 2244 Welch St. might be forgiven if he doesn’t get so philosophical about the wondrous scene arrayed before him. “No representative of Hines has EVER come to us to express any concern about what they are doing,” he wrote over the weekend to an online newsgroup. “Even the construction workers admit they are not comfortable with the position of this crane. So everyone else got paid off, just not us I guess.”
This past Saturday, he filed a report about the situation with the EPA. What happened next?
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Next Door to 2229 San Felipe