Common Ground

Adrian Garcia’s Plan to protect our local economy and stand up to polluters who make our families sick

Harris County faces the pollution problems that plague all densely populated regions in our country — but Precinct 2 residents have an added pollution challenge to contend with.

We live and work within close proximity of one of the largest groups of petrochemical plants in the United States.

These risks are real and they are documented. (See appendix.)

Yet, it is also a reality that the very industries that pose risks to our environment and health also provide the jobs we need to support our families.

Houston is the U.S. energy headquarters and a world center for virtually every segment of the oil and gas industry including exploration, production, transmission, marketing, supply and technology. Our area provides 25 percent of the nation’s jobs in oil and gas extraction alone. [1]

That’s why we need a new commissioner for Precinct 2 who can strike a common-sense balance that both protects our health and nurtures a thriving local economy.

Precinct 2 residents want and deserve a healthy environment in which to live and raise their families. And Precinct 2 residents want good-paying jobs to support their families and provide a brighter future for their children. Adrian Garcia knows this is not a zero-sum game. It’s a matter of leadership.

Adrian will start with the basics: convening regular, effective meetings with industry and environmental advocates to foster communication, build trust and start the process of finding common ground. He will work to increase transparency, so that all sides are dealing with the same set of facts — and the public is engaged in important decisions that impact our health and our economy.

Adrian will work with all sides to get the job done.

But here’s the bottom line: Adrian Garcia will always stand up to polluters who make our families sick.

Adrian’s Plan:

I. Bring All Sides to the Table

Adrian will proactively engage industry leaders, community groups, environmental advocates and agencies at all levels of government to begin the process of building trust and finding common ground.

Adrian knows this won’t be easy — the absence of leadership from our current commissioner over the last eight years has hardened the dividing lines between industry and environmental advocates. But it’s the honest and fair place to start.

II. Require Equity and Fairness

Let’s start from the principle that every life is valuable, regardless of your income level. Right now, federal, state, and local governments discriminate against people living in lower income neighborhoods.

That’s unacceptable—and Adrian Garcia will fight for a more equitable distribution of county-controlled funds for people living in lower income neighborhoods to protect those who live there.

His top environmental concern is equity for Precinct 2 residents. All pollution is important. Residents of long-ignored, low-income communities must be actively represented. County funds, whether routine budget items or identified by the bond process, must be equitably allocated to projects in Precinct 2.

III. Ensure Transparency and Accountability

Adrian will work to increase citizen oversight, increased reporting and public input. He will meet regularly with residents of Precinct 2, listen to concerns, advocate and build coalitions in the grassroots, organize and hold town halls to discuss and strengthen knowledge of issues within his constituency. He plans to organize a continuing information source about pollution and health research.

He will also work with industry leaders to break down barriers and increase public involvement in decisions that impact our neighborhoods and families. Adrian knows a winning coalition is one that protects our environment and our economy — and he is willing to lead the way.

Adrian will demand greater accountability in Austin, so that rules for air and water pollution cannot be suspended for six months, as Governor Abbott did following Hurricane Harvey. He will make it clear that suspensions must be rare and that delays of environmental regulations must be publicized.

Adrian will use his office to put pressure on the EPA to prepare a final Community Involvement Plan for the San Jacinto Waste Pits. The draft Plan hasn’t been updated since Hurricane Harvey caused widespread flooding in the area.

Adrian will personally visit sites of pollution releases in Harris County Precinct 2 to ensure that actions are taken to protect the current and future safety of nearby residents. He will ensure that a Precinct 2 representative plays a more active role in involving the community in the final remedy for the Superfund site.

Adrian will also engage the community when companies plan new significant developments with possible environmental hazards near residential or flooding areas, such as constructing above-ground storage tank complexes. He believes industries must take into account the interests of residential communities, for clean air and water and for flood-mitigation. He will insist on public town hall meetings when initial knowledge of such projects is identified.

IV. Use Advanced Strategies and Guidance

Adrian will engage our region’s experts from governments, NGOs, academia and the regulated community—to guide policy decisions.

Many of the best minds, best researchers, and best community-based organizations in the U.S. are located here in Harris County. Let’s use them! To move forward, much more research is needed, as well as a more informed populace, knowledgeable about the severity of some pollution, how to avoid it and how to engage elected officials and agencies to take meaningful steps to stop releases and improve our environment’s air, water and land.

And we need to develop more health data with local partners. Adrian Garcia will encourage the County Health Department to work with the City of Houston and other municipalities, and with organizations like the Episcopal Health Foundation(EHF) and the Kaiser Health Foundation (KHF), to gather pollution health impacts information in order to measure what actions can best improve human health.

Air Alliance, the Environmental Defense Fund, Sierra Club, the Galveston Bay Foundation, Houston Advanced Research Center and other non-governmental organizations can help gather information about the health of our region, including what’s happening near petrochemical plants and Superfund sites, in our back yards and in the air we breathe. EHF, KHF and others have done landmark research on the impacts from Harvey. Let’s enhance those resources to track and report on the health of our communities.

V. Ensure Pollution Laws Are Followed

With 30 years of experience in law enforcement, Adrian Garcia will work hard to ensure pollution laws are followed to identify and curtail illegal acts and reward good corporate citizens for protecting our health by controlling pollution.

Hurricane Harvey highlighted our pollution problems—now Adrian Garcia wants to solve them. He will pressure state and federal agencies to do their jobs and to enforce existing laws and regulations. He will work closely with the County Attorney, as well as with Houston and other municipalities, to take the lead on enforcement if the EPA and Texas won’t.

VI. Fight for Accountability Measures

Recognizing that this will involve a significant culture change, Adrian will fight for accountability measures that govern county decisions, engage industry and use the authority of the county to ensure action, and involve the communities he serves — all to ensure the health of our families is protected. He will:

  • Demand strict and consistent enforcement of pollution limits by the Texas Commision on Environmental Quality /TCEQ and EPA. He will advocate and negotiate to increase enforcement budgets and greater protections of the public’s health.
  • Work with other commissioners to develop a plan, budgeting and actions to create more effective real-time monitoring and communication of pollution releases during natural extreme weather events or industrial breakdowns. To protect the health of our families, it is essential to know of toxic pollution within minutes of release, not days or months later.
  • Insist on beginning health and pollution investigations within two weeks of natural or industrial disasters. He will hold regular town hall meetings within 60 days after natural disasters, to communicate to residents what actions are being taken by governments and industry to alleviate air and water pollution.
  • Demand that the TCEQ develop regulations to stagger startups and shutdowns for natural disasters in order to minimize adverse health impacts on the public and to regional air quality. Startups and shutdowns must be done within parameters of legal permits. Benign neglect due to industries’ economic interest will no longer be accepted.
  • Take actions to focus on our water, as CEER recommends, to prevent contaminants from entering our waterways, require all wastewater treatment facilities and toxic waste sites to account for flood waters and maintain any spills or releases in their own facilities rather than allowing them to flow into public watersheds.
  • Ensure that a Precinct 2 representative is a member of the Regional Air Quality Planning and Advisory Committee of the Houston-Galveston Area Council/HGAC. Its members are leaders of government and industry, as well as leadership from environmental organizations. Its guidance to elected officials will benefit from another more community-based perspective.
  • Engage actively with both the County Engineer and the City Engineer to ensure that building standards, both residential and industrial, including those for above-ground storage tanks, account for the impacts of increasingly common extreme weather events.
  • Develop a communications program and library to track and report on pollution in Precinct 2, research on health impacts of pollution and corrective actions for industry, government and citizens.

VII. CONCLUSION

Living in the region with the nation’s largest petrochemical complex that’s growing by leaps and bounds, with Permian shale oil and liquid natual gas (LNG) refining and transportation, means greater prosperity for our communities and greater risks of pollution and resulting impacts on the health of our families.

Adrian Garcia, as Harris County Commissioner for Precinct 2, will stand up for our families and communities. He’ll support job-producing industries and companies that ensure they meet safety standards in routine operations and during natural disasters. He will also advocate advanced approaches to reduce pollution and partner with other governments, private sector and non-profits to improve our environment and protect our health.

We can make real progress on creating safe and healthy communities and keeping our local economy strong. And it starts with new leadership in county government for Precinct 2.

APPENDIX

Failures in Leadership

The risks of pollution to our residents and the inaction by our leaders are well documented: “In 2005, after the Houston Chronicle detailed the scary levels of cancer-causing chemicals in Houston’s air, Mayor Bill White convened a task force of scientists and physicians to study the problem. They identified ground-level ozone, fine particulate matter, diesel particulate matter and nine hazardous pollutants as a definite health risk to residents. The findings sparked a needed discussion about a healthier path forward for our city.” [2]

One compelling summary is found in the report issued by Mayor Bill White’s Task Force on the Health Effects of Air Pollution: [3] “About half of the point sources for air pollution in the Greater Houston area are concentrated on the eastern side of Harris County. Over twenty of the largest industrial sources are located in East Houston. The Port of Houston, and the Ship Channel that feeds it, passes through the middle of this area and generates a variety of hazardous pollutants, adding to those from the nearby industrial sources. Four major highways intersect this area including, Interstate Highways 10, 610 and 45 and State Highway 225; each generating substantial pollution from high traffic density.”

“Unfortunately, since White left office in 2010, local leaders have not confronted Houston and Harris County’s air quality with the same urgency. This is troubling because the problems have not gone away. So far this year we already have endured 26 days with unhealthy levels of ozone, or smog, exceeding last year’s total. In July, a north Houston monitor recorded the worst smog day in Texas since 2013. If that was not bad enough, a federal database released last week revealed an alarmingly high cancer risk in some neighborhoods for the chemical ethylene oxide,” according to Bakeyah Nelson, Executive Director of Air Alliance Houston.” [4]

When Hurricane Harvey hit, the storm damage exposed Harris County residents to a whole new level of pollution. Toxins were released into the air and water at alarming rates – during industry preparations for the storm, after the storm from damaged facilities and then again as industry resumed operation.

But the magnitude of these releases remained unknown because Governor Abbott suspended environmental regulations for more than six months and “neither the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) nor the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ), the state’s environmental agency, conducted active surveillance fast enough or in the areas most likely to have problems with air quality” according to the Environmental Defense Fund. [5] As a result, no one working in the aftermath knew what dangers they were being exposed to. Harvey brought into focus many of the weaknesses of Harris County’s pollution control efforts and emphasized the need for progress in addressing them.

Shutdowns and Startups

We know that our local oil refineries and petrochemical plants have a history of releasing toxic chemicals into the air due primarily to shutdowns and startups. These releases occur when pollution controls, such as scrubbers and flares, do not fully operate, and they occur regularly during the routine operation of many industrial facilities. Even if unintended or unavoidable, the extra pollution is in violation of federal law. The pollutants include cancer-causing benzene and nitrogen oxides that contribute to the formation of lung-damaging ozone.

And this situation becomes even more serious in the event of a storm. “Many industrial plants in Harvey’s path released extra pollutants into the air when they shut down in preparation for the storm and when operations resumed. Seven Houston-area plants shut down within 16 hours of each other on Aug. 26 and 27, 2017, contributing to more than 2 million pounds of pollution released into the air during the storm’s first 48 hours. By industry’s own estimates, oil refineries and petrochemical plants released more than 8 million pounds of harmful chemicals into the air between Aug. 23, 2017, and Oct. 25, 2017, because of the storm.

“Harvey damaged other facilities, allowing hazardous gases to escape. In Crosby, explosions at the flooded Arkema chemical plant triggered an evacuation of nearby residents and sent emergency workers to hospitals. Yet, for all the media attention the Arkema episode received, industry reports showed that there were nine larger releases of air pollution because of storm damage.

“One of the worst releases (of which we are aware) happened at Valero Energy’s refinery in southeast Houston. After reports of a leaking storage tank at the refinery, city officials detected concentrations of cancer-causing benzene of over 300ppb in the adjacent neighborhood of Manchester,” a fence-line community of about 4,000 people.” [6]

Both federal and state environmental agencies have taken some legal action, but the companies responsible for this pouring of toxins into our environment act as if their bottom line is more important than complying with the law. When Texas Governor Abbott suspended environmental regulations as Harvey began dumping rain and then failed to reactivate them for over six months, he sent, and the corporations received, a message that they didn’t have to “hold the line” on polluting until further notice. The Houston Chronicle has reported that following the suspension and its reapplication the reported pollution event numbers have drastically changed, in both higher and lower figures, calling into question the reliability of the whole set of reports. [7]

Ruptured Tanks and Poor Water Quality

Magellan Midstream, a major storage and transportation firm, wants to build at least three new tank complexes in Precinct 2, initially in Clear Lake, Seabrook and Pasadena. Based on Harvey failures, these tanks risk spreading petrochemicals in the water and air of our residential areas by rupturing or even floating away from their foundations. During Hurricane Harvey Magellan spilled 500,000 gallons of gasoline and released two million pounds of air pollution in Galena Park according to the Associated Press and Houston Chronicle. [8] 

The state environmental agency (TCEQ) is just now investigating whether Magellan violated its permits, even as the company seeks permission to build another facility between Highway 3 and I-45 next to Ellington Field. Magellan must not be rewarded with a new permit to vastly increase its number of tanks until it proves the tanks are safe. Adrian Garcia was out front communicating the pollution and flooding risks, effectively prompting Magellan to decide against the Ellington Field site near Clear Lake communities and bayous…as the corporation wrote, “not considering a site near Ellington Air Field at this time” (emphasis added). [Email from Magellan VP for Government and Media Affairs, concerning Magellan Tank complex near Clear Lake, “(W)e are considering a number of potential sites in the Houston area for additional crude oil storage. One of the potential sites is our East Houston terminal facility. We are not considering a site near Ellington Air Field at this time.” Signed Bruce Heine, Vice President Government and Media Affairs.]

Superfund—San Jacinto Waste Pits, EPA and the Community

The San Jacinto Waste Pits, near Highlands, is polluted land (now underwater) that contains the toxic leftovers from a Pasadena paper mill that dumped its refuse along the banks of the San Jacinto River more than 50 years ago. In 2008 San Jacinto Waste Pits was placed on a list of the worst sites in the country. The Superfund law requires that the corporations responsible for the pollution must pay to clean it up. EPA has determined that the best way to address toxic dioxin is to excavate and remove the contaminated material and soil. It will take more than two years to design the removal plan and about 19 months to remove it. The local community must be informed as the final remedy is designed and then as it is implemented.

Companies responsible for tons of dioxin waste dumped near, and now within, the San Jacinto River have agreed to a $115 million plan to completely remove the cancer causing material. The Environmental Protection Agency’s settlement with International Paper and a subsidiary of Houston based Waste Management signals the beginning of a multiple-year project to systematically extract as many as 17,000 truckloads of toxic material.

Jackie Young of the Texas Health and Environment Alliance has led a seven-year campaign for removal. “This is huge for our community. These companies have fought us. This announcement that they have agreed to clean it up the best way possible means that the public will not have to worry about this for future generations,” said Young. [10]  

Health Impacts

Pollution in Precinct 2 has many negative impacts on our health. Some of the greatest health risks are described below.

  • Cancer

Childhood leukemia Researchers from the University of Texas’s School of Public Health found that children who live within two miles of the Houston Ship Channel have a 56 percent greater chance of getting leukemia than children living elsewhere. The elevated rates of childhood leukemia were found in census tracts with the highest benzene and 1,3-butadiene levels in the air. The Houston Ship Channel is the largest petrochemical complex in the United States and a Rice University study released in 2006 showed that Houston had the highest air concentration of benzene and 1,3-butadiene in the country. Benzene and 1,3-butadiene are known to be human carcinogens.

https://www.nrdc.org/sites/default/files/texas_diseaseclusters.pdf

Texas Department of State Health Services’ Assessment of the Occurrence of Cancer East Harris County, Texas 1995–2012 June 19, 2015

“The number of childhood lymphoma and melanoma cases observed in the area investigated was statistically significantly higher than expected. The number of brain and cervical cancers among all ages was statistically significantly higher than expected…This assessment identified a number of statistically significant results that warrant further discussion.”

https://www.dshs.texas.gov/epitox/CancerClusters.shtm

Texas Observer

“A recent survey, conducted by the Healthy Port Communities Coalition, found that residents of five neighborhoods surrounding the Ship Channel suffer from higher rates of cancer and respiratory illnesses than average Texans.”

Mo’ Money Mo’ Problems: The Downside of Houston’s Port Expansion

  • Harvey – Toxic Stew Impacts

Hurricane Harvey, along with others like Michael and Sandy, provide insights into the impacts of very severe storms as climate impacts worsen. Harvey’s toxic stew is probably not an outlier.

According to the Environmental Defense Fund, “…the storm also let loose a toxic stew of chemicals and other threats to people’s health. We still do not know the full extent of Harvey’s havoc on health, which will likely have ripple effects for years to come. Texas did not do enough to protect public health this time, but there are ways to minimize the harm before the next storm. Harvey swamped oil refineries, chemical plants, Superfund sites and waste treatment plants, fouling air, water, and soil. It also left behind new threats in homes, like mold and bacteria.

“The storm’s floodwaters, for example, delivered alarmingly high levels of E. coli, as well as lead, arsenic, and other metals, to the living rooms of a public-housing project along Buffalo Bayou, putting an already vulnerable community at greater risk for long-term health problems.” [11]

And from texpirg.org, “While it is unknown exactly how much oil and produced water can be found in the floodwaters of Houston, there are health concerns for anyone who was exposed to the flooding or who is involved in the cleanup process. Currently, the Houston Chronicle and other outlets are reporting that residents in Houston are experiencing skin infections, itchiness, and coughing problems after exposure to floodwaters. Skin irritation and respiratory problems are common symptoms following exposure to oil and wastewater spills.

“Exposure to spilled oil is associated with health effects, such as headaches and dizziness. The chemicals in oil can affect the central nervous system, skin, eyes, and respiratory system. Researchers studying people living in the vicinity of past oil spills have found consistent evidence of acute toxic effects. These effects include neurological damage, eye irritation and damage, and respiratory or breathing problems among exposed residents.” [12]