This is the second story in our 4-part series, The Coming Chemical Boom, funded in part by the Fund for Investigative Journalism. Part 3: Plants provide work, but it can be deadly.
October 25, 2013
HOUSTON -- The largest chemical hub in the Americas courses through this city in a seemingly unending line of plants that produce about a quarter of the country’s petrochemicals.
These plants have helped fuel the city’s economic rise. But they also have added to its poor air quality, with emissions that have been linked to asthma, cancer, and heart attacks.
In recent years, Houston has found ways to reduce air pollution, in part by zeroing in on chemical plant emissions. Experts say Houston’s experience may show others how to keep chemical emissions down, even as the industry expands along the Gulf Coast, and possibly into Pennsylvania.
From Pennsylvania to Texas, the chemical industry is building new plants to take advantage of vast deposits of natural gas opened up by the fracking boom. Shell Chemical is eyeing building an ethane cracker in Monaca in Beaver County. The plant would take ethane from the Marcellus shale and convert it into ethylene—a key building block for plastics and chemicals—through the ‘cracking’ process.
Shell’s Pennsylvania cracker would be northwest of Pittsburgh, in a region that already fails federal air quality standards for ozone and other pollutants, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Ozone is an oxidant that can burn lung tissue, aggravate asthma and increase susceptibility to respiratory illnesses like pneumonia and bronchitis, according to the agency.
Ozone is formed when volatile organic compounds (VOCs) mix with other forms of pollution in the presence of sunlight. Air quality experts say the biggest impact a cracker plant would have in Pittsburgh would be through releases of VOCs.
The company has said differences in local permitting rules and the type of raw materials it would use make it hard to project what kinds of emissions a Pennsylvania cracker would produce. The company has used Shell’s Norco plant in Louisiana in the past as a reference when it proposed its Pennsylvania cracker. Norco produces roughly twice the VOCs of U.S. Steel’s Clairton Coke works, currently the highest emitter in Southwestern Pennsylvania, according to the EPA.
Shell spokeswoman Kimberly Windon said the company did not have specifics about what types of emissions the plant would produce, or what types of permitting it would need.
“I can tell you that if this project does move forward, we will design, build and operate the facility to ensure compliance with all state, federal and local air quality standards,” she said. “Environmental health is important to us. We're definitely committed to environmental responsibility in the communities where we operate.”
Shell recently agreed to spend $115 million to clean up emissions at its Deer Park, Texas, refinery and ethylene plant near Houston after the Department of Justice filed a complaint alleging the plant’s flares were emitting improper amounts of VOCs and cancer-causing pollutants.
Joe Osborne of the Group Against Smog and Pollution, an environmental advocacy group in Pittsburgh, said the Beaver County plant would likely be a major source of new pollution, with more than 50 tons per year of VOCs and 100 tons of nitrogen oxides, another key component of ozone, though he has yet to see any estimates from the company.
“I expect it will be a large source of ozone precursors, and this would be located in an area that’s already failing to meet federal health-based standards for ozone,” he said.
Houston may hold clues to how a cracker, which is expected to bring in 10,000 short-term construction jobs, and up to 17,000 indirect jobs to the region, would impact air quality. At the heart of the industry’s production chain is the Houston Ship Channel, a 26-mile canal lined with refineries and chemical plants, a hulking complex of pipes, distillation towers, and storage tanks.
Houston’s air has long borne the brunt of the ship canal’s industrial output. The city has never met federal air quality standards for ozone. An array of studies have shown pollution’s negative impact on residents.
One study linked high ozone incidents to increased instances of cardiac arrest in Houston; others have found high rates of asthma and childhood leukemia in neighborhoods near the chemical industry.
Adding difficulty to the issue is the fact that Houston has no zoning laws, which means some residents live across the street from huge refineries and chemical plants. Apollonia Martinez, lives in Manchester, a low-income neighborhood between a rubber plant and a refinery. She said one of her sons has been having a lot of asthma attacks.
“So every now and then I have to give him treatments because of his breathing problems at night,” said Martinez.
Martinez would like to leave the neighborhood, but can’t afford rents in more expensive neighborhoods.
But in the last decade, Houston’s air has improved, in part because regulators have targeted the petrochemical industry.
The city’s air quality nadir was in 1999.
“We were the capital of ozone,” says Elizabeth Hendler, a former state regulator who now works as an environmental consultant to industry.
In that year, Houston surpassed Los Angeles as having the highest ozone levels in America. “That was kind of a wakeup call,” Hendler said.
Not long afterward, in 2003, Toyota decided against locating a plant in the region because of the city’s air. Hendler says the number of air monitors in Houston doubled in a few years.
The state undertook a wide-ranging series of studies. Aircraft from NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration flew over the ship channel with special emissions-sensing equipment.
They found big leaks at the plants. The worst were from chemical plants with ‘crackers’ that made ethylene and propylene, two basic building blocks of plastic.
“The plants were having 1,000 pound releases, 5,000 pound releases, 20,000 pound releases, in one case 200,000 pound releases,” said Harvey Jeffries, a retired University of North Carolina chemist who studied Houston’s air and advised business and research groups on Houston’s air problems.
Ethylene and propylene—the two main products made in a cracker— are considered ‘highly reactive’ VOCs, meaning they can create large plumes of ozone in a matter of hours under the right conditions.
“When that stuff gets emitted in the daytime—it cooks up the highest amount of ozone you’ve ever seen,” Jeffries said.
When they looked at Houston’s industrial corridor, scientists realized chemical plants had been chronically under-reporting their emissions. A lot of this pollution was ‘fugitive’ emissions—leaks from valves, flanges, tiny holes in pipes, and incomplete combustion of waste gasses in the plants’ flares.
To get the city’s air under federal air pollution limits, Texas implemented a suite of environmental reforms. The state created special limits on emissions of highly reactive VOCs like propylene and ethylene, and implemented a cap-and-trade program for Houston’s petrochemical plants.
What happened next?
“Well, ozone went down—a lot,” Hendler said.
The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality estimates the city’s ozone levels have decreased about 20 percent since 2001.
The number of days when the air in Houston exceeds the EPA’s current eight-hour average for ozone of 75 parts per billion went from around 100 a year in 2005 to under 35 days in 2012. Emissions of other pollutants, including carcinogenic chemicals released in petrochemical manufacturing, also decreased.
In spite of recent strides, Houston still struggles with air quality. The city will see huge expansions of its petrochemical sector in the next few years, thanks to the fracking boom. Several new or expanded ethane crackers are slated to go online to take advantage of cheap natural gas. This has some clean air advocates worried.
“We’ve made significant progress,” said Larry Soward, a former regulator for the Texas commission and president of Air Alliance Houston. “But let’s not pat ourselves on the back too much. So far we have not met a single (federal) standard for ozone and we’re talking about adding all these new pollution sources.”
Companies looking to expand in Houston will have to either reduce pollution at one of their own facilities, or buy credits from a company that has reduced pollutants at theirs. New facilities will also have to use tighter pollution controls.
Still, Soward thinks they could go even further—by implementing more fence-line monitoring and increasing maximum fines on plants, now $25,000 a day.
“We just don’t do that in Texas,” he said.
The industry contends that current monitoring and regulations are working. Many plants are using infrared cameras to more easily detect leaks. ExxonMobil, for example, says reduced its emissions by 50 percent at its sprawling Baytown facility in the past decade. And industry backers say Houston’s chemical sector has been a key to helping the city’s economy avoid the worst of the recession.
“A great benefit in anyone’s life is to have a good job,” said Craig Beskid, executive director of the East Harris County Manufacturers Association, an industry group in Houston.
Beskid said Houston’s chemical and refinery sector contributes about 30,000 jobs with salaries ranging from $40,000 to $200,000 a year. That economic engine contributes to a better quality of life, he said.
Steve Smith, technical advisor to the industry-funded Houston Regional Monitoring Network, which operates around a dozen air pollution monitoring stations around the city, says the key to keeping emissions low is simple: Keep an eye on it.
“If you monitor, it will get better,” he said. “That’s exactly what happened here.”
Smith’s group tests for more than 150 pollutants to help oil, gas and petrochemical businesses meet federal air quality mandates.
“We set up a network early on, where if we saw a value too high, we sent out a notice to the companies, saying ‘Look at what’s happening. See if you have something that’s going on.’”
It helped companies cut down on leaks at their facilities. In that way, he said, the monitors have been good for the city’s air, and good for the companies’ bottom line.
OPEN: It’s clear an ethane cracker in Beaver County ethane cracker would have a major impact on jobs in Western Pennsylvania. But what impact will it have on air quality, in a region that has struggled for decades to clean up its air? The answer may lie in the city of Houston, home to the largest chemical hub in the Americas, and one of the smoggiest cities in the country. In the latest in his series of reporting from the Gulf Coast, the Allegheny Front’s Reid Frazier found out reports Houston has cleaned up its air, mainly by focusing on its chemical plants.
SOC OUT: You can hear more on the Allegheny Front, Saturday mornings at 7:30. This story was supported by the Fund for Investigative Journalism.
RAISE TRAIN AMBI, HOUSTON
FRAZIER: Railcars filled with chemicals rumble through an industrial part of town in Houston. The city’s industrial plants pump out about a quarter of the country’s petrochemicals. And the plants have helped fuel the city’s economy. But they also have added to its poor air quality. For years, Houston has had some of the highest levels of smog in the country.
But its air is getting cleaner.
In a trailer parked on an industrial road near the outskirts of Houston, Steve Smith points to a rack of monitors.
SMITH: “These are the particulate mass monitors.”
FRAZIER: Smith is with the Houston Regional Monitoring network. It’s an industry-funded group that monitors the air to help companies comply with federal air quality rules. He points to another machine--a metal box with a digital read-out.
SMITH: “This is the ozone analyzer—and it’s currently reading 29.6 parts per billion. And that’s—that’s good.”
FRAZIER: Smog, or ozone is created when sunlight interacts with a specific mix of pollutants. One key ingrediant in smog are volatile organic chemicals, or VOCs. Smog can burn lung tissue, and exacerbate asthma and respiratory illness. With its steamy weather, millions of cars on the road, and hundreds of industrial plants, Houston is an ideal place to make it.
But over the past decade, the city has seen big strides in curbing its ozone--a 20 percent drop according to state figures. The decline is tied to many factors, including new regulations. But, Smith says, the biggest factor of all is pretty simple: People are paying attention. There are more than three dozen stations like this scattered around the city measuring pollution. And he says, they’re making a difference.
SMITH: “If you monitor, it will get better.”
FRAZIER: It wasn’t always like this. In 1999, Houston overtook Los Angeles as the city with the highest ozone levels in America.
HENDLER: “Yes, we were the ozone capital, for a while.”
FRAZIER: Elizabeth Hendler is a former state air quality planner and an environmental consultant. The city’s air quality became a story--and that was bad for business she says.
HENDLER: “For the local government and the civic community and state, that was just kind of a wake up call.”
FRAZIER: Under federal pressure to clean up Houston’s air, Texas launched several air studies in the city. Scientists from around the country came to study the air here. Harvey Jeffries was one of them. He’s a retired chemistry professor at the University of North Carolina.
JEFFRIES: “There were huge increases in ozone that lasted an hour, and vanished.”
FRAZIER: Where were these increases coming from? Scientists flew over the city with infrared cameras that could pick up stray gasses. They found big leaks. The worst were from chemical plants, that made ethylene and propylene--the building blocks of plastic.
JEFFRIES: “They were having thousand pound releases, 5,000 pound releases, 20,000 pound releases in one case 200 thousand pound releases…of the most reactive compounds you can imagine.
FRAZIER: Ethylene and propylene are the same chemicals that would be made at the proposed ethane cracker in Beaver County. If Shell builds it in southwestern Pennsylvania, the cracker would likely be one of the largest sources of those smog-inducing VOCs in the Pittsburgh region.
Ethylene and propylene posed a problem in Houston, because they’re highly reactive VOCs. That means they can make ozone very quickly.
JEFFRIES: “…When that stuff gets emitted in the daytime—it cooks up the highest amount of ozone you’ve ever seen.”
FRAZIER: Scientists also realized chemical plants were chronically under-reporting their releases. A lot of this pollution was leaks in valves, flanges or tiny holes in pipelines.
Armed with new data, the state took action. It curbed emissions from sources like cars and the construction industry, but it also zeroed in on petrochemicals. Texas implemented a special cap-and-trade system just for chemical plants.
So what happened? Elizabeth Hendler.
HENDLER: “Well, ozone went down--a lot,” Hendler said.
FRAZIER: Everyone agrees. This is good news for the air in Houston. But environmental groups say the air is still too dirty.
Adrian Shelley is director of the environmental group Air Alliance Houston.
SHELLEY: “better does not mean good.”
FRAZIER: Shelley point out that ozone still reaches unsafe levels 30 days a year. And since the EPA started regulating it in the 1980s, the city has NEVER met a single health-based standard for ozone. And on days when ozone is high.
SHELLEY: “Asthma patients will tell you for example that there is no question for them about when ozone levels are high because they feel it immediately when they go outside.“
FRAZIER: Shelley says air quality may actually get worse with many of the city’s chemical plants planning expansions. At least, that’s what he’s afraid of. These plants are adding capacity to take advantage of gas from the fracking boom. Fracking has made ethane-- a key component of natural gas----historically cheap.
So chemical companies are building like crazy in the Gulf coast to take advantage of this low cost raw material. Shell is thinking about building a plant in Pennsylvania to convert natural gas from the Marcellus shale into the building blocks of plastics. In Houston, Shelley’s group is fighting to have regulators impose stricter pollution controls on new facilities, so that Houston’s air doesn’t get worse.
FRAZIER: Adding difficulty to the issue is the fact that Houston has no zoning laws. That means some residents live across the street from huge refineries and chemical plants.
Like Apollonia Martinez. She lives in Manchester, a low-income neighborhood between a rubber plant and a refinery. Standing on her porch, she says one of her sons has been having a lot of asthma attacks.
MARTINEZ: “So every now and then I have to give him treatments because of his breathing problems at night.”
FRAZIER: Martinez would like to leave the neighborhood, but can’t afford rents in more expensive neighborhoods.
Business leaders admit that living next to a plant may not be ideal, but they point out that, except for ozone--the air in these neighborhoods generally meets federal health guidelines.
Craig Beskid is executive director of the East Harris County Manufacturers’ association a local industry group.
He says Houston’s chemical and refinery sector provides about 30,000 jobs to the local economy. And they are good paying jobs with salaries ranging from $40,000 to $200,000 a year.
BESKID: “A great benefit in anyone’s life is to have a good job. And when you live in a vibrant and growing economic area, good jobs are plentiful.”
FRAZIER: And the plants provide these jobs while also releasing fewer and fewer emissions every year. In fact, Houston might not even have the highest ozone in Texas anymore. That distinction might belong to Dallas Fort Worth. A big new source for emissions in that city? Fracking for natural gas.
In Houston, Texas, I’m Reid Frazier for the Allegheny Front.
Companies around the country up to invest $35 billion in the next few years in ethane crackers. A lot of that is investment tied to increase in
The number of days when the air in Houston exceeds the EPA’s current eight-hour average for ozone of 75 parts per billion went from around 100 a year in 2005 to under 35 days in 2012.
The city’s refineries are located disproportionately closer to low income and minority neighborhoods.
This caught the attention of the business community.
This not only helps the environment, but worker safety and a company’s bottom line.
In spite of the gains, the city’s air is still heavily influenced by its heavy industry.
The city has no zoning, so neighborhoods are located right next to many of these plants.
One of these neighborhoods is Manchester.
It’s a working class area. Low-slung homes here look like they’re be melting under the hot Texas sun. The neighborhood is bordered by a refinery and a chemical plant that makes synthetic rubber for tires.
Judith Nieto came to Manchester as a little girl from Mexico. The first thing that struck her new home was the smell.
“This was like new to me, I come from Mexico, being out in the woods, playing in the water, I come here and I smell this nasty smell.”
She actually thought the smell came from the flowers from the town where she was born in Mexico—not the plants that ring the neighborhood.
“I had no idea. I thought they were just making clouds.”
It wasn’t just clouds coming out of these plants—there were pollutants that are harmful to human health. A xxx study found that children in the neighborhood had xxx leukemia rates as children in distant suburbs.
Nieto teaches at an after-school program? at a nearby charter school and volunteers with a local environmental group called Tejas. She says she grew up with asthma and respiratory problems—and she puts a lot of the blame on the plants.
“and you know—something simple like a cold or flu—it lasts months.”
Yet those plants that make the clouds—also provide about 30,000 well-paying jobs in Houston—and each of those jobs supports about 5 to 10 others, the industry says.
RAISE AMBI OF SHIP CHANNEL BOAT
Manchester backs up against the Houston Ship Channel. It’s a 26-mile canal lined wall to wall with refineries and chemical plants. A recent survey by the Port Authority found that companies on the ship channel are pouring in $35 billion in investments over the next three years. And a lot of that is a direct result of shale gas discoveries. Exxon, Ineos, and other chemical manufacturers are adding new ethane crackers to make plastic here.
RAISE AMBI OF LOUDSPEAKER
You can’t take a recreational boat along the ship channel—but you can see it aboard the M/V Sam Houston. On the TOUR? boat, Howard Solis was taking in the sites with his girlfriend. Solis is a student at the University of Houston, studying musical education. His dad works as a pipefitter at an oil refinery.
“I grew up maybe 2 miles from the plants most of my life. I remember elementary school being closed for like clouds or something that we couldn’t go outside,” because of the chemical plants. that maybe released some sort of…
Those clouds were probably toxic releases from chemical plants he says. I ask if growing up in this environment worried him.
“Not really, there wasn’t really a worry—I knew it was pretty much under control—I knew it was a job opportunity for my dad—so, that was my reason.”
Fade ambi under.
Solis wants to be a choir director some day. His dad’s job at a refinery may help him realize that dream. Considering all that, he says the air here is good enough. For the Allegheny Front, I’m Reid Frazier.