Today, a group of environmental justice advocates from Houston, Illinois, and New Jersey arrive in Washington, DC, with a mission to advocate for the health and well-being of communities across the country. As we meet face to face with elected officials and deliver petitions from over 7,000 people who want pollution loopholes eliminated, we carry the weight of environmental racism and systemic industrial pollution as well as the hope that this time, something might be different.
For far too long, Houstonians have lived in the shadows of big industries that enjoy numerous loopholes allowing them to release limitless pollution during “startup, shutdown, and malfunction” events with zero consequences. As a result, our people have been forced to breathe in tons of toxic chemicals and choke on dirty air. Our communities have rallied, filed lawsuits, and invited members of Congress into our homes and neighborhoods to witness the impact of air pollution firsthand. Yet, the problem persists.
The state of Texas penalizes less than three percent of all illegal air pollution releases, justifying its inaction by pointing the finger at these loopholes, which have been declared illegal by the courts. Because of these loopholes, industrial facilities and power plants coming online, shutting down, or experiencing a malfunction can sometimes release more harmful air pollution during a single pollution spike than it is legally allowed to release in an entire year–without consequences.
Houstonians may recall the giant flames and thick plumes of smoke that billowed from Valero’s Houston Refinery in February of last year. In that event alone, Valero released hundreds of pounds of harmful pollutants including butenes, nitrogen oxides, particulate matter, propylene, and sulfur dioxide into our air. But thanks to polluter loopholes, the company–worth billions of dollars–was allowed to carry on as if nothing had happened.
Far from an isolated incident, studies in Texas have shown that these startup, shutdown, and malfunction events are “frequent, large in magnitude, last from a few hours to several days (or even weeks) and can exceed a facility’s routine annual emissions." This type of pollution accounts for 42 elderly deaths per year and costs up to $241 million in damages annually.
This is a serious environmental justice problem that disproportionately impacts communities along the Gulf Coast, where high concentrations of polluters exist in corridors like Cancer Alley in Louisiana and the Houston Ship Channel. Many of these communities face air pollution and health risks from pollution spikes like the Valero incident that even the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recognizes as unacceptable.
We’ve been in this fight for decades, speaking truth to powerful interests for the sake of our communities. But this time, something feels new, and we’re arriving in Washington with hope.
Just over one year ago, EPA Administrator Michael Regan visited Houston’s Kashmere Gardens, Fifth Ward Communities and the Houston Ship Channel as part of his “Journey to Justice'' tour. Along his tour, Regan promised to boldly address the systemic issues that perpetuate environmental racism.
Under his leadership, we’ve achieved real progress addressing air pollution released during startup, shutdown, and malfunction events in many states across the country. Now, EPA must finish the job and take swift action to remove all unlawful loopholes from our clean air rules. As long as these loopholes exist, our fenceline and downwind communities will continue to be exposed to enormous amounts of soot, smog, and toxic chemicals from industry and power plants.
It is time for real change, and we are hopeful that Administrator Regan and members of Congress will join us to make it happen. Our communities cannot continue to suffer, and clean air cannot wait.
This blog was written by Sierra Club Healthy Communities Campaign Representative Bryan Parras and Co-Directors of the Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services (t.e.j.a.s.) Juan Parras and Ana Parras.