A report released Wednesday by Environment Texas revealed that Texas released 135 million pounds of illegal air pollution in 2018. Among the 270 oil and gas contributors, is Texas Petroleum Chemicals (TPC) of Port Neches. The 2018 numbers are double those emitted in 2017 and Texas residents are putting up a fight. Read More.
Two weeks after the TPC plant explosion, the Environmental Protection Agency has transferred the site cleanup oversight to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ). Response efforts have been focused on site equipment recovery. TPC will continue to monitor the air surrounding the facility; however, current reports conclude that there is no actionable levels of butadiene (a known carcinogen). Read More.
The eastern coast of Texas has proven to be a vulnerable spot for natural disasters, tropical storms, and facility pollution. In the wake of tropical storm Imelda, the Houston and Baytown areas have reported a release of tens of thousands of pounds of pollutants due to the power outages, shutdowns, and storage tank failures caused by the storm. After the facility failures following Hurricane Harvey, legislators and industries have called for more stringent regulations and technology on storage tank in order to prevent future failures from approaching storms. Read More.
On Wednesday, for the fourth time since April, there was an explosion and subsequent fire at a Houston area petrochemical plant. No one was seriously injured, but 37 people suffered from minor burns and injuries. Exxon Mobil’s plants in Baytown have a history of chemical violations in leaks, the last being in March. Currently, they are defendants in a lawsuit from Harris County citing environmental violations. <Read more>
by Summer-Solstice Thomas, CHEJ Science & Technology Intern
In the small town of O’Brien, Texas, residents drank water that violated drinking water quality standards for months before one resident found out and altered his community. Facing financial stress, the city had switched from a treated reservoir to a groundwater source with violatingly high levels of nitrates to provide drinking water for its residents.
Nitrate pollution usually comes from fertilizers, as in agricultural towns like O’Brien, and can cause methemoglobinemia, or “blue baby” disease in infants. Nitrate levels in O’Brien schools were found to be 40% above EPA standards. Upon hearing the news, many residents switched to drinking bottled water or purchased individual water filters, but not all were financially able to.
O’Brien is just one example of residents suffering from public water quality violations, but they are not alone. In fact, millions of Americans consume unsafe public drinking water everyday.
Is US Drinking Water Safe?
According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the US has “one of the safest public drinking water supplies in the world”. Recent reports, however, have challenged that statement. In March, EPA’s Administrator Andrew Wheeler assured that 92% of public water in the US meets EPA standards.
Given that 90% of Americans, or 300 million people, rely on drinking water from a public source, the 8% that doesn’t currently meet EPA standards indicates that over 26 million Americans consume unsafe water daily. Additionally, while the EPA sets legal limits for over 90 drinking water contaminants, ensuring that these limits are not breached is dependent on proper funding and oversight. Based on the 22% decrease between 2009 and 2014 in funding for public water distribution by state and local governments nationwide, it is possible that more than 8% of the nation’s water is unsafe.
While the CDC has determined that there is no safe blood level of lead for children, the EPA lead rule determines action must be taken if 10% or more of taps sampled have a lead level of 15 ppb or greater. Recently, this rule has come under scrutiny as many companies find ways around the regulation, by selectively testing certain taps, “pre-flushing” or sampling slowly to reduce samples’ lead concentrations.
Additionally, in 2016, CNN found 5,300 US water systems, serving more than 18 million people, to be in violation of this rule. When the lead rule was first implemented by EPA in 1991, 10 million lead lines served public water nationwide. While this number has decreased to 6.1 million lead lines, there are still 15-22 million Americans served by lead lines, predominantly in the Midwest.
Of the 10,000 public systems violating EPA drinking water standards in 2015, 72% of them were bacteria violations. Bacterial drinking water illness outbreaks have been rising since 2000, with 42 outbreaks between 2013-2014, causing over 1,000 cases of illness. Such violations often occur from contamination of water supplies by animal manure from agricultural operations or sewage, causing 16 million cases of acute gastrointestinal illness annually.
Violations of water quality are not experienced equally across the nation, and instead they disparately impact communities of color and low socioeconomic status. Research has determined that the prevalence of nitrates and pesticides in drinking water supplies in the San Joaquin Valley, California’s agricultural powerhouse, is significantly higher in Latinx and low-income communities. After the well-publicized water crisis in Flint, Michigan, children residing in socioeconomically disadvantaged neighborhoods were found to have greater elevation of blood lead levels when compared to their peers.
Congratulations to the San Jacinto River Coalition of Houston, Texas and residents who live near the San Jacinto Waste Pits Superfund Site for convincing the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)that the only acceptable solution to address the dioxin contaminated paper mill sludge waste in the pits was to dig it up and take it out! At the end of September, the EPA agreed after more than 6 years of controversy and analysis, to remove about 202,000 cubic yards of toxic waste from the site at a cost of approximately $97 million. The decision is not yet final as the agency is holding a 60 day comment period.
This site is located on 20 acres of abandoned land along the San Jacinto River that runs just east of the city of Houston. Sludge waste from pulp and paper mill production at nearby International Paper and before them Champion Paper was dumped at this site during the 1960s and has been leaching from the waste pits into the river ever since. A large portion of this property is continually underwater from the San Jacinto River causing dioxin contaminated sediment to come into direct to contact with the river water. Dioxin levels as high as 46,000 parts per trillion (ppt) have been found in the waste pit area. An action level of 1,000 ppt of dioxin in soil was used by the EPA to evacuate the entire town of Times Beach, MO in 1983. Dioxin is one of the most potent carcinogens ever tested and has been associated with a wide range of adverse health problems including reproductive, developmental, immunological, and endocrine effects in both animals and humans.
The San Jacinto River Coalition formed in 2010 to address the contamination coming from the Waste Pits and to push EPA for complete removal of the contamination. EPA was inclined to leave the waste in place which made absolutely no sense to anyone who lived in the area as local residents watched the river routinely submerse the waste completely. A major concern has been dioxin leaching into the river because so many people fish the river and continue to do so even though the state has issued a fish advisory warning people not to eat the fish. For many local residents, fishing in the river is a main source of food.
Jackie Young, director of the San Jacinto River Coalition was elated at the agency’s decision and was quoted in the Houston Press saying: “Leaving the waste in the river is unacceptable…This decision shows that the EPA is taking a firm stand based on the science and engineering and what the community has called for.” Sometimes the little guy does win. For more information, http://www.sanjacintorverwastepits.com/ and https://www.epa.gov/tx/sjrwp