Engineering News

Houston Mayor Takes On Refinery
September 30, 2008

Mayor Bill White raised the stakes in the fight over Houston's air Monday, formally challenging the city's largest refinery to publicly defend its emissions of the carcinogen benzene before receiving another permit from the state.

In an unusual request by the city, White asked the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, which is responsible for the state's air quality, to grant a hearing before a judge on the latest permit application for Lyondell Chemical Co.'s refinery along the Houston Ship Channel.

The refinery is in the city's cross hairs because it's one of the nation's largest emitters of benzene, according to the most recent industry-provided estimates. What's more, it yields more emissions of the toxic chemical per barrel of product than other refineries across the nation and thus poses an unreasonable risk to Houstonians, city officials said.

"If the company believes that it's just fine to put tons and tons of benzene in the air," White said in an interview, "then we would like to hear what scientific evidence they have that benzene is good for you."

The confrontation comes after two years of lobbying and threats by White over air quality. Most recently, the mayor promised to use a city nuisance ordinance to punish plants -- many of them outside the city's borders -- that did not reduce emissions of benzene within six months.

After the deadline passed with some emissions reductions, White opted instead to go after polluters through the permitting process.

The hearing, if granted, would allow the city and the refinery's operators to submit evidence and question officials and experts before a state-appointed judge. Afterward the judge would propose a decision to the TCEQ, which has the final word over permits.

White said he is hopeful that the hearing would lead state regulators to establish an acceptable limit for benzene. Texas doesn't have one, but other states have set such standards.

Texas' guidelines for emissions of an air toxin are based on the risk of it causing one additional case of cancer per 100,000 people. The ratio of one more case per 1 million people is widely considered more protective.

White also wants the TCEQ to require monitoring of emissions at a plant's fence line with public disclosure as a condition of every permit. In the 96-page letter to the state agency, the city raised doubts about the accuracy of industry's emissions estimates, saying that direct measurements showed significant discrepancies.

Without monitoring, White said, "there is no accountability."

A TCEQ spokesman said the agency frequently grants administrative hearings, but that it would be premature to say whether Lyondell's permit application would go before a judge.

The application in question is a request for renewal of the Lyondell refinery's so-called "flexible" permit, which allows a company to determine its own pollution control devices as long as it keeps emissions below set limits. The state initially granted the permit in 1999.

A renewal would extend the permit for another decade.

David Harpole, a Lyondell spokesman, said the permitting process is the appropriate avenue for the city to raise its concerns. Still, he defended the refinery's application, saying that it would result in a 23 percent reduction in overall emissions and 41 percent reduction in benzene emissions.

"The permit will hold us to a higher standard of performance," Harpole said.

City officials, however, said the application doesn't explain how the company arrived at projected reductions, raising doubts about the numbers. Also, more information about the refinery's impacts on public health have become known since the state granted the initial permit in 1999, accord- ing to the city, which has set aside up to $500,000 for expert witnesses for the legal challenge.

"If there ever was a benzene permit that qualified for a contested case hearing in the public interest, this would be it," said Elena Marks, White's director of environmental and health policy.

Source: Houston Chronicle

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