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Dateline Houston, Texas:  Houston we have a problem: Six little inches of air will determine whether millions of dollars will be spent to clean up the air of millions of people in the Oil and Chemical Capital of the World.

Houston has one of the largest urban networks of air monitors and some of the worst air pollution in the nation.  This is all thanks to their Master Un-Plan.  Thanks to the complete lack of any zoning regulations; freeways, refineries and chemical plants sit right on top of neighborhoods, schools, day cares, hospitals and the like.  Ozone alert days telling everyone to stay inside are a frequent occurrence.

Despite all the monitors in this vast area, the federal determination about Houston’s air quality index for the smallest and most hazardous particle may come down to how about 6 inches of the hundreds of square miles of air is measured.

Two key State run monitors for the pesky PM 2.5 micron size particle are in the bustling Ship Channel area of Galena Park, home to hundreds of major industrial air polluters and the ginormous Port of Houston, filled with trucks, tugs, tankers and diesel powered engines.  All of these are large contributors to PM 2.5 pollution.  The Federal health based standard for PM 2.5 is 12 micrograms per cubic meter over a 24 hour period.

If the two State monitors in the Ship Channel average over 12 this year, the area will be in violation of the Federal Standard to protect human health and be faced with spending hundreds of millions of dollars to clean it up.  Much of that cost would be passed on to the polluters to clean up their emissions.

The State uses standard air monitoring technology, which captures air through a 3-inch intake, so together the two monitors are breathing in 6 inches of air total in this vast region.

And those monitors are supposed to be very thoughtfully located to accurately represent that huge zone.  One has to pause here and question the wisdom and accuracy of these assumptions, but these are the cards we are all currently dealt by our State and Federal Agencies’ clearly outdated protocols and systems.

Right now the more important of the two monitors is located on the very edge of a little community known as Galena Park.  Most of the residents of Galena Park are nowhere near the monitor.  The current average level of PM 2.5 pollution at the Galena Park site is sitting at 11.6, just shy of a violation.

And that’s right where many local politicians, the Port, industry and the State of Texas want to keep it, below 12.

Maybe that’s why several million dollars was spent by these folks to pave dirt roads in the Port adjacent to the monitor site.  And why trees were planted as a buffer to filter particles before they get sucked into that precious 3 inches of Houston’s air.

However, community members in Galena Park together with the non-profit Air Alliance Houston got trained by the Global Community Monitor to do their own independent tests to get to the bottom of what most of the residents of the area are breathing.

Results from 6 months of tests show that the levels of PM 2.5 (taken at 5 sites including schools, City Hall and neighborhoods) are averaging an unhealthy 15.6, well above the Federal standard.

According to recent peer reviewed studies, the levels of fine particles in the air that is often available for breathing in Galena Park could cause hospitalization, heart attack, stroke or premature death.

Of course these areas did not get the benefits of extra paving on Port roads near them and not a single sapling either.

It’s curious that three little inches of air got so much attention and investment so a machine could breathe healthy air, while the 10,000 residents of Galena Park get unhealthy air and zero investment.

But then again you have to consult the Master Un-Plan: unlimited and unplanned growth is encouraged in Texas.

Like Governor Rick says, “We’re open for business in Texas.”  It’s becoming clearer exactly what that means to people trying to breathe in booming places like Houston.

At this rate it’s anybody’s guess how much longer Texas will be “Open for Breathing”.

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If you’ve been following along, you’ll remember we officially launched the Arvin Bucket Brigade in December of 2011.  Looking back on this project in California’s Central Valley, I honestly don’t think I had a clue as to what I was signing up for.

In October 2011, two young workers lost their lives after being overcome with hydrogen sulfide at the Community Recycling facility in Lamont, CA. This was the last straw for the community, already overburdened by air pollution, and the residents took matters (and air monitoring equipment) into their own hands.  The Committee for a Better Arvin (CBA) partnered with the Rose Foundation, the Center for Race, Poverty and the Environment (CRPE) and Global Community Monitor (GCM) to get to work documenting air pollution incidents at the Community Recycling (CRRR) facility and advancing policy change in Kern County. 

In less than two years, we have trained 44 residents in three different kinds of air monitoring, collected over 369 pollution logs, 16 VOC (Volatile Organic Compound) and Sulfur samples, 17 diesel samples and 13 Particulate Matter (PM 2.5) samples.

The results continue to confirm community knowledge that the pollution in the area poses a threat to public health.

  • Bucket samples detected up to 24 different chemicals, including hydrogen sulfide.

  • Four of those are above at least one health based standard.

  • The average levels of the PM samples taken at the first sampling location exceeded the WHO’s (World Health Organization) 24 hour standard.

  • Two of the PM 2.5 samples exceeded the EPA & WHO’s 24 hour standard.

  • Five of diesel samples contain levels that pose an excess risk of cardiovascular & respiratory hospitalizations on the day of exposure.

With this data, 16 community members have spoken at six public meetings and issued three press releases  which led to 10 news stories.

Needless to say, we’ve started something here! 

We have captured the attention of the polluter, the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District (SJVAPCD), the Kern County Board of Supervisors, the California Air Resources Board and EPA Region 9.  We have challenged the SJVAPCD to do side by side testing and have worked with County Supervisors to get CRRR’s operating permit revoked.

Yet, the SJVAPCD still has yet to step up to the plate.  They have discredited our results, dismissed community concerns and kicked us off of meeting agendas.  They refuse to come out to the community during resident identified pollution incidents and have refused to meet with concerned residents.  Is there no corporate regulation here?  Is anyone looking out for the best interests of the community and its residents?  Or are the company and the SJVAPCD just looking at the profits?

Saturday, October 12, 2013 marked the two year anniversary of the two young workers’ deaths from hydrogen sulfide exposure and we are still detecting dangerous levels of hydrogen sulfide along the fenceline of CRRR.  CRRR has continued to appeal nearly every punitive measure levied against them for their numerous violations and the community is still waiting for a judge’s decision, which could close down the CRRR facility.

So, while we’re waiting, the residents continue to document pollution incidents, collect data use the truth in the fight for clean air and a health community.

In Chemical Valley (aka Sarnia, Ontario) just north of Detroit in Canada, things can get a bit confusing with 66 oil and chemical plants blowing their sirens and issuing alerts almost every day.  But last week things got out of hand, even for Sarnia.

The Suncor refinery- a Shell Company- had six sirens sounding releases, fires, spills and other happenings – called Code 8 incidents – since September 21st.  I’m not sure if these codes are on a scale of 1 to 10 and an 8 is pretty darn high or if it’s some sort of overly polite Canadian way of saying “get ready to run for your life and stay upwind”.  Either way, this can’t be any fun for the neighbors.

In fact, activist and First Nation leader, Ada Lockridge, has been all over Facebook sharing her perspective.  “If the sirens go off inside the plant and we can hear them, then we need to have some of their protective gear,” said one of her recent posts.

Ada and Ron Plain, another Aamjinnaang leader, already have a lawsuit against Suncor and the Canadian government for violating their Constitutional Rights by continually increasing emissions without due process.

So the most recent of six code 8 reports came October 1 and was called in as a hydrogen fire in the hydrocracker, so again sirens in the plant went off sending folks ducking for cover.  But not to worry, the following day, Suncor was ready to wipe the slate clean and make the following claim:

“After intensive investigation and monitoring” Suncor officials have absolutely, positively confirmed that there was not a fire after all and there are no further hydrogen leaks in the hydrocracker.  False alarm.

But wait, how could that be?  Flames that weren’t there – smoke that didn’t burn?

Jennifer Johnson Suncor spokesperson told media that the false alarm is believed to have resulted from “reflected light that was observed in the unit early this morning”.

Oh sure that makes sense, of course, reflected light was reported as a hydrogen fire.  Sure I can’t tell you how many times when I’m driving into the sun, those sunbeam gleams make the car in front of me look like it’s on fire.  I don’t how many times I’ve called 911 and then looked like a darn fool when I had to confess I was tricked by that old reflected light deal and had not really seen a fire.  Happens all the time.

And just to prove their hearts are in the right place, the refinery issued this heartfelt statement of remorse and compassion: “Suncor understands the worry and inconvenience recent alarms have created for the community and safety remains a core value at the refinery.  Suncor works very hard to protect the safety of its employees, the community and the environment.”

I guess September was just not Suncor’s month with the real fire (well I mean they haven’t retracted this one as of yet) that happened later the same day of the reflected light honest to gosh looked like a fire but wasn’t incident, or the September 21st mixed propane/butane vapor leak, or even the September 24th leak of biodegradable cleaning solvent into the St Clair River.

September is over and things are bound to turn around for poor old Suncor.  Oh and this just in: a month long maintenance also got underway yesterday at the refinery, perhaps a month too late.