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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of these assumptions, but these are the cards we are all currently dealt by our State and Federal Agencies’ clearly outdated protocols and systems.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”.

How many of us have had to work with someone that just didn’t do their job?

In the professional world, we face this all of the time; and considering the lackluster economy, there’s probably someone ELSE out there that is more than willing to do the work.

Especially, when you’re paying them!

Well, when we’re talking about governmental agencies, it can be more complex because you can’t just fire a governmental agency.

I was at a community meeting a few weeks ago, where the Air District came out to discuss the local air quality amid deep community concerns over the presence of manganese in recent air samples.  

The Air District dismissed the health concerns and telling the community that they have nothing to worry about since the manganese levels were below one health based standard, although above various other health based standards.

When a community member asked the air district staff if he would raise his children in the community based on the air quality.  The answer was a resounding NO.  

Needless to say after that, the meeting didn’t go so well.

After the (rightfully so) angry parents regained composure, one woman from the community stood to ask another question.

Image from SierraClub.org

“You’re the air district, you care about clean air, right?  So do we, but why do we have to fight you for our right to breathe clean air?”

Unfortunately, this can be the harsh reality when dealing with air pollution in Environmental Justice communities.  Many residents are upset at the company because of a lack of communication, no emergency evacuation plan, lies about expansion plans, accidents, etc.  Residents then turn to the regional air district for support. It seems like a natural ally in the fight for clean air.  But the reality is that the air district is, most likely, not going to be an ounce of help.

This is extremely disempowering, especially since the Air District’s mandate is ensure our air is clean.  That’s their job and that’s why we pay them! 

Imagine if we were talking about a landscaper, a contractor or even a babysitter!  If you came home one day to find your child bleeding, and the babysitter just said, “Oh, don’t worry about it,” would you invite the babysitter back?

Too bad we can’t do that with air districts and other governmental agencies.

We’ve seen this with other air districts and environmental agencies before.  It’s not uncommon for them to discredit community based air monitoring results, while refusing to do their own air monitoring.  If you want public information from the SJVAPCD about an facility’s emissions, good luck, and if you’re extremely persistent with the follow-up, you might even get a call from someone working at the agency, just to make sure you have the odor complaint line.

The agency folks assure you that they’re investigating your complaints and looking into your sample data, then months later- they claim that you never submitted your complaint or sent along your air monitoring data.  “The investigation is closed…”

All of that will leave you sitting there, rereading the form email from the air district, knowing that the sample results you sent them are long lost somewhere at the air district along with your public info requests, most likely next to the phone in which you’ve left all of those odor complaint messages.

The problem here is that air districts and other environmental agencies often do not act as though they have the communities’ best interest in mind.  The community meetings, public info requests and ‘on-going investigations’ act more like a smokescreen to make it look like they are doing their jobs.  

The reality is, is that if they really did their jobs…………….

They’d have a lot more work to do!  If the Air District acknowledged elevated levels of toxic substances in our air, they would have to do more comprehensive air monitoring.  They’d need to work with residents to identify local hot spots and sensitive locations like schools and daycares.  They’s need stricter regulations and stronger enforcement policies for polluters.  BUT, no one wants to open that can of worms!  

On  the surface, no one wants to create more work for themselves and no one wants to illuminate a problem that requires money (that we don’t have!) to fix.  Although there are also a series of deeper issues that can contribute to the agencies not doing an adequate job of protecting our safety.  

We’ve seen a number of professionals move from governmental jobs to industry jobs and vise versa.  We can’t help but wonder where their allegiances lie.  On top of that we’ve got a lot of corporate donations and heavy lobbying on government by the very industries that are polluting our communities.    

So, almost as if on cue, we’ll hear once again “The air’s fine.  Keep calm and carry on.”

Now where do we go from here?  How can we ensure that our air is safe for us and our children to breathe?  Will it require long term reform of our governmental agencies or ongoing grassroots pressure from the communities living on the fenceline of heavy industry?  

Either way, exposing this charade is a good place to start!

Image from Hartford.com

Ever played “Old Maid”?

Remember that card game where each player has to pick cards from each others’ hand trying not to get stuck with the ‘Old Maid’ card?

Fracking has become a little like that, similar to a ponzi scheme or a fool’s game, where everyone is trying to sell the leases and natural gas before the bubble breaks and still turn a profit.  This economic bubble is created by too much natural gas on the market, causing a price drop and therefore the underpinnings of initial investment will come undone.  The person or company left holding the natural gas investments when this bubble breaks will be the ‘Old Maid’ (aka: lose a lot of money in the investment).

Image from Energy.gov

With this ‘overabundance’ of natural gas below the surface, gas prices are dropping so quickly, some even call the fracking practice uneconomical.  According to the Philadelphia Inquirer,  “From an average of $8.85 per million British thermal units in 2008, natural-gas prices fell sharply to $4.39 in 2010, and $3.94 in 2011. In [January], prices dropped below $2.50, and they are expected to stay under $5 for another decade.”  It’s starting to seem as if the only way to turn a profit on it is by exporting it to Europe and China where gas prices are much higher.

But, exporting it leaves the “America’s Domestic Energy Source” messaging to fall flat on its face.

Image from Care2.com

To complicate the natural gas market even further, businesses like Chesapeake Energyare known for ‘flipping land’ to be fracked.  They do initial exploration, make projections and then sell the land at a higher cost. Chesapeake Energy is no newcomer to Airhugger.  We highlighted their toxic fracking fluid spill in Pennsylvania last April.  And now they’re back in the news, some even calling them the next Enron, or blaming them for creating a financial bubble worse than the housing crisis.   And, with the drop in gas prices, they’ve had to make some risky financial deals and move very quickly to sell these leases so as to not become the ‘Old Maid’.

So, not only does fracking risk our clean and healthy environment, it also puts at us great economic risk.  We’ve all heard the promise of hundreds of jobs, although the figure is highly debatedand the number may be far lower than predicted, but now it seems as if any jobs fracking creates will only last until this economic bubble breaks.  When the fracking bubble breaks, people will lose their jobs and investments.  This has the potential to add even more stress to our already strained economy.

Image from Cleveland.com

Now, the silver lining here is that this economic perspective shows the light at the end of the tunnel.  Once fracking becomes vastly uneconomical, there is a very strong chance we’ll see the end of the practice entirely.  But, the big question here is ‘when?’.  We’ve already heard so many concerns over contamination and environmental degradation and many are very worried about the potential health risks associated with fracking.  How many more wells will be drilled too close to homes, schools and community centers before the economics prove the practice obsolete?

Most people don’t understand how government works.

On a recent trip to Bakersfield, California, Global Community Monitor attended a day long tour of several Central Valley communities and an introductory meeting with community members, non-profit organizations, emergency responders and government agency representatives focused on environmental and public health issues.

Teresa DeAnda started the day with an introduction of her personal experience about how she saw and felt pesticides being sprayed near her home. After being passed along to five government agencies, she was still unable to file her original complaint. Sometimes dealing with government agencies feels like Dorothy getting directions from the Scarecrow.

Image from Verdoux

Whether it is pesticide spray, strange dust on your car and home or oil refinery flares going off for hours, it is all too common for communities to not have a clear line of communication with the responsible government agency.

The goal of the day long tour and meeting was to kick off a new project: the Kern Environmental Enforcement Network (KEEN) building on successful projects in the Coachella and Imperial Valleys.

The Imperial Visions Action Network (IVAN) brought together these same stakeholders: community members, non-profits, emergency responders and agency reps to bridge the gap on community issues. Community members and agencies can be like oil and water – they just don’t mix. The IVAN pilot made it possible for these unlikely partners to work together. The project provided a website for communities to document complaints (in person or online), producing a map of the problem and showing patterns for areas of high complaints.

The IVAN project included a task force that met monthly and had the insight to bring in a “problem solver” that worked to shepherd the community complaints to the appropriate agency and see the investigation through.

The collaboration resulted in 170 cases reported, 62 solved, 44 of which were reported violations that brought in over $90,000 in penalties. The act of actively seeing a complaint through and closing it after a thorough investigation is extremely rare and something Bucket Brigaders would like to see more of.

The IVAN online model was established using the Louisiana Bucket Brigade’s iWitness Pollution Map for gulf coast residents after the BP oil spill in 2010 as a model. The iWitness map is active today and has received 5,464 complaints from residents in two years.

GCM and the Bucket Brigade strongly believe that community members have a valuable and necessary role in env

Lupe with CRPE talks about pollution from Community Recycling, Clay Rodgers from the Water Board looks on.

ironmental planning, reporting and enforcement. Whether it is documenting air quality complaints or taking their own air samples, with community information and involvement with government agencies, communities can better understand how government works and improve their community at the same time.

GCM is hoping the task force and “problem solver” for Kern County will have the energy, good will and the follow through that it takes to address the many issues in the Central Valley. The KEEN project is just getting started, so stay tuned! We plan to be posting environmental complaints from Arvin, CA…….

A new report issued by Global Community Monitor, GASSED! Citizen Investigation of Toxic Air Pollution from Natural Gas Development, details the air sampling results, environmental and public health threats with living amid the natural gas boom.  During 2010-11, Global Community Monitor (GCM), responding to citizen odor and health complaints, launched a Bucket Brigade in northwest New Mexico, southwest Colorado and western Colorado to document and measure air pollution from natural gas facilities. Through the course of this pilot study, residents, armed with their own air monitors, documented a potent mix of chemicals in nine air samples from different locations, many of them located near homes, playgrounds, schools and community centers.

The lab detected a total of 22 toxic chemicals in the air samples, including four known carcinogens, as well as toxins known to damage the nervous system and respiratory irritants.  The chemicals detected ranged from 3 to 3,000 times higher than what is considered safe by state and federal agencies.

 

These air samples confirm the observations, experiences and first-hand complaints of residents.
Odors and health effects that have been reported for years were consistent with exposure to the
chemicals found in the samples. These results underscore the need of regulatory agencies to take such complaints seriously, given the close proximity between the industry and its residential
neighbors.

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When we send our kids to school, we realize that they may face some uncomfortable or even dangerous situations. What if the older kids pick on them? Is this school known for violence or gangs?  Is there a drug problem at the school? How do I know my child is safe?
However, the more we know about the risks at schools the safer our kids can be.  We can educate ourselves and talk with our kids about what to do in a dangerous situation. We can make changes in our community by getting involved.

US EPA selected Paulsboro High School for monitoring potential impacts of toxic air pollutants.

But, what about the dangers that can go unnoticed, the risks that you can’t see?

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For all of those who missed it, Global Community Monitor co-hosted a special event with Pacific Environment and The Sierra Club to honor the 2011 Goldman Prize Winners.  The event was a huge success and a lot of fun making it a great opportunity to chat with activists from around the world.

Hilton Kelley inspired all of us with his story of the fight against big oil companies in Port Arthur, TX while Dmitry Lisitsyn from Sakhalin Island, Russia, made saving critically endangered ecosystems from large-scale petroleum development sound easy with his grace and down to earth attitude.

If you weren’t there, well we missed you, but check out the pictures!  Hopefully it will keep you inspired until next year.

Port Arthur, Texas Poised to Showcase Environmental Justice History

It sounds like a script from a Hollywood feel good movie:  a poor young man from a housing project surrounded by giant oil refineries joins the Navy to get away, becomes a member of the Screen Actor Guild and appears in TV shows, moves back to his poor run down community determined to clean it up and restore it and becomes a national leader in the fight for communities everywhere to win Environmental Justice.  Luckily for the West side of Port Arthur, Texas, it’s not just a good story –  it’s real life.
In the 10 plus years since Hilton Kelley heard the calling to return to his low income and polluted hometown, a lot has been accomplished with his hard work and persistence.  He founded the Community In-Power & Development Association, a group that works to empower residents to speak out about the problems and be part of the solution of restoring Port Arthur. He has helped reduce pollution and become an advocate to change policies nationally.
Along the way, Kelley met some key people to help him clean up pollution. One of these folks was Denny Larson of the Global Community Monitor (GCM) who introduced him to the air sampling “Bucket.” With this innovative tool, Kelley produced independent air sample results proving how toxic and sickening the air was in town.  Armed with this scientific evidence, he began educating and organizing residents about the connections between the epidemic of cancers and serious health problems and bad air.  As a result of Kelley’s effective work, vision and leadership, he was named to the Board of Directors of GCM.
Just because someone repeats something endlessly doesn’t mean it’s true. And in some cases, it’s just the opposite like with fracking.

For example, we’ve heard the sloganeering: “Clean & Safe, Natural Gas is energy’s future”. But with more and more information coming to light, it seems as if natural gas extraction and production through hydraulic fracturing (or fracking) might not be so clean and safe.

Photo Credit: NGerda, Clean Air buttons

This false clean and safe aura has allowed most of the natural gas extraction and production to be exempt from widely accepted environmental regulations, including the Clean Air Act.  Since fracking creates pollution, this exemption poses serious health risks to those living near fracking operations.

We’ve done the pollution tests, heard the horror stories from neighbors and seen the health effects, and now it finally looks like our legislators are taking action to protect families from an industry that is not so clean and safe.

Special Guest Blog from Suzie Canales, Citizens For Environmental Justice, GCM Board Member

On Friday March 11th 2011, Dr. Al Armendariz, EPA Regional Administrator for region 6, spoke the words that everyone knows to be true, but no one in authority (that I am aware of) has said publicly, he said that the fence-line communities of Dona Park and Hillcrest are located too close to the refineries.
A common sense statement but oh so hard to come by.

On this day, Dr. Armendariz was visiting Corpus Christi to meet with members of Citizens forEnvironmental Justice (CFEJ). This was his second visit to meet with CFEJ in two years. The meetinglasted over 6 hours. After the meeting Rick Spruill, a reporter from the Corpus Christi Caller-Times, metwith Dr. Armendariz and myself for an interview. Rick asked Al if he considered Hillcrest and Dona Parkto be fence-line communities. “Of course,” Al responded. Then Rick asked Al if he thought that these communities were too close to our local heavy industry.
Many things flashed through my mind in those few seconds before he responded.

It was the moment of truth – it had to be.

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