Mayor Bill White Hails Federal EPA’s Favorable Action on More Accurate Pollution Data

Submitted by Style News Wire on Friday, 17 April 2009No Comment

The federal Environmental Protection Agency has responded favorably to Mayor Bill White’s request for an overhaul of the system used to calculate the emission of carcinogenic pollutants from petrochemical and refining plants.  “We share your concerns about the accuracy of emissions estimates …[and] as a direct result of the concerns outlined in your request, we are planning to undertake a number of additional initiatives,” wrote Elizabeth Craig, Acting Assistant Administrator of the EPA, on April 7.  The initiatives include the development of a new, comprehensive protocol for accurately calculating emissions from all sources at these plants.
“This is exactly the result we hoped for,” said Mayor White.  “Everyone, including industry, knows that the current protocols are incomplete and inaccurate. The scientific and technological capability exists to generate accurate inventories. We’re glad the EPA has taken our concerns seriously and we look forward to working with the new EPA Administrator to develop valid protocols.”
EPA’s response includes a commitment   to develop a comprehensive protocol for emission inventories that will address all sources and all phases of operation, including startup, shutdown and malfunction events. This is significant because the emissions from a single emission event that is currently excluded from the inventory can exceed the total emissions reported for the whole year. As the Craig’s letter states, “the issue is larger than just the quality and coverage of specific emission factors and speaks to the need for a comprehensive protocol for developing emission inventories.”

EPA will also develop a protocol to govern the use of advanced remote-sensing technologies, such as the DIAL technology the City of Houston will deploy this spring, to ensure that data obtained via this state-of-the-art tool are validated.  This will enable facilities and regulators to use these technologies and the resulting data for health and environmental decision-making. In furtherance of this objective, EPA will publish its own analysis of data obtained through DIAL at the BP Texas City refinery during 2009.
In July, 2008, Mayor White filed a formal Request for Correction under the EPA’s Information Quality Guidelines that challenged the validity of the pollution emissions data reported by industrial facilities to EPA.  According to the challenge, the formulas used by the facilities to report emissions drastically undercount the actual emissions when compared to counts obtained by direct measurement.  And because there are no formulas or factors to account for many sources of emissions from the facilities, many pollutants are simply not counted.   EPA and other regulators, including the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ), rely on the emission inventories challenged by White to evaluate the health risk posed by petrochemical and refining plants.  If those inventories are inaccurate due to erroneous reporting criteria, as White alleged and EPA agreed, then the risk posed by a plant may be understated and the public may not be sufficiently protected.

In the Houston area, the potential harm of inaccurate emission inventories is magnified because of the large number of major pollution sources located in and near neighborhoods where people live and work.  The area is home to some of the country’s largest emitters of toxic chemicals, including the carcinogens benzene and 1,3 butadiene.  Monitors in several neighborhoods show high levels of these chemicals.  To reduce these levels, regulators must have accurate information about the sources of the chemicals so that they can design effective solutions.  Understated reports from industrial sources may hamper regulators’ ability to craft the best solutions.

The Data Quality Act petition was a component of the City’s multi-pronged effort to reduce the level of toxic pollutants in Houston’s air. For several years, the City has advocated for cuts in the levels of benzene emissions; it developed a Voluntary Benzene Reduction Plan for the largest benzene emitters in the region; and it is currently challenging the renewal of a large refinery’s permit because of its high benzene emissions.  The City entered into an emissions reduction agreement with one of the largest emitters of 1,3 butadiene which includes the only permanent fence line monitoring system in Harris County. And the City has been a persistent advocate for reductions in ozone precursors.  Monitoring data through 2008 shows that Mayor White’s approach is working.  Levels of benzene and 1,3 butadiene have decreased, and the number of days in which our region has faced severe ozone levels have dropped dramatically.