By Adrian Shelley
A startling new report by Public Health Watch shows that people living in the Channelview community, east of Houston, have been exposed to dangerous levels of benzene for decades1.
Benzene is a cancer-causing chemical released by petrochemical facilities throughout the Houston region. Though the Channelview news is disturbing, it isn’t surprising to anyone who has followed the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ).
Let’s look at some circumstances that led to TCEQ ignoring Channelview’s needs.
TCEQ’s mission places corporate profits over people
The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality mission states that the agency “strives to protect our state’s public health and natural resources consistent with sustainable economic development.”
The TCEQ is the country’s only environmental agency with an economic development mission, and it allows regulators to choose corporate profits over public health. This explains why the TCEQ allowed a company in Channelview, K-Solv, to emit even more benzene despite an existing benzene hazard.
The TCEQ’s mission should be protecting public health and the environment. Period.
TCEQ systematically weakens toxic pollution standards
The Public Health Watch report shows that TCEQ has the weakest pollution guidelines for benzene of any state, despite companies in Texas releasing more carcinogens into the air than in any other state. Texas weakened its benzene guideline in 2007, increasing the acceptable amount of the pollutant from 1 part per billion (ppb) in the air to 1.4 ppb. Texas’ guidelines for benzene are now three and a half times weaker than any other state.
This is part of a larger trend at TCEQ. A 2014 investigation by the Center for Public Integrity found that over seven years, the TCEQ weakened two-thirds of the 45 air toxics guidelines it reviewed2. Most states and the federal government tend to increase toxics standards as more research shows the dangers of air pollution.
Much of the weakening at TCEQ occurred under the watch of a controversial figure, longtime TCEQ Chief Toxicologist Michael Honeycutt. Honeycutt retired last year, but the trend at TCEQ continues.
The TCEQ allows excessive health risks from pollution
Texas’ weak pollution standards are rooted in a lack of concern for public health. The federal government and most states consider an acceptable health risk from lifetime exposure to a pollutant to be one in a million (also written as 1 in 1,000,000 or 10-6), meaning that in a community of one million people exposed to a single pollutant for 70 years, only one person in that community would get cancer due to that pollution. (This does not include cases of cancer caused by other environmental or lifestyle factors.)
In Texas, this risk level is one in one hundred thousand – or ten times the risk the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency considers acceptable. Texas’ elevated risk level is not a relic of the past. In October, TCEQ leadership voted to approve a one-in-one-hundred-thousand risk level.
TCEQ is willing to accept ten times the cancer risk if it means companies can do business a little easier in the state. We fundamentally disagree with this approach.
TCEQ ignores cumulative impacts and environmental justice
Another troubling TCEQ stance is refusing to account for cumulative impacts and environmental justice.
“Cumulative impacts” means acknowledging that people are actually exposed to multiple pollutants at once from many different facilities. Remember the one-in-one-hundred-thousand risk level explained above? That one considers a lifetime of exposure to benzene. But people aren’t exposed to just one pollutant throughout their lives. For example, in Channelview and other Houston-area communities, people will also breathe in ozone pollution, particulate matter, and other hazardous pollutants like toluene and ethylbenzene.
Addressing cumulative impacts would mean not allowing more pollution in a community that already experiences significant pollution. TCEQ doesn’t do this. The agency famously “doesn’t do siting,” meaning it won’t consider the impact of nearby sources of pollution when issuing a new pollution permit. The agency also looks at each pollutant individually when reviewing a permit for adequate health protections.
“Environmental justice” refers to the fact that low-income communities of color are most likely to experience industrial pollution, a problem rooted in racism, segregation, and community redlining. In the past, black and brown communities were placed in undesirable areas, where industrial facilities were also placed. The problem continues today, with four of five polluting facilities located in black or brown communities.
Dealing with environmental justice would see the TCEQ refusing to place new polluting facilities in low-income communities of color. It happens daily in Texas, and TCEQ won’t even use the term “environmental justice.”
State leadership is happy with the TCEQ
Despite the fundamental failure of the TCEQ to protect public health and the environment, state lawmakers see no need for reform. Indeed, they declined to do so this year during the Sunset review of the agency.
Sunset review is like an audit of a state agency that occurs every twelve years. The TCEQ was reviewed in 2022 and 2023. Public Citizen joined public health and environmental advocates from across Texas to call for an overhaul of the agency.
State lawmakers would not act. State leadership approached TCEQ Sunset with the premise that the agency was doing just fine. If you are a corporate polluter, it’s true, but not if you are a resident of Channelview or another community facing too much pollution.
In the end, the Legislature passed only modest reforms.
Bottom line: our leaders let it happen
What is happening in Channelview right now is not OK. The TCEQ knew that people in Channelview were at risk, but the agency refused to protect them.
The same thing happening in other communities across Texas. TCEQ doesn’t act because Texas’ leadership puts corporations over people. Unless we fundamentally change this approach, we will continue to see frightening reports from communities like Channelview.
Adrian Shelley is the Texas director of Public Citizen