The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) said that Valero Energy “significantly underestimated” the amount of cancer-causing benzene and other volatile organic compounds released from its Houston refinery during Hurricane Harvey. The agency’s statement comes after Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) last week found hazardous levels of benzene in the neighborhood beside the refinery.
EDF began taking measurements in Houston’s Manchester neighborhood on September 4 in the absence of sampling by EPA and the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ). As residents complained of strong odors, the state agency’s mobile air quality laboratory remained idle in Austin. Entanglement Technologies, a California-based company, conducted the measurements for EDF, and the findings matched those done by the city of Houston.
“The high levels of hazardous pollutants in the air add to an already difficult time for Houston,” said Elena Craft, Ph.D., senior health scientist at Environmental Defense Fund. “This is why it is vital for the health and safety of everyone that we have a strong EPA. We appreciate that EPA has acknowledged this problem, but the agency and TCEQ will have to be more vigilant in the future to protect people from severe pollution events.”
“A robust EPA and TCEQ would have been more on top of pollution problems as they happen. We urge the agencies to do more active surveillance of oil refineries and chemical plants in order to protect public health,” said Craft. “It would be a serious mistake – for Houston and the nation as a whole – if Congress were to cut EPA’s budget as the Trump administration has proposed. The shows, again, how much we need them to protect the health and safety of American families.”
In regulatory filings, Valero reported that heavy rainfall had caused the floating roof of a refinery tank to sink Aug. 27, releasing 6.7 pounds of benzene into the air. Benzene, a toxic, flammable chemical found in crude oil and gasoline, can cause central nervous system damage and bone marrow damage, and is carcinogenic.
By industry estimates, the shutdowns and startups of oil refineries and chemical plants and Harvey-related damage to industrial facilities in Texas caused the release of more than 6 million pounds of hazardous pollutants, including those that contribute to the formation of ground-level ozone, or smog.
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