Thursday, January 18, 2007

What’s it like to live near a refinery?

The Baker Panel's report on the safety culture at BP's North American refineries prompted Lisa Margonelli to discuss in the NY Times Pipeline blog (Times Select required) what its like for Texans to live in the midst of the refineries that supply the nation's gasoline
Winifred J. Hamilton, the director of environmental health at Baylor College of Medicine, in Houston, described it to me like this: “When I go to Texas City, people tell me about the incredible sound of the flares and the smell that they say gives them headaches. They say that being told to ’shelter in place’ when there’s an emergency, particularly when they don’t know what’s going on, makes them anxious. And if the children are in school and the family members are home, putting wet towels under the doors, they’re separated from their children, and the stress and fear is immense. Even day-to-day life involves unusual worries — Is it safe to eat the vegetables in my garden?”

Hamilton said that despite the pollution produced by the refineries, many people in the area are ambivalent about leaving. “People have block parties and old trees,” she said. “They don’t want to move.” When I asked her about the Texas City accident, she said, “Well, headlines are about people who die, but the survivors often lose their fingers, toes, noses or ears, and they spend years in pain and at risk of infection. Some of them have to wear a ski mask. They’re lost in the statistics, basically, but their lives are deeply changed.”

While Californians vehemently oppose offshore drilling, and American environmentalists protest drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, residents of Texas can’t afford a not-in-my-backyard attitude. Texans sometimes excuse the odor of chemicals in their neighborhoods with the remark that it “smells like money.” To some extent they’re struggling to balance their livelihoods against unknown health risks. For the rest of us who drive, or for that matter, use lipstick, floor wax, plastic, antihistamines or any of the other products derived from petroleum at Gulf Coast plants, Texas is so far away we don’t associate it with our backyards at all.
And Texas, being Texas, makes things just a bit worse than other parts of the country:
local emissions standards are extraordinarily loose, partly because of the petrochemical industry’s influence in local politics. A 2004 investigation by the Houston Chronicle found levels of toxic chemicals in some neighborhoods high enough to trigger a federal investigation — if they were found at a hazardous waste dump. The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality is now rewriting its allowable limits of toxic emissions, but has stated that the acceptable cancer risk is likely to end up at around 10 times the guidelines set by the Environmental Protection Agency.

The level of carcinogens released in the processing of a barrel of oil is higher in Texas than anywhere else in the country, said Eric Schaeffer, a former regulator for the E.P.A. who’s now with the Environmental Integrity Project. “A release of chemicals in L.A. gets a strong reaction from California regulators,” he told me. “The same release in Corpus Cristi doesn’t — there just isn’t the same tradition of enforcement.”