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Houston's Petrochemical Industry, Source Of Jobs And Smog


Houston, Texas provides a dramatic example that it's possible to make great strides in reducing air pollution. Our story yesterday talked about how that came about, but Houston still does not quite meet the federal smog standard. So, the question for the nation's fourth largest city is what's next. NPR's Richard Harris explores that question as part of our series Poisoned Places.

RICHARD HARRIS, BYLINE: Houston embraces the massive petrochemical industry that lines the city's ship channel. It's an engine of the economy. The industry is also a major source of chemicals that can turn a clear day smoggy. Matthew Tejada at the nonprofit Air Alliance Houston demonstrates this on the computer in his office. He displays a website that shows what the air looked like on the Martin Luther King holiday.

MATTHEW TEJADA: As you scroll through the day, you can see over on the ship channel we start to see some ozone form. And it's coming right in one of the areas where we have three refineries.

HARRIS: And it looks like it covered a fair amount of the city.

TEJADA: It goes all the way up to Lake Houston. You're talking 12, 15 miles away. They would never expect that they would be getting ozone numbers this high from something that happened on the ship channel.

HARRIS: It could have come from a plant starting up or shutting down, or an accident. There's no telling because nobody reported this unusual mission. Tejada says this telltale fingerprint used to happen all the time. Now, he sees plumes of smog originating in the industrial area just a few times a year. That improvement has driven Houston's success story but it also raises the question what to do next to make the city meet the federal standard for healthy air.

TEJADA: Ready to go?


TEJADA: All right.

HARRIS: To tell this story, Tejada takes us on a drive through the sprawling city.


HARRIS: He says the industry is far from the only source of pollution. If you add up all the gas stations, print shops and dry cleaners, they actually put out more smog-producing volatile compounds - VOCs - into the air than refineries do.

TEJADA: The unique thing you have to remember, though, especially when you're talking about ozone, is that a print shop can't release 100,000 pounds of VOC in five minutes. One of these facilities on the ship channel can.

HARRIS: So, the little guys and the big guys will both get a hard look as regulators search for ways to ratchet back smog, which is essentially ozone. As he talks, I glance over and point out that the odometer in his Honda has just rolled over to 70,000 miles.

TEJADA: Oh, it did. This car's only three years old. Like ooh.

HARRIS: Seventy thousand miles in three years - so, I guess you're part of the problem.

TEJADA: Yeah, I am. I am.

HARRIS: Cars are cleaner than they used to be but they're still a major source of chemicals that cause ozone in the Houston air. And one problem with Houston, Tejada says, sprawl is the norm and public transit is not much of an option.

TEJADA: To get anywhere in this town, you have to get on the highway to get there.

HARRIS: Tejada hangs a left and we head down a road parallels the Houston ship channel, home to the massive refineries. This region produces about a quarter of the nation's gasoline. Another 200 companies here convert fossil fuels to plastics and other products that we use every day. So, in some ways, it's America's smog.

TEJADA: And we're now in Pasadena, Texas, sometimes also referred to as Stinkadena, Texas.

HARRIS: The smells today are faint but stimulate a what's-that-chemical game: styrene, model glue, nail polish remover? As we wind our way between refineries, we approach a blazing flame. It's a flare burning off gases that the plant apparently can't handle.

TEJADA: Oh yeah. Look at that thing. Wow. And on a windy day like today. It's not going to be burning up everything it's supposed to be burning up.

HARRIS: This could be a routine flare used to get rid of waste or the plant could be having a minor emergency and it needs to divert some of the gases to get its production back under control. As we pull closer, the flare starts to take on the character of a jet engine.

The good news is these flares have been tweaked in recent years to produce less pollution. But across town, scientists at the Houston Research Center - HARC - are also coming to realize that the flares could still be contributing a lot to Houston's bad air.


HARRIS: Thanks very much. Nice to meet you. Jay Olaguer is part of an multimillion-dollar research effort to understand Houston's unusual air pollution circumstances, and he's recently come to realize that when those flares burn, they produce large amounts of formaldehyde. That toxic chemical plays an unheralded role in creating smog.

OLAGUER: It actually is kind of like the match that lights the flame of ozone production. It sort of gets the chain reaction going.

HARRIS: Olaguer believes that Houston's air could be improved a lot if industry could find ways to waste gas other than burning it. But he says convincing both industry and the regulators to rely less on flares isn't so easy.

OLAGUER: It's been a difficult road convincing people that this is one of the ways to go.

HARRIS: One big problem is Olaguer can't tell people how much formaldehyde is actually in the air. Standard air monitors don't measure it. So, he's experimenting with a technology - already used in Scandinavia - that measures formaldehyde and a host of other chemicals in the air in real-time and over entire neighborhoods. He says this three-dimensional survey is like taking a CAT scan of the air.

OLAGUER: Not with X-rays but with ultraviolet invisible radiation.

HARRIS: Ultimately, Olaguer sees a day when these neighborhood-scale sweeps could replace the current method for measuring emissions. That would provide a much more realistic picture since pollution levels now are largely based on calculations that produce low-ball estimates. The industry officials I spoke to were noncommittal about whether they would support this new approach to monitoring the air. So is David Brymer, director of the air quality division for the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.

DAVID BRYMER: It can be a very powerful research tool. It's not something that we've taken on as far as a regulatory tool because of the limitations associated with it.

HARRIS: And even if a new technology could help push industrial emissions lower, nobody expects that would solve Houston's air problems. Back in his Honda, environmental advocate Matthew Tejada says in fact the city will need outside help to get to the ozone standard, which is 75 parts per billion and likely to be tightened even more.

TEJADA: There are some days where we're getting 50, 60 parts per billion of ozone that's blowing into the Houston region. We're going to have to go out and find out where that ozone's coming from and we're going to have to make them clean up.

HARRIS: What's more, the city's population is expected to double by 2030, which means there will be many more sources of pollution. And with the recent boom in natural gas in Texas, the petrochemical industry is likely to grow rapidly in the next decade.

TEJADA: Well, how are you going to do that? What's the bigger picture for the Houston region if in the next 10 years we build five new gas processing facilities? What's that going to do for our air quality picture?

HARRIS: In a city that is dependent on the petrochemical industry, those questions get asked only as an afterthought to the jobs and the profits that new industry will bring. Richard Harris, NPR News.


MONTAGNE: And that story was part of our series Poisoned Places, a collaboration with the Center for Public Integrity.


MONTAGNE: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Award-winning journalist Richard Harris has reported on a wide range of topics in science, medicine and the environment since he joined NPR in 1986. In early 2014, his focus shifted from an emphasis on climate change and the environment to biomedical research.