There were two public meetings this year at the Hartman Park Community Center in Manchester, a neighborhood in East Houston, to not only address Valero illegally releasing hydrogen cyanide, but to also address Valero’s 2501A permit that would have released ten times the amount they were already releasing.

Now that comment period is closed, members of the community are waiting for the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality’s (TCEQ) executive director, Toby Baker, to prepare a “Respond to Public Comment” then have TCEQ commissioners approve a hearing and allow the State Office of Administrative Hearing (SOAH) to schedule it.

Here is the link to regularly check pending TCEQ meetings in Houston.

Lone Star Legal Aid filed a hearing request on behalf of four individuals and an organization called Caring for Pasadena Communities to further challenge the permit. TCEQ commissioners need to approve the hearing and SOAH would need to schedule it upon approval.

Earthjustice lawyers still need the federal operating permit

Earthjustice lawyers requested the Title V, federal operating permit, from Valero in February of 2018 and again in September 2018. Despite Valero not having permission to release hydrogen cyanide, they could easily incorporate 2501A permit verbiage in the permit since it’s due for renewal.

Despite requesting this Title V permit in February and in September, it is now December and Earthjustice lawyers have not received the permit. TCEQ gave the permit to Texas Attorney General, Ken Paxton, to redact confidential information and/or trade secrets. The lawyers did receive some documents pertaining to the Title V permit in which they found many references to the 2501A permit.

Since the documents Earthjustice lawyers did receive pertaining to the Title V permit had numerous references to the 2501A permit, the lawyers want to know if Title V federal operating permit has the verbiage or not.

Valero is violating right-to-know acts

Last year stack tests from Valero’s Fluid Catalytic Cracking Unit (FCCU), which is releasing the hydrogen cyanide, revealed Valero released 49 tons in one year, 11.2 pounds per hour, of hydrogen cyanide without proper permits and without reporting it to the “Emergency Planning & Community Right-to-Know Act” (EPCRA) nor to the “Compensation & Liability Act” (CERCLA).

EPCRA and CERCLA are our federal right-to-know laws. This data is publicly available through EPA’s Toxic Release Inventory.

Despite these findings in 2017, Valero issued the 2501A permit to request permission to release 512 tons of hydrogen cyanide — ten times the amount they were already releasing illegally without permits and without reporting it via the right-to-know acts.

TCEQ did not fine Valero for releasing hydrogen cyanide with permits or reporting it to EPCRA or CERCLA. However, in 2010, Exxon was fined per pound of unpermitted hydrogen cyanide in Baytown near Barbers Hill-ISD.

Updated 2501A permit request

Since the comment periods, the updated 2501A permit wants permission to release 44 pounds per hour, 196 tons per year, of hydrogen cyanide. Here’s how that compares in other cities that Valero has permits to release hydrogen cyanide:

  • Corpus Christi: 80 lbs/hr
  • Texas City: 94 lbs/hr
  • Three Rivers: 19 lbs/hr
  • Port Arthur: 89 lbs/hr

According the TCEQ’s executive director, Toby Baker, the hydrogen cyanide emissions limit is being incorporated in the permit at the direction of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). However, lawyers with Earthjustice point out there aren’t any pertinent hydrogen cyanide emissions limit in the federal or state law.

Where is the TCEQ getting these limits from?

TCEQ cites the National Emissions Standards for Hazardous Air Pollutants (NESHAP) — emission standards set by EPA — has some regulations for “cyanide compounds,” but nothing has been developed specifically for hydrogen cyanide.

The EPA is “regulating” hydrogen cyanide through setting a NESHAP limiting carbon monoxide as a surrogate pollutant.

The hydrogen cyanide emissions are supposed to be reported to the EPCRA and to the CERCLA — but these emissions have not been reported.

Because it’s unclear why Valero wants a permit for hydrogen cyanide limits when the law doesn’t even require it, community members believe Valero is trying to avoid EPCRA and CERCLA reporting requirements.

Basically: TCEQ lacks federal authority to issue this permit or any hydrogen cyanide amendments.

Hydrogen cyanide health concerns and who are the people of Manchester?

Hydrogen cyanide affects the nervous system, cardiovascular system, and reproductive system. Side effects include headaches, dizziness, fast heart rate, shortness of breath and eventually vomiting.

Manchester has a 22% higher rate of cancer than the rest of the Houston area.

97% of the community are people of color and 37% are living at or below poverty line.

During the first comment period, community members asked TCEQ how they characterized the neighborhood, they said Google Maps was used. TCEQ panelists were not able to answer how many homes, schools, parks, or churches were in the 3,000 foot radius of the permit. Hartman Community Center, where the public meeting with TCEQ and Valero was held, is in that radius.

J.R. Harris Elementary School – a public school where 62% of students are English Language Learners, 89% are economically disadvantaged, and 100% are African American and/or Hispanic – is within 700 feet of a large chemical manufacturer, within 2,000 feet of a large hazardous waste recycler, and within one mile of this Valero refinery. Not to mention, this school along with many others in the area do not have chemical in place drills.

Manchester is essentially serving as a sacrificial zone in a case of environmental racism as explained by Julianne Crawford, M.S. Candidate, Civil & Environmental Engineering, in her article, Environmental Racism in Houston’s Harrisburg/Manchester Neighborhood.

The activist groups behind this resistance are Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Service and Sierra Club, both represented by Earthjustice.

To read more of Sam Oser’s reporting, click here.

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