While TCEQ was developing its risk-assessment strategy, air pollution was making waves in the Texas press. In January 2005, a TCEQ report linked 1,3-butadiene and benzene to elevated cancer risks in Harris County, home to many refineries and petrochemical plants that emit both chemicals.
The butadiene levels corresponded to two additional cancer cases per 10,000 people — 20 times what TCEQ considered acceptable at the time. Benzene levels were seven times higher than TCEQ’s benchmark cancer risk.
That same month, the Houston Chronicle published “In Harm’s Way,” a series by reporter Dina Cappiello. The newspaper had placed air monitors at 100 locations near large industrial sources and found 84 readings “high enough that they would trigger a full-scale federal investigation if these communities were hazardous-waste sites.”
Only a few measurements exceeded TCEQ’s cancer-exposure guidelines, which the paper reported were “among the most lenient in the country.” The Chronicle noted that the results “would be considered a serious health risk in other states.”
The two reports hit a nerve with Bill White, a year into his first term as Houston’s mayor. A deputy secretary of energy during the Clinton administration, White made air quality a priority during his three terms as mayor. But he found himself fighting TCEQ as well as the industries that were polluting his city.
An article by Texas academics summed up the situation: “The problem in Houston has been compounded by the reluctance of state and regional regulators to assume a strong role in pollution control and environmental enforcement, particularly concerning the chemical and refining industry, which is a key source of jobs and philanthropy in the region.”
TCEQ increased air monitoring in Harris County, but Houston wanted more concrete action. Honeycutt met frequently with Elena Marks, White’s director of health and environmental policy from 2004 to 2009.
Marks is now a fellow at Rice University, researching healthcare policy. She said she often came away from those meetings frustrated, because Honeycutt “always seemed to err on the side against human health.”
When city and county officials hosted a town hall meeting to discuss the alarming reports, TCEQ didn’t show up, despite its pledge to send at least two representatives. Honeycutt later criticized TCEQ’s own report, saying it was “overpredictive” about the cancer risks.
When Houston threatened to sue Texas Petrochemicals, the main culprit behind the elevated butadiene levels, Marks said TCEQ got “pissed off” and worked out a pollution-reduction plan with the company. But the agreement was voluntary, and Houston continued to threaten legal action. Texas Petrochemicals finally reached a legally binding agreement with the city to reduce its emissions, and butadiene levels began to drop.
To tackle the benzene problem, White tried to persuade local businesses and TCEQ to work together on a regional plan, but he said TCEQ wasn’t interested.
Benzene levels in Houston did begin to fall. But White, now senior advisor and chairman of the financial firm Lazard Houston, attributes the change to the city’s aggressive leadership, which “created a tremendous incentive for compliance and put pressure on the TCEQ.”
Marks put it more bluntly. “Every time we found benzene emissions … we were just a pain in the ass — and the plants thought it was just easier to curb benzene.”
When asked to comment on TCEQ’s role in Houston during those years, agency spokesman Terry Clawson said in an e-mail: “The TCEQ works in partnership with local governmental [entities] to address environmental issues within their communities.”
In 2007, as Houston was still struggling to remove benzene from its air, Honeycutt’s department weakened the long-term benzene guideline by 40 percent, from 1.0 ppb to 1.4 ppb.
The new number was 13 times weaker than California’s guideline. It was at the least-protective end of the range recommended by the EPA, which last updated its benzene numbers in 1998.
Marks remembers her shock when she learned of the change.
“My reaction was ‘This is crazy. Why would you do that?’ ” she said. “The more you learn, the more likely you’d be to tighten any standards or screening levels.”
An examination of TCEQ’s decision on butadiene shows how its conclusions could differ so sharply from the EPA’s.
The EPA analysis, done in 2002, relied primarily on an industry-funded University of Alabama-Birmingham study from the 1990s that tracked leukemia rates in workers.
The TCEQ analysis used a 2004 study by the same researchers, also funded by the industry. They said their original study had vastly underestimated the amount of butadiene the workers were exposed to, which meant it had overestimated the risk.
Melnick, the former NIEHS scientist who analyzed TCEQ’s butadiene document, said it’s hard to tell which of the two Alabama studies is more accurate — but the discrepancies show the “murky” history of the reports.
Because TCEQ used the second study as its starting point, it began its analysis with numbers that showed butadiene was less toxic, Melnick said. It then made a series of decisions that made the number even less conservative, including using a different statistical model.
Melnick said it’s impossible to say the Texas number is wrong. But it’s clear that “Texas tried to load it up to allow the highest exposure possible.”
Texas has invested time and money to oppose two federal efforts that could lead to tighter chemical regulations.
Its first effort was to address a 2009 National Academy of Sciences risk-assessment report authored by Finkel, the Penn professor, and 14 other scientists from academia, government, and consulting firms. The report recommended that scientists reconsider the long-held assumption that any chemical not known to cause cancer has a safety threshold — a level below which it is completely safe. That’s an argument for additional regulations.
The following year, TCEQ helped lead a series of workshops to discuss the National Academies’ report. They were sponsored by the Alliance for Risk Assessment, a spinoff of TERA, the consulting firm founded by Honeycutt’s friend Dourson. Both Dourson and Honeycutt sit on the alliance steering committee. Dourson said TCEQ suggested the workshops.
The agency has awarded TERA at least $700,000 in contracts since 2010, with $7,000 going to help fund the workshops. Honeycutt said that to avoid conflicts of interest, he recuses himself whenever TCEQ proposes a project to the alliance.
Honeycutt chaired the first workshop, held at TCEQ headquarters. The agency has hosted three of the eight workshops that have taken place so far. More than 50 groups from industry, government, consulting, and research centers support the workshops, according to the alliance website.
Honeycutt and Dourson said the workshops are designed to expand on the National Academies’ report and foster collaborations to develop practical risk-assessment methods. But Finkel and two other health scientists who work in risk assessment said the main focus was to criticize the report, especially the part about the non-carcinogen thresholds.
“They were essentially formed to respond to that report and the things they didn’t like,” said Tracey Woodruff, a professor at the University of California-San Francisco, who studies reproductive health and the environment.
Finkel said the workshops were so biased toward industry’s point of view that he stopped attending them.