Valero Illegally Releasing Hydrogen Cyanide in Houston Neighborhood

On Monday, community members from Houston’s east end neighborhood, Manchester, learned Valero has been releasing hydrogen cyanide without a permit.

Valero has been releasing hydrogen cyanide since they installed the Fluid Catalytic Cracking Unit; Earthjustice lawyers are currently not sure when that was. Now Valero seeks a permit from Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) to allow this toxin to pollute the air ten times the amount it’s currently being released.

Despite releasing this toxin without a permit or with notice, the TCEQ has not expressed interest in penalizing the company. As a matter of fact, they have preliminarily approved the permit.

When Valero published the Notice of Receipt of Application and Intent to Obtain Air Permit (NORI) in February 2014, hydrogen cyanide was not included listing only organic compounds, carbon monoxide, among other contaminants.

Video of Isabel G. Segarra Treviño, lawyer with Earthjustice, asking questions that panelists had a hard time answering. Moderator acted as defense so Valero and TCEQ wouldn’t have to answer.

It wasn’t until March 2018 that Valero amended Notice of Application and Preliminary Decision for an Air Quality Permit (NAPD) to include hydrogen cyanide. Remember: Valero has been releasing hydrogen cyanide since they installed the Fluid Catalytic Cracking Unit. When did they install it? Earthjustice lawyers still haven’t gotten that answer.

Permit Number 2501A would authorize hydrogen cyanide emissions from the Fluid Catalytic Cracking Unit.

TCEQ has preliminarily decided to approve the permit and the permit amendment would add a hydrogen cyanide emissions limit.

According the TCEQ’s interim executive director, Stephanie Bergeron Perdue, 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?

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 Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act (EPCRA) and to the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act (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.

TCEQ staff sitting at the table: Amy Prescott, Office of Legal Services; Darrell McCant, Toxicology Division; Tony Ionescu, Air Permits Division; Aaron Tucker, Office of Public Interest Counsel
Valero Representatives sitting at the table: Arnuldo Medina; Matt Lindquist; Jeff Hude

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.

When 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 meeting was held, is in that radius.

It’s almost like it’s systematic.

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

Environmental Racism in Houston’s Harrisburg/Manchester Neighborhood by By Julianne Crawford, M.S. Candidate, Civil & Environmental Engineering, Stanford