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Houston as a Model City: Meeting the challenges of an environmental crisis Improving the air comes first
by Vicki Wolf, February 2006

Houston is known as the “energy capital of the world.” Founding fathers of the oil industry explored beneath the prairies and forest here to find oil and developed the business of refining this energy source into a product that fuels the way we live today.

The price for the oil boom of years past is being paid for today in an environmental mess that some say will soon be a crisis. Air, water and soil of this region are horribly polluted, and illnesses and deaths linked to the pollution are increasing in the Houston area. Each summer the number of days Houston is under an ozone action alert that advises everyone to stay indoors goes up.

With this reputation and looming crisis, Houston can lead the nation and the world in dealing with the environmental issues of our time, if leaders and citizens can work together quickly and effectively.

In an interview for an article for CLEAN last year, the Federation of American Scientists President Henry Kelly said, “As the energy capital of the world, Houston is the perfect place to take a lead in the energy technologies of the future – technologies that make good business sense to builders, provide real quality for consumers, and a real contribution to solutions for national energy and environmental challenges.”

Innovative achievements are being made here in the design of homes and public buildings for more efficient use of resources and energy savings. Experimental rooftop gardens help absorb water flow during the rainy season and help cool the city. A new infrared camera is being used to monitor fugitive air emissions so the leaks can be repaired. This can help clean up the air while reducing waste for the company.

Strong leadership, collaboration and integration of government and non-governmental organizations will be needed to organize and mobilize necessary actions to deal with the environmental crisis, according to Andy Lipkis who led T.R.E.E. People and the City of Los Angeles in repairing the ecology of that area. “Create a situation room or an emergency command center and bring departments together to look at environmental problems,” Lipkis says.

Mayor Bill White and Houston City Council seem ready to tackle this challenge. Last year the mayor held a hearing on the state of air quality in Houston and promised to take steps to clean up the air and protect public health. He recently announced the appointment of Councilwoman Carol Alvarado to chair the city’s first Environment and Public Health Committee.

Alvarado says a spirit of cooperation is being fostered with the county in the hope of working with state government. “We have a letter of agreement among city, county and state for monitoring and improving the environment,” Alvarado says. “Now our city and county inspectors go out to sites together, and we are writing joint letters to TCEQ,” she adds. State legislators are supportive of Houston’s effort to clean up the environment, and Alvarado expects to get their help in coming up with a plan of action.

Air quality is being treated as the most urgent environmental challenge. Mayor White has created the City of Houston’s Air Quality Program Operating Plan for 2006 that includes the following goals:

  • Reduce emissions in City operations, including the operations of city contractors
  • Support initiatives to study and address the health effects of air pollution
  • Participate in and enhance the ambient-air monitoring network
  • Enforce existing air quality regulations through all available means
  • Advocate for more effective air quality regulations regarding ozone and its precursors, particulates and air toxins
  • Conduct an inspection, monitoring and compliance program that leads to reduced emissions of ozone precursors, particulate matter and air toxins
  • Enhance the community engagement program

One of the main accomplishments, so far, is the city’s agreement with Texas Petrochemicals LP Company to make significant reductions by 2008 in its emission of 1,3 butadiene – a precursor to ozone and, at certain exposure levels, a significant health hazard.

For Houston to become a model city Mayor White says strict enforcement of laws based on health priorities is paramount. “No. 2 is to do things which help make our citizens leaders in energy conservation and energy efficiency,” White says. For the greatest short-term impact, he says controlling emissions of toxic chemicals such as ethylene and butadiene from refineries and petrochemical plants is most urgent. For impact over the next ten years, White says Houston must start today to use more fuel efficient and lower emission transportation. He says the way to achieve this is to build rapid transit systems and encourage residents to drive more fuel-efficient vehicles and use cleaner fuels.

The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) also is gearing up to focus more directly on air quality in the Houston area with its first director of Air Quality for Region 12, Rebecca Rentz. The environmental attorney who as worked with industry clients and in county government is confident that her past experience working on environmental issues helps her understand the environmental challenges Houston faces. “Without this understanding of the challenges,” Rentz says, “it would be hard to start working on solutions.”

Effective monitoring is the first step in controlling emissions from refineries, power plants and barges. “You have to know about it before you can fix it,” Rentz says. The Houston area is one of the most heavily monitored places in the nation, according to Rentz.

However, monitoring is expensive to maintain, according to Winifred Hamilton, PhD, assistant professor, director of the Environmental Health Section of Baylor College of Medicine. Consequently, some monitors have been moved and some have been turned off. Hamilton also notes that monitors are not distributed well across the area for reflecting actual exposure of residents.

TCEQ is initiating pilot projects to improve monitoring using tools now in place more effectively so that when a low level emission is detected, an alert goes out to area industries so that the release can be found and stopped before more releases occur. One project involves using an infrared VOC (volatile organic compounds) imaging camera to find fugitive emissions that have gone unreported or under-reported in the past. TCEQ may offer incentives to companies that use the camera to find and quickly repair leaks.

For Houston to become a model city, Rentz says, “We need people in place who want to make change and work to get it. Just the physics of how ozone is formed is so complex one agency can’t fix it. A network of people working together is required,” she says. “Houston is fortunate because we have a network of people in place, and that’s exciting.”

Cleaning up the air and industry in Houston will contribute to a healthier environment. White says the efficient use of water is another environmental challenge for the city. “We can do more to use water efficiently,” White says. “I don’t mean mandates and quotas. I would like to see us have more native plants used in landscaping. People in our Parks Department have done a lot of work with native species that require less water to survive.” White adds that the city is looking at ways to build buildings that absorb less heat. Before becoming Houston’s mayor, White privately funded ground-breaking research to show that the use of certain roofing materials over time could make a city cooler. “We can cool down the city naturally so that we consume less electricity and generate fewer emissions.”

White says he wants to avoid too much talk and too little action. He is walking the walk by designating specific positions to oversee progress on emissions reductions, by hiring people with technical expertise and adding people to the legal department who take action on environmental compliance.

The mayor has called on sustainability experts at Houston Advanced Research Center (HARC) to look at weatherization of homes. The city also has added consultants to help procure renewable energy. White says he hopes to have a significant amount of the city’s electricity provided through renewable sources within two years. “I personally plan to switch my home to the best green energy plan and encourage those who can afford it to do the same.”

“This is a big change in the culture of public leadership in this community,” White says. “The citizens have been ahead of government and business leadership, and now we want them to catch up.”

Let us know what you think Houston can do to become a model city for the environment by using our online form.

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