Texans grapple with pollution, chemical hazards

TEXAS CITY, Texas — Members from at least 10 unions convened at United Steelworkers Local 13-1 here July 10 to discuss how air pollutants affect health and safety. They met with Dr. Jonathan B. Ward Jr., a national authority on environmental toxicology at the University of Texas.

Ward told the group that ozone has regularly reached high levels at Scholes International Airport in nearby Galveston, and that “we’re badly out of compliance and in violation of ozone standards.” He said the greater Houston area has long been out of compliance with standards set by the federal Clean Air Act.

Galveston is a resort area on the Gulf of Mexico. Texas City, home of a number of chemical plants, including the infamous BP plant where 15 workers were killed in an explosion in 2005, is only 15 miles to the north.

Chemical plants and diesel vehicles produce high levels of nitrogen oxide and volatile air compounds which result in ozone when exposed to sunlight. Ward noted that federal clean air regulations prohibit an area from exceeding pollution by more than 85 parts per billion more than three times in a three-year period.

The Houston area, about 50 miles to the northwest, “typically has 30 to 35 noncompliance days per year,” Ward said. People with health problems are hit hard by ozone toxicity. “High levels of ozone are followed by a day or so of increased doctor or emergency room visits, mainly from respiratory disease. … People who have pre-existing bronchitis or asthma are the first to see the effects.”

Lee Medley, president of the Galveston County AFL-CIO, told the audience that his daughter has asthma, and this may be a result of her involvement in outdoor sports such as soccer and track in high school. “We want to work to ensure safety and health for our families and workers,” he said. “We want to live in a safe community.”

In a related development, Linda Hunnings, the widow of a contract worker killed in the BP explosion in Texas City, testified before a U.S. Senate panel on July 10. She demanded that the federal government do more to address industrial safety problems.

Her husband, Jim Hunnings, was a quality control inspector with the Fluor Corp. and was killed along with 14 others in the BP blast. She questioned the purpose of agencies such as Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency, since they have not prevented a number of major industrial accidents.

The Houston Chronicle reviewed OSHA records from 2002 through 2006 and found that “regulators hadn’t conducted unplanned inspections at most area refineries in those five years, instead inspecting mostly in response to complaints or accidents.”

Hunnings said her husband had called the BP plant “an accident waiting to happen” prior to his death.

“I can remember that when his supervisor called to ask him to go to Texas City, he was sure he was going to ask him to go to Iraq, as he had many times before,” Hunnings testified. “Jim made the statement ‘Iraq-BP — what a choice.’”

Several months ago, the Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board found that BP management lacked commitment to safety and noted there was lax regulatory oversight at the plant prior to the disaster. The chairperson of the board, Carolyn Merritt, concluded, “The accident was predictable as well as preventable.”

Hunnings voiced support for legislation sponsored by Rep. Al Green (D-Texas) which would make willful company violations of safety standards that result in the death of a contract employee subject to criminal prosecution. She also supported a bill introduced by Rep. Gene Green (D-Texas) that would require employers to report contract workers’ injuries or deaths to OSHA in the same manner as they do for their own employees. Such reports are not currently required.

Hunnings, who was a petrochemical industry worker in the past, stated, “I will do whatever is necessary to advocate change in the petrochemical industry.”

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