Houston’s air pollution improvements halted by fracking

| November 5, 2013

The Clean Air Act passed in 1963. This piece of legislation was intended to regulate and limit the release of polluting contaminants.

So why, fully 50 years later, are we still talking about this?

Frankly, because problems with air pollution are still pervasive in America. In a new blog post featured in The New York Times, Andrew C. Revkin provided a thoughtful update on these problems, cobbled together from two recent articles on the subject.

air pollution

At one time, Houston had the highest ozone levels in America. From araza123.

Did you know that Houston, Texas is the largest chemical hub in the Americas? That means that about a quarter of the country’s petrochemicals come from the home of the Texans, but this dubious distinction also contributes to the unsightly haze that Revkin noticed when flying into Houston recently.

“These [petrochemical] plants have helped fuel the city’s economic rise,” says the Allegheny Front article Revkin quoted. “But they have also added to its poor air quality.”

The city “has never met federal air quality standards for ozone,” and “one study linked high ozone incidents to increased instances of cardiac arrest in Houston; others have found high rates of asthma and childhood leukemia in neighborhoods near the chemical industry.”

So Houston has traded air quality for productivity — but they know it’s not a fair trade-off and they’ve fought back by trying to cut pollution from natural gas facilities. Houston received a wake-up call in 1999 when they passed Los Angeles to become the city with “the highest ozone levels in America.” The city started researching impact, and then “implemented a suite of environmental reforms.

These reforms included the creation of “special limits on emissions of highly reactive VOCs [Volatile Organic Compounds] like propylene and ethylene,” and it also meant implementing something called “a cap-and-trade program for Houston’s petrochemical plants.”

air pollution

Fracking may erase the progress Houston has made. From www_ukberri_net.

The result of these efforts? Success — or at least a marked improvement. Specifically, “The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality estimates the city’s ozone levels have decreased about 20 percent since 2001.”

Other cities have looked to Houston as a model for improving pollution rates, but Houston still has a ways to go to be considered “green.

One of the things standing in Houston’s path to air purity? Fracking. Fracking, a process by which rock is fractured by a pressurized liquid to release natural gas, has taken off in the United States. With the fracking business booming, Houston expects to see “huge expansions of its petrochemical sector.”

That means that Houston will likely stay beneath the minimum federal standards for air quality — and may even see the progress they’ve made over the last 10-15 years slip backward.

Houston is perhaps one of the more dramatic examples of the lingering air pollution problems facing America, but it’s not alone. Reportedly, “four in ten Americans still live where pollution levels are often dangerous to breathe.”

Here’s hoping we don’t see another 50 years pass by before we successfully adhere to the principles set forth in the Clean Air Act.

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Category: Regulations

About the Author ()

Ellen Hunter Gans has been writing for RecycleReminders since the blog’s inception. She is passionate about words, new media and, of course, recycling.

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