Mayor renews efforts to reduce benzene

HOUSTON Mayor Bill White renewed his criticisms of the city's powerful chemical industry, saying he also wants local plants to set public goals for reducing emissions of the carcinogen benzene.

White also acknowledged that air monitoring sites in the Houston Ship Channel area are showing lower levels of benzene in recent months, but said the levels are still not low enough. He asked Ship Channel plants to continue reducing the amount of toxic pollutants released into the air and criticized the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality for not doing enough to address the problem.

"TCEQ should immediately require industry to say how much benzene it plans to put in the air," White said in a story in Wednesday editions of the Houston Chronicle.

TCEQ spokesman Andy Saenz said that, "With all the resources devoted to the Houston area, we can say there has been significant progress in air quality, including air toxins."

White said he will lead city opposition by filing objections when plants apply for emission permits or renewals, and will also take some polluters to court. He is also asking that the largest polluters "set annual goals for benzene for each of the next five years and make those goals known to the public." White said plants should install fence-line monitors "so neighbors will know what crosses the fence."

Donald Empfield, general manager of Houston Operations at Sunoco and chairman of the East Harris County Manufacturer's Association, said he appreciated the mayor pointing out that air quality monitors show that some chemical plants are making progress. The manufacturer's association believes that TCEQ, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the county are the appropriate regulatory agencies -- not the city, Empfield said.

The mayor's remarks this week were the latest in an ongoing dispute between his administration and chemical plants over benzene and other pollutants.

In November, a report from the Houston Regional Air Quality Task Force recommended 18 steps for reducing toxic chemicals in the city's air such as benzene and chlorine. The measures include petrochemical plants installing infrared cameras to identify emissions from roof storage tanks and other equipment. The task force also called for new programs to reduce car and truck emissions.

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