Mayor White takes on Lyondell

HOUSTON Mayor Bill White has made cleaning up Houston's air one of his top priorities. His latest battle is against Lyondell. The company wants to renew its flexible permit for releasing chemicals into the air. The mayor wants a public hearing before that's granted.

Inside a worn car repair shack, Benny Rodriguez pays little attention to the Lyondell refinery just across the street, though he's very aware of possible dangers. His brother used to own this shop, but he left.

"I think he is scared to be around here," Rodriguez said. "He's scared to die when it blows up."

Benny is staying put. But Mayor White wants Lyondell to reduce amount of benzene -- a cancer causing chemical -- the refinery releases into the air. He's asking the Texas Commission on Environmental quality to grant a public hearing before its chemical release permit is renewed.

"It's poison, and this particular plant has been putting many, many tons, tens of tons out of this stuff every year," Mayor White said. "So I thought it would be good to have a public hearing."

The mayor's efforts to open up Lyondell's permitting process are seen as admirable for people who live in one nearby neighborhood, but they also say they've come to expect some health risks simply from living near the plant.

Home owner Diana Harris said, "I'm old enough now, that it doesn't matter, what happens, happens."

Lyondell says it's been aggressively reducing benzene output on its own. The company says in 2007 it released 39 tons of benzene into the air, well below its current 58 ton yearly cap. In addition, the renewal permit will cap emissions at 34 tons per year.

"The permit will actually reduce benzene emissions from this facility by 43%," explained Lyondell spokesperson David Harpole. "This is a permit that gives us the flexibility to manage a business we're experts in."

The fight between Lyondell and the city may end up in court, though neighbors like Rodriguez may never notice.

"If we gotta die, we die anyway," he said.

There is not yet a timeline on whether the state will grant an open hearing. Mayor White says he's open to a lawsuit if a hearing isn't granted.

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