Hell Freezes Over: Why the New Federal Report on Midlothian Matters

by jim on November 20, 2012

Everything in italics and "quotation marks" below is a direct quote from the latest chapter of the ATSDR's (Agency for Disease Registry and Toxic Substances) "health consultation" on the impact of certain kinds of industrial air pollution on the local population.

You should take five minutes to glance over the sentences. They've taken a better part of a decade and a great deal of citizen persistence to make it to print. You can read them now only because of a petition to ATSDR by local Midlothian residents, spearheaded by Sal and Grace Mier in 2005, prompted the Agency to get involved.

They're also rarer than hen's teeth. Because the words actually come together in sentences to conclude human health was likely harmed by the pollution from Midlothian's three cement plants and steel mill, as well as recommend decreasing that pollution.

Among grassroots activists, ATSDR has a notorious reputation for issuing reports that are "inconclusive by design." The joke is that the agency never met a facility it couldn't learn to live with. And sure enough, previous chapters in this saga have disappointed. Just two years ago, ASTDR's shoddy work in investigating health impacts in Midlothian and elsewhere across the country was the subject of a Congressional hearing.

These ATSDR reports generate no new data. Instead, they are retrospective looks back at the available sampling/monitoring information and a piecing together of possible exposure paths and levels. As such, they're only as good as the data they can digest. In Midlothian's case, that means they're completely dependent on state monitoring – criticized by citizens for years as being inadequate. Nevertheless, with this latest report, citizens have been somewhat vindicated because of what even that inferior sampling revealed.

The health impacts described in this latest report are also limited to what are called "Criteria Pollutants" – old school substances like lead, soot, sulfur dioxide, and ozone that have been regulated by the Clean Air Act for decades. They do not apply to more exotic kinds of air pollution like endocrine disruptors, which there's little or no monitoring for at all.

So there are a lot of missing pieces, but the ATSDR's conclusions and recommendations have an impact on your lungs and maybe your own local fight, even if you don't have a Midlothian zip code. For the first time a federal agency known to avoid coming to any conclusion about anything was forced to say that human health was adversely affected by the operations of industry in Midlothian.

There's a public meeting on this report on December 6th from 7 to 8:30 pm at the Midlothian Conference Center.

Health Consultation/Assessing the Public Health Implications of the Criteria (NAAQS) Air Pollutants and Hydrogen Sulfide MIDLOTHIAN AREA AIR QUALITY MIDLOTHIAN, ELLIS COUNTY, TEXAS
NOVEMBER 16, 2012 U.S. DEPARTMENT OF HEALTH AND HUMAN SERVICES
Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry
Division of Community Health Investigations

Recommendations:

"Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) should take actions to reduce future SO2 emissions from TXI to prevent harmful exposures."

"TCEQ should take actions to reduce future PM2.5 emissions from TXI and Gerdau to prevent harmful exposures."

"TCEQ should continue efforts to reduce regional ozone exposures."

"TCEQ should insure that levels of these air pollutants do not increase to levels of concern in the future."

"TCEQ should conduct ambient air monitoring to characterize exposures to persons located downwind of the Ash Grove and Holcim facilities and take actions to reduce SO2 emissions from these facilities if harmful exposures are indicated."

"TCEQ should conduct appropriate ambient air monitoring to characterize exposures to persons located downwind of the Ash Grove and Holcim facilities and take actions to reduce PM2.5 emissions from these facilities if harmful exposures are indicated. In addition, particulate matter monitoring is needed in residential areas that are in immediate proximity to the facilities’ limestone quarries."

"In ATSDR’s judgment, one notable gap in monitor placement is the lack of monitoring data for residential neighborhoods in immediate proximity to the four industrial facilities, where fugitive emissions (those not accounted for in stack emissions) likely have the greatest air quality impacts."

Human health was likely harmed, and is still threatened by industrial pollution from Midlothian

From Sulfur Dioxide:

"Breathing air contaminated with sulfur dioxide (downwind of TXI's cement plant and the Ameristeel steel mill) for short periods could have harmed the health of sensitive individuals.ATSDR cannot determine if harmful exposures to SO2 have been occurring downwind of the Holcim and Ash Grove facilities."

"All 24-hour values in Midlothian were lower than EPA’s former standard. However, the World Health Organization’s health comparable guideline is 8 ppb (WHO, 2006). This value was exceeded at both the Midlothian Tower and Old Fort Worth Road stations in most years of monitoring through 2008…"

"Overall, in the years 1999 to 2001, Old Fort Worth Road (monitoring site north of TXI) ranked among the stations with the highest 24-hour average sulfur dioxide concentrations in the state. As sulfur dioxide emissions from TXI Operations decreased in following years, so did the measured concentrations at this station."

From Particulate Matter, or Soot:

"Public health concern is warranted for adverse health effects from long-term exposure to PM 2.5 in Cement Valley"

"In the past (1996–2008), annual average PM 2.5 levels measured were just below the range of concentration proposed by EPA for lowering the annual average standard…Moreover, many of the annual average PM 2.5 concentrations were above the more conservative WHO health guideline (10 μg/m3)."

"No PM 2.5 monitoring data are available to evaluate exposures downwind of the Ash Grove facility. Furthermore, although annual average PM2.5 levels detected at the Holcim monitor indicate possible harmful levels…."

"We estimated that annual average PM2.5 levels in the vicinity of the Gerdau Ameristeel monitor, from 1996 to 1998, could have ranged from about 22.6 to 26.4 μg/m3, which is above both the current and proposed EPA standard. Using EPA’s approach, the 3-year average level might have been above the NAAQS standard of 15 μg/m3 for these years in the vicinity of the Gerdau Ameristeel monitor. Applying this same approach to annual average PM10 data from other monitors suggests that PM 2.5 levels could have been close to the current and proposed PM2.5 standard, especially for the Wyatt Road, Old Fort Worth Road, Gorman Road, and Midlothian Tower monitors."

"Consistent with the other pollutants discussed earlier, the estimated annual PM 2.5 emissions listed for these facilities are among the highest for Ellis County and also rank high among industrial sources statewide."

From Lead:

"Past lead air exposures during the period 1993 to 1998, in a localized area just north of the Gerdau Ameristeel fence line, could have harmed the health of children who resided or frequently played in this area….In the mid-1990s, the lead levels measured in this area ranked among the highest lead concentrations measured statewide."

From Smog:

"Scientific studies indicate that breathing air containing ozone at concentrations similar to those detected in Midlothian can reduce lung function and increase respiratory symptoms, thereby aggravating asthma or other respiratory conditions. Ozone exposure also has been associated with increased susceptibility to respiratory infections, medication use by persons with asthma, doctor’s visits, and emergency department and hospital admissions for individuals with respiratory disease. Ozone exposure also might contribute to premature death, especially in people with heart and lung disease. School absenteeism and cardiac-related effects may occur, and persons with asthma might experience greater and more serious responses to ozone that last longer than responses among people without asthma."

"The Midlothian Tower site recorded ozone concentrations above the level of the NAAQS for several years (TCEQ, 2011b), and the Old Fort Worth Road site has been measuring ozone concentrations close to the level of the NAAQS. Based on the data from both monitors, from August 1997 to September 2011, the 8-hour EPA ozone standard has been exceeded 236 times."

From Breathing Multiple Pollutants:

"ATSDR believes that sufficient information exists to warrant concern for multiple air pollutant exposures to sensitive individuals, especially in the past….The ability of the scientific community to fully and quantitatively evaluate the health effects from the mixture of air pollutants people are exposed to is at least ten years away (Mauderly et al., 2010)……The current state of the science limits our ability to make definitive conclusions on the significance of simultaneous exposures to multiple criteria air pollutants. ATSDR’s conclusions are based on our best professional judgment related to our understanding of the possible harmful effects of air pollutant exposures in Midlothian and our interpretation of the current scientific literature; therefore, these conclusions are presented with some uncertainty."

From New Production:

"Reductions in SO2 levels in Cement Valley have occurred since late 2008 resulting in exposures to both sensitive individuals and the general public that are not expected to be harmful. These reductions may be caused, in part, by declining production levels at local industrial facilities. Future harmful exposures in Cement Valley could occur if production rises to at least previous levels and actions are not taken to reduce SO2 emissions."

 

Regulatory "Safe Levels" Very Often Aren't

"Past SO2 exposures were not above the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) standard in place at that time but were above the current standard."

"Past lead air exposures were not above the EPA standard at that time but were above the current standard.…The scientific community now believes that the current standard (15 μg/m3) for fine PM (measured by PM2.5) is a better indicator of possible long-term health effects from PM exposures than was the former EPA annual average standard for PM10 (EPA, 2006b)."
 

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