PAnews.com, Port Arthur, Texas

March 2, 2009

EPA to test school air for chemical toxins


By Sherry Koonce

The News staff writer

Within the next 30 days, the Environmental Protection Agency is expected to begin testing the air around some schools for toxic contaminants.

The Associated Press reported a $2.25 million program announced Monday will be the first to specifically target air contamination near schools. The EPA already operates a nationwide monitoring network that collects information on a variety of air pollutants.

The school monitors will focus on toxic chemicals that are known to cause cancer, respiratory and neurological problems. Because children are still growing, those type chemicals can have a greater impact on a child’s health.

“I think it is about time they started doing that. It is very important we do everything possible to protect our kids from air toxins,” Hilton Kelley, a local air quality activist, said.

Kelley, of Port Arthur, is the director of Community Enpowerment Development Association. Last year Kelley was appointed to serve on the National Environmental Justice Advisory Council — a group charged with advising the EPA with the community’s needs where there are big polluters.

In Southeast Texas, there are a number of schools located just a stone’s throw from chemical plants.

Children attending those campuses suffer a disapportionate amount of respiratory problems, sinus infections and asthma, Kelley said.

In Port Arthur, there is a huge problem with sulfur dioxide — a byproduct from crude oil — which is known to attack the nervous and respiratory system, he said.

Carbon Monoxide and particulate matter are also concerns.

“Little kids from age 0 to 10, their bodies are still developing. Their lungs are real sensitive,” Kelley said.

Port Arthur is not the only district with campuses near chemical plants.

Port Neches-Groves was the subject in an expansive article published in USA Today in December 2008. The article, entitled, “Smokestack effect: Cancer in Port Neches,” described Port Neches-Groves High School and its close proximity to nearby chemical companies that manufacture styrene butadiene.

“Butadiene is a confirmed cancer causing chemical that causes chemical and lymphoma cancers of the blood and bone marrow,” said Dale Hanks, an attorney with the firm Bush, Lewis PLLC. The Beaumont firm has represented 29 former Port Neches students, and residents of the surrounding neighborhood.

Hanks said Port Neches’ high school is just two blocks from ISP Elastomers, a company that uses styrene-butadiene to make rubber.

Though owned through the years by different companies, rubber has been made at that site since 1942, Hanks said.

Adjacent to ISP and separated by a fenceline is a butadiene manufacturing plant, now owned by Texas Petroleum Chemicals.

In total, Hanks’ firm has represented 29 clients from Port Neches who either attended schools there, or grew up in neighborhoods near the plants.

Of those 29, 16 of the cases involved leukemia or lymphoma cancers, while six of the current clients suffer from blood and bone marrow cancers which includes leukemia. Brain tumors are involved in seven of the cases.

“If measurements had been taken regularly in the past, then perhaps these people would never have become ill,” he said.

Alarming levels of the chemical were found near the school as late as 2002, Hanks said.

Today, the emissions have been reduced, though the area still has some of the highest in the country, Hanks said.

“It has been a very serious situation in Port Neches, and some progress is being made, so this (new EPA testing) is a good thing,” Hanks said.

Matt Tokheim, an environmental engineer with ISP Elastomers in Port Neches, said the company welcomes the latest EPA testing.

‘I think any additional scrutiny cannot be a bad thing,” Tokheim said.

Already, the Southeast Texas Regional Planning Committee operates a monitor by the Port Neches school, and the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality has a mobile monitor used to check air quality around schools, Tokheim said.

Reductions in the amount of chemicals surrounding PNG started about 10 years ago, and there is plenty of data to indicate the decrease is continuing, he said.

“ISP wants to be a good corporate citizen and we want to do the right thing. I do not think there will be any unknowns found from the new testing, but we welcome the added scrutiny,” Tokheim said.

Initially, states and local governments will monitor the air at 50 to 100 schools located near large industrial facilities, or in cities where a variety of sources can lead to high concentrations of pollution.

Kelley said he would not be surprised if local schools were on the list of those to be tested initially.

The EPA expects the monitoring to begin in 30 days.

The AP reported it was unclear what the agency can do if it finds that some pollutants are posing risks on school grounds. There are no federal standards for he 188 chemicals classified as air toxins.

It can also be difficult to trace a pollution problem back to a specific source, according to the AP.

Kelley said from what he understood, the EPA testing was designed to encourage polluters to clean up their operation.

“They are going to try to take a look at the areas around schools where the hot spots are and determine how to alleviate these issues without pointing the finger,” Kelley said. “We all know that something has to be done, and there is a need for a major cleanup. Although the companies have stepped up to the plate and are doing a better job from in years past, there are a few more things that can be done.”

skoonce@panews.com