Harris County scores victory against Valero pollution permit

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The Harris County Attorney’s Office announced this week that they successfully challenged the state-issued permit of a Valero petroleum refinery that allowed the company to spew 512 tons of hydrogen cyanide per year into the surrounding Houston area community. 

The agreement between the county and Valero will see the refinery’s annual emissions of hydrogen cyanide reduced to 100 tons per year, a decrease of more than 80 percent. 

Hydrogen cyanide is a poisonous byproduct of the petroleum refining processes that can lead to neurological and cardiovascular health risks.

Residents of the Manchester neighborhood in east Houston had complained for years about the pollution and the elevated risk of cancer brought by the network of chemical and petroleum refineries in the area. In 2018, members of the community unsuccessfully prevented Valero from acquiring the permit from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality which authorized its existing emissions of hydrogen cyanide.

Harris County Attorney Christian Menefee said the county’s challenge to that permit was not a lawsuit, but more of a dispute leading to a settlement. 

In addition to limiting the amount of hydrogen cyanide released at the facility, the county secured other concessions from Valero too, including increasing the number of emission tests per year and providing $100,000 to community projects in the area surrounding the refinery. 

The funds from Valero will go to the beautification of public areas in the neighborhood, $2,000 in relocation assistance for homeowners, and computers and other educational technology for local schools. 

“The Manchester neighborhood has some of the poorest air quality in the country,” Menefee told the Signal. “As local public servants, we have to fight to protect these folks from environmental harm. Your zip code shouldn’t determine the quality of air you breathe, but unfortunately, federal and state laws are what they are.”

Menefee, who was elected last year and is the youngest and first African-American to serve as the county attorney, said it’s up to the county to be involved in creative ways to fight for environmental justice. 

“I view us as a necessary entity involved in the permitting stage, the compliance stage, and the enforcement stage,” Menefee said.

“I don’t want us to find the next ITC after it happens — after the smoke, chemicals, and debris is in the air,” Menefee said referring to the 2019 ITC chemical fire in Deer Park that burned for three days. “Our goal is to be involved in the process early.” 

Menefee said his office would review permits and work with nonprofits and community members who know about high-risk facilities. 

“You can expect more where this came from,” Menefee said.

In a statement, Harris County Precinct 2 Commissioner Adrian Garcia, whose precinct covers much of east Harris County and the Houston Ship Channel, praised the work done by Menefee and said the county would continue to work to protect the health and well-being of the community.

“I hope the folks at Valero will learn from the example we’ve set and bring a more neighborly attitude in how they do business,” Garcia said.

Photo: Adina Voicu / Wikimedia Commons

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