It's In the Air

Last week, the Houston Chronicle ran a series of articles about the lax control of chemicals emitted by Houston's cluster of petrochemical facilities in the eastern part of the city around the Houston Ship Channel. (You can read it here. It was a pretty solid set of articles; I didn't think there was a trace of "chemical companies bad, people and puppies good" in it. It raised reasonable questions about how Texas sets the allowable levels of pollutants (randomly, it seems), the state of knowledge about the actual effects of chemical pollutants, and whether any regulations really get enforced.

It's been interesting to watch some of the reaction in the Chronicle's letters to the editor section. There were, of course, many people who wrote in saying that the appreciated the series and calling on state lawmakers to address the issue. But there were also a surprising number who wrote in accusing the paper of being anti-business and generally commenting that since the petrochemical industry was an important part of the local economy, we should just all shut up, and the Chronicle shouldn't write stories like the series in question.

Which is, frankly, bizarre. It's reasonable to question their methodology, their interpretation of the results, or the way the information was presented. It's even reasonable to argue that the Texas standards for the chemical pollutants in question (generally allowing 10-50 times the levels of other states) are the right ones (not easy to argue, but you could). But I think it's just bizarre to argue that since this industry provides a lot of jobs to the area, we should not complain if they're giving their neighbors cancer or violating the law.

My personal interpretation is that it's that old free market fetish - business will save us all, so stop asking questions. It's become part of middle America to an extent that it's not hard to get individual citizens to stand up for the poor, beleaguered corporations of the world to protect them from nasty regulators. Okay, sarcasm aside: it is not logical to support people who are dumping chemicals into the environment because they help the economy. (Neither is it reasonable to run them out of business: reasonable, in this case, is setting scientifically defensible standards for their activities and enforcing the rules.)

Another thought: when I talked about this with a friend on the phone, he responded with a comment along the lines of "Ugh.. Houston... chemicals... yuck." The implication, of course, is that this is just an examle of why Houston is a crappy place.

Which is an absurd response. Those chemical plants aren't there because Houstonians just love the smell of chemicals in the morning. They are there to satisfy a worldwide demand for what they make. They are there so that someone in San Francisco can have a computer, so that someone in the Candian Rockies can get high-tech outdoor gear for their adventures, to make the trim in your car or the bus seat you sat in this morning, and to make the grocery bag you brought your organic produce home in. They ended up here; but they wouldn't be here without a world eager for their products. And one of the pressures that makes them cut corners is that to keep the rest of the world happy, they have to make those goods as cheaply as possible.

If keeping someone who lives downwind of the plant from getting sick means those things are going to cost a bit more, that should be a cost everyone is willing to absorb.

Interestingly, none of the "stop beating up on the poor defenseless chemical industry" letters that I saw were from people who identified themselves as residents of affected communities. Meanwhile, people who earn their livings from those companies were willing to talk to the Chronicle about the flares when chemicals are burned off, the strange dust coating the neighborhood, the smells, and other fun effects of living near chemical plants.

No comments:

Popular Posts