DeSmog

A Texas Community Is Being Bombarded by Cancer-Causing Benzene. State Officials Have Known for Nearly Two Decades

In 2005, Texas regulators documented startling amounts of benzene in a community outside Houston. Instead of solving the problem, they allowed a known benzene polluter to expand — a decision scientists worry could haunt residents for years to come.
The K-Solv facility in Channelview, TX, U.S., on Wednesday, December 6, 2023. Photographer: Mark Felix/Public Health Watch

For nearly 20 years, Texas environmental regulators have kept a disturbing secret. People living in a small, unincorporated community east of Houston are routinely breathing dangerous levels of benzene, a chemical linked to leukemia and other blood cancers. Emerging research also connects it to diabetes and reproductive problems. 

The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, or TCEQ, has not told residents about the health risks they face. And it has done little to rein in the facility that the agency knew was releasing large amounts of benzene. Instead, the TCEQ has allowed K-Solv, a chemical distribution company nestled in Channelview’s Jacintoport neighborhood, to expand its operations four times since the problem was discovered in 2005. Today K-Solv is legally allowed to release almost 20 times more volatile organic compounds — a class of chemicals that includes benzene — into the air each year than it did back then. 

TCEQ documents obtained by Public Health Watch show that some of those early readings were double the level Texas considered safe at the time. Public Health Watch also analyzed more recent TCEQ pollution data and found that Channelview’s benzene problem has only worsened over the years. 

Benzene is a colorless, sweet-smelling chemical found in crude oil and products including gasoline, solvents, plastics, paints, adhesives and detergents. Although it has been linked to leukemia since the late 1920s, it is unevenly regulated because of relentless opposition from industry groups. When the federal government tried in 1978 to enhance safeguards for workers exposed to benzene, the American Petroleum Institute fought the effort all the way to the Supreme Court, delaying new regulations for almost 10 years.

A Google Earth image of K-Solv’s chemical distribution facility in Channelview’s Jacintoport neighborhood. Barges loaded with petrochemicals line the shores of the San Jacinto River, where generations of families once swam. Credit: Google Earth; Landsat/Copernicus; Data SIO; National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration; U.S. Navy; Geospatial-Intelligence Agency; General Bathymetric Chart of the Oceans.

The federal benzene standard for workers today is the same as it was in 1987, although a growing body of evidence shows it doesn’t give them nearly enough protection against cancer. And there are still no federal standards for ambient benzene exposure — the amount that people who live near industrial facilities can safely breathe as they go about their daily lives. 

At least eight states, including Texas and California, have tried to fill that gap by creating their own regulations to limit ambient benzene emissions. But while California has strengthened its rules over the years, Texas has gone in the opposite direction. Its guidelines are far weaker than those in any of the other states.

Today, the TCEQ says the public is protected if the air outside industrial facilities contains an average of no more than 180 parts of benzene per billion parts of air (180 ppb) over a one-hour period. That’s seven times higher than Texas said was safe back in 2005, when Channelview’s benzene problem was  discovered. It’s 22 times higher than the 8 ppb guideline California uses today.

Texas also has weakened its long-term guideline for benzene — a number meant to protect residents from the risk of developing cancer. In 2007, the TCEQ raised its annual guideline from an average of 1 ppb to 1.4 ppb, a 40% increase. That’s 14 times more than what California says is safe and at least 3.5 times higher than any other state allows.

***

As the TCEQ loosened its guidelines and more industries moved into Channelview’s Jacintoport neighborhood, the community’s benzene problem intensified. A Public Health Watch analysis of TCEQ pollution data shows that between 2019 and 2021, annual readings soared as high as 2.1 ppb, exceeding even today’s weakened TCEQ guidelines by 50%.

Three independent scientists who reviewed the Public Health Watch findings say those annual readings are especially troubling. While short-term emissions can cause immediate health problems like vomiting and drowsiness, high long-term emissions indicate consistent, daily exposures that can lead to cancer and other life-threatening conditions.

Chart represents parts of benzene per billon parts of air or ppb. TECQ used its former annual guideline of 1 ppb until 2008. It adopted its current annual guildeline of 1.4 ppb in 2008.

“Any exposure to a carcinogen increases your risk of developing cancer. We have to limit that, and I don’t know why you wouldn’t,” said Loren Hopkins, a professor at Rice University and a nationally recognized expert in environmental science. “We already have a lot of carcinogens in our air. It doesn’t make sense to me to increase the threshold for benzene.”

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has created a tool that measures a community’s increased cancer risk from toxic chemicals in the air. It shows that in the state of Texas the lifetime total cancer risk from exposure to chemicals, including benzene, is 30 cases in 1 million people. In Channelview’s Jacintoport neighborhood, where K-Solv and many other industries pollute the air, the risk is double that: 60 in a million.

“That’s likely an undercount,” Hopkins said. “The EPA’s National Air Toxics Assessment tool is based on weaker monitoring data from a few years back. We’re seeing much higher benzene numbers in Jacintoport now.”

Based on newer benzene numbers she has seen, Hopkins thinks a more accurate cancer-risk figure for Jacintoport could be as high as 78 in a million.

Children return home from school in Channelview, Texas. Over the last four decades, the once-rural area has become increasingly industrialized. Barges loaded with toxic chemicals sit on the San Jacinto River less than half a mile away. Credit: Mark Felix/Public Health Watch

In a statement to Public Health Watch, the TCEQ said that “benzene concentrations measured in the Jacintoport area since 2005 have triggered actions at TCEQ that include placement of stationary air monitors, evaluation of air monitoring data, and follow-up investigations of potential pollutant sources.”

Jacintoport residents are well-protected, the statement said, because state guidelines are “set at levels well below concentrations that would cause health effects.” According to a document on the TCEQ website, the guidelines are based on scientific studies from the 1980s and ’90s. 

“TCEQ continues to vigilantly evaluate benzene levels at [the Jacintoport] monitor, while encouraging efforts to reduce benzene in this area,” an agency spokesperson said in an email.

[chart: Jacintoport residents have…]

Chart showing comparison of total cancer risk from exposure to toxic chemicals: total US population's risk is 30 people per million. Harris County population risk is 40 people per 1 million. Jacintoport risk is 60 people per million.

Harris County Attorney Christian Menefee, the county’s chief civil lawyer, said he was “appalled but not surprised” by the TCEQ’s inaction in Channelview. 

“This shows that the state of Texas has no meaningful oversight over these corporations. They’re allowed to run rampant in our communities,” said Menefee, who has used the county’s limited authority to penalize polluters. “If they want to pollute the air in a way that is so aggressive that it can cause people to get sick or get diseases, they’re allowed to do so. The agency that has been set up by the state to come in and rein these folks in just repeatedly fails to do its job.”

***

Tim Doty is the scientist who led the TCEQ mobile monitoring team that recorded Channelview’s high benzene levels back in 2005 and 2006. Now retired from the TCEQ, he spent his career hunting down  emissions from oil refineries and chemical plants across Texas. On each trip, Doty’s scientists spent about a week in Harris County, home to the biggest petrochemical complex in the United States, collecting readings outside multibillion-dollar plants and embedding themselves in seas of tanks loaded with chemicals. But it was K-Solv, an unassuming facility on 4 acres of land, that worried them most.

The team put the worst offenders near the top of its post-trip reports, Doty said, and K-Solv was at or near the top of every one. On the team’s first trip, K-Solv was listed above far bigger facilities, including LyondellBasell’s nearly 4,000-acre complex in North Channelview, one of the largest petrochemical facilities on the Gulf Coast. 

The reports show that one-hour benzene levels outside K-Solv consistently exceeded the TCEQ guidelines in place at the time. On one trip the scientists recorded a one-hour sample of 180 ppb. Doty said it was one of the highest benzene readings he had ever seen in a residential area. 

Doty remembers talking with a man who lived across the street from K-Solv. The man told him that clouds of chemicals floated into his home each night.

“The first time we spoke, he seemed surprised to see me. He’d figured nobody cared about what was happening in Channelview,” Doty said. “I don’t know what happened to him, but I still think about him to this day.”

Tim Doty, a former TCEQ mobile air monitoring expert, at the industrial edge of River Terrace Park in Channelview, Texas. Doty documented high levels of benzene in the Jacintoport neighborhood nearly 20 years ago and still worries about the people who live there. “You don’t want your family chronically exposed to benzene on a daily, weekly, monthly basis. I wouldn’t want my family there. But not everyone has the economic means to have a choice of leaving a place like Jacintoport.” Credit: Mark Felix/Public Health Watch

Public Health Watch sorted through nearly two dozen boxes filled with thousands of TCEQ documents,  obtained through public-information requests, to review toxicology memos and reports Doty’s team filed. We contacted 13 of the 15 TCEQ officials whose names appear on those documents. Only Doty and former TCEQ Executive Director Glenn Shankle, who now owns an environmental-consulting company, agreed to be interviewed. The TCEQ denied Public Health Watch’s requests to speak with interim director Kelly Keel or other agency officials. 

In July, Public Health Watch began trying to contact K-Solv by phone, email and in person at its office in Jacintoport. We received no response until November, when the company’s chief legal officer, Todd Riddle, responded with an email calling Public Health Watch’s investigation “an attempt to target K-Solv Group specifically.” Riddle pointed to other businesses and nearby chemical barges as “sources of benzene emissions in the Channelview area.”

K-Solv Group is a privately owned, chemical-distribution and maritime-services company. Its main facility, opened in 2004, now occupies about 8 acres along the San Jacinto River in Channelview. 

In a 34-minute interview and in subsequent emails, Riddle refused to comment on the high benzene emissions the TCEQ had recorded outside K-Solv because he said he had not seen the TCEQ monitoring-trip and toxicology reports. Public Health Watch obtained those documents through a public-records request. 

“We spend hundreds of thousands of dollars annually to not only limit and prevent any harmful emissions of any substance, but to provide our workforce, our neighbors and community the healthiest facility we possibly can,” Riddle said in a written statement.

Christmas decorations are displayed behind a barbed-wire fence at K-Solv’s office in Channelview’s Jacintoport neighborhood. A row of tanks holding volatile chemicals at the company’s main facility sits just feet away. Credit: Mark Felix/Public Health Watch

Public Health Watch interviewed dozens of current and former Channelview residents. They described  their community’s transformation from a rural enclave into an industrial center and from a majority-white to a majority-Hispanic community. Many told of losing neighbors and family members to cancer and watching others struggle with asthma and similar breathing issues. Some were dealing with their own health problems.

Few spoke more passionately than the surviving members of the Lopez family, who lived across the street from K-Solv for nearly 20 years before evacuating their property. 

Joe Lopez died in 2004 of kidney failure triggered by diabetes at the age of 65. His wife, Dora, overcame thyroid cancer but needed a breathing machine for the last years of her life. Joel Lopez, the eldest of their three sons, cared for her until she died in 2017. He has been diagnosed with myelodysplasia, a blood cancer that can develop into leukemia. He struggles with complications from diabetes.  

“I would try to persuade my mother to sell everything and just go someplace else,” said Randy Lopez, the middle son. He left Channelview when he was a teenager and is in good health today. “It’s like a cancer was embedded in the heart of Channelview. It’s just extremely depressing.”

Joel (left) and Randy Lopez at Joel’s home in Houston, Texas. The brothers grew up hunting and riding horses in Jacintoport, but that was before industry overran the area and K-Solv opened across the street from their family home. Joel is being treated for myelodysplasia, a blood cancer that can develop into leukemia. “How can you just … turn a blind eye to it all?” Randy asked, referring to TCEQ officials who have known about the area’s benzene problem for years. “I’d like to understand why. What was their thinking?” Credit: Mark Felix/Public Health Watch

***

Benzene has been an integral part of the Texas economy since 1901, when wildcatters struck “black gold” at Spindletop. The oil boom transformed Texas from an agrarian state to one with bustling cities and national influence. It also birthed a class of oil barons whose wealth and conservative political interests shaped national politics and popularized Texas culture in movies and TV shows.  

Harris County, where Channelview is located, was the main beneficiary of this evolution. By the end of World War II, the county — which includes the city of Houston — had emerged as an international shipping hub and ground zero for America’s oil and gas industry. Last year, 11 Houston billionaires made Forbes’ “400 Richest Americans” list, and all but three had ties to the oil and gas industry. 

As the global demand for plastics has grown, Texas also has become a hub for the petrochemical industry, which uses benzene in its production processes. Since 2016, eight petrochemical facilities have opened in the state, according to Oil and Gas Watch, a nonprofit that tracks the oil, gas and petrochemical industries. Thirty others have expanded, including 11 in Harris County. 

Channelview, 15 miles east of downtown Houston, has been a primary target for industrial expansion. Until the 1980s it was a rural hideaway where people rode horses and hunted in tree-lined fields. Its closest claims to fame were a distant view of the battleground where Texas won its independence from Mexico and the homestead of Lorenzo de Zavala, the Republic of Texas’ first vice president. 

By the time Doty’s team parked its monitoring vans outside K-Solv for the first time on June 4, 2005, de Zavala’s log house had been leveled, and industrial facilities had replaced wooded prairies. The Jacintoport neighborhood, once home to doctors’ riverside residences and fields of azaleas, was besieged by petrochemical companies fighting for waterfront property near the Houston Ship Channel, a critical artery in the Port of Houston. Barges loaded with chemicals lined the shores of the San Jacinto River, where generations of families once swam. 

Channelview’s population was changing, too.

As industries moved in, its once-overwhelmingly white population began shrinking. Today more than 70% of residents identify as Hispanic. The poverty rate has risen from 15% in 2005 to nearly 21%. Almost a quarter of the population doesn’t have health insurance.

Channelview’s Changing Profile

Alison Cohen, an assistant professor of epidemiology at the University of California, San Francisco, studies industrial pollution in communities around the world. She said this kind of population shift is common when large numbers of industries move into residential areas. People who can afford to move do. Those left behind tend to be poorer and have less political power.

“Communities that bear a disproportionately high burden of environmental pollution tend to also have less access to affordable, high-quality health care,” Cohen said. “Since being exposed to higher levels of environmental pollution can have health consequences, it is particularly important that residents in communities like Channelview have, at a minimum, equal access to that kind of care.” 

***

When Tim Doty’s team began monitoring in Channelview in 2005, the TCEQ was under fire from clean-air advocates and then-Houston Mayor Bill White, who questioned the agency’s commitment to policing industrial pollution in and around the city. The state needed to save face, and Glenn Shankle, the TCEQ’s executive director at the time, wanted Doty’s mobile monitoring team to get to Houston as quickly as possible. Shankle’s instructions were clear: Track down any extreme benzene levels in the area. 

“We used mobile monitoring in what we would call ‘hot spots,’” Shankle told Public Health Watch. “I kind of took the lead on Houston because of all their problems.”

The team visited 26 facilities in Harris County but quickly zeroed in on K-Solv.

The facility, less than 200 feet from the Lopez home and other residences, was a frenzy of activity. Barges sat docked on its backside, waiting for often-volatile products to be removed from the vessels’  bottoms, or “heels.” Hoses carrying chemicals snaked to metal storage tanks or idling 18-wheelers, ready to rumble through Jacintoport’s once-quiet streets. A metal shed containing barrels of chemicals sat at the complex’s northern boundary.

During that first investigation, Doty’s scientists conducted about 80 hours of air monitoring near homes downwind of the facility, according to the trip report. They used metal canisters to trap air samples and 16-foot box vans outfitted with small ovens that analyzed real-time readings by burning off chemicals. 

They detected more than a dozen chemicals. But benzene was their priority. 

“It’s not just that there is no safe level of exposure to benzene,” said Cohen, the University of California, San Francisco, epidemiologist. “It’s that exposure to it over time may add up to increase the risk of health issues in both children and adults.”

Doty was accustomed to measuring high benzene levels outside refineries. But even he was shocked by what he found downwind of K-Solv.

Map showing locations in the Jacintoport neighborhood of Channelview Texas where dangerous levels of benzene have been released.

At one point, the monitoring team recorded an 18-hour average of 23 ppb of benzene, which Doty described as “far more telling than a one-hour reading” and “benzene levels I’d never want my family exposed to.” 

The scientists also found high levels of propylene and butane – compounds used to make plastics that can cause conditions ranging from shortness of breath to liver damage. In extremely high concentrations they can cause people to pass out or even die from asphyxiation.

The team’s tests showed that Channelview residents were breathing a cocktail of chemicals. 

Some compounds, like benzene, whose sweet smell often goes unnoticed, didn’t cause much alarm in the community. Other compounds with distinct odors were harder to ignore.

“The health consequences of exposures to mixtures of chemicals can be complex,” Cohen said. “Evidence suggests that, at minimum, the health risks related to each chemical exposure combined add up to a greater health risk.”

[photo: kids on swings]

A child and their mother swing on a playground at River Terrace Park in Channelview, TX, U.S., on Wednesday, December 6, 2023. 

Photographer: Mark Felix
River Terrace Park is located a little more than a mile from K-Solv. The popular park is even closer to chemical barges and industrial cranes along the San Jacinto River. Credit: Mark Felix/Public Health Watch

The monitoring team’s report was sent to Michael Honeycutt, who led the TCEQ’s toxicology division for 20 years. At the time, his staff evaluated monitor readings by comparing them with the guidelines used on state-issued permits to set emission limits for industrial facilities. Called effects screening levels, the guidelines were created to “protect human health and welfare,” according to the TCEQ’s website

Eight of the one-hour samples Doty’s team measured during that trip exceeded the 25 ppb permit guideline at the time. The highest reading was double that level.

Senior toxicologist Valerie Meyers wrote a memo in response to Doty’s report. Directed to the agency’s top permitting and enforcement officials, it noted that “persistently elevated levels of benzene may contribute to long-term health concerns.” In a section of the memo labeled “downwind of K-Solv,” Meyers recommended installing a long-term, stationary monitor in Jacintoport to help the TCEQ “fully characterize chronic exposure and risk.” 

The team’s report also prompted the TCEQ to launch an on-site investigation of K-Solv’s operation in February 2006. The investigation found that the company was relieving pressure in its chemical tanks by routinely "burping" emissions directly into the air instead of venting them through proper pollution controls. K-Solv was fined $4,320 and ordered to install new relief valves on its tanks.

The mobile monitoring team visited Harris County three more times between December 2005 and December 2006. K-Solv was a priority during these trips, Doty said. 

No trip was as revelatory as the one in April 2006. 

At one point the scientists measured a one-hour average benzene concentration of 180 ppb, seven times the 25 ppb limit at the time.  Other one-hour readings were almost as high: 170 ppb, 130 ppb, 110 ppb. 

The TECQ mobile monitoring team took one-hour samples outside K-Solve four times from 2005 to 2006. During each trip, the team recorded benzene levels above the one-hour guideline the agency used at the time. Some levels even appraoches the agency's current guideline, which is seven times more lenient.

The team also measured high levels of other chemicals, including methyl t-butyl ether and 1-pentene —  gasoline additives with strong odors that can burn the eyes and throat and cause wheezing and dizziness.

Doty had seen similarly elevated benzene levels outside oil refineries and large chemical plants. But those facilities were usually far from populated areas.

“It’s a whole other level to find elevated, constant concentrations like that in a residential area,” he said. “I mean, we were literally across the street from residential houses. That’s a whole different ball game.” 

In December 2006, Meyers sent another internal memo. Again she highlighted elevated benzene levels in a section of the memo labeled “downwind of K-Solv.” 

“There is some concern” about the measurements, she wrote, “due to the proximity of the neighborhood and the fact that benzene is a known carcinogen.”

Trailer park homes in Channelview, TX, U.S., on Wednesday, December 6, 2023. 

Photographer: Mark Felix/Public Health Watch
A row of manufactured homes in Channelview, Texas. The area’s poverty rate has risen from 15% in 2005 to nearly 21%. Almost a quarter of the population doesn’t have health insurance. Once majority-white, the community is now majority-Hispanic. Alison Cohen, an assistant professor of epidemiology at the University of California, San Francisco, said this kind of population shift is common when industries move into residential areas. Credit: Mark Felix/Public Health Watch

Meyers reiterated the recommendation she had made eight months earlier: a long-term, stationary monitor near K-Solv was the best way to evaluate the “potential human health risk” the company’s emissions posed to residents. 

No violations were issued to K-Solv. The TCEQ leaders who received the memo — Richard Hyde, director of the air permits division, and John Sadlier, then director of the enforcement division — stuck with the agency’s wait-and-see approach. 

Meyers, who now works at NASA and uses the last name Ryder, declined to speak with Public Health Watch about her actions in response to K-Solv’s benzene emissions.

Hyde, who went on to serve as the TCEQ’s executive director from 2014 to 2018, now works as a lobbyist for the petrochemical industry.  He did not respond to calls and emails from Public Health Watch. Sadlier, who worked as a consultant for Exxon Mobil after he left the TCEQ, did not respond, either.  

By the end of 2006, the monitor that Meyers had recommended had been installed in a clearing 5 blocks from K-Solv, where it would be likely to capture emissions downwind from the facility. The metal canister would gather 24-hour air samples that could be collected manually and taken to the TCEQ laboratory for analysis. 

It wasn’t the automated gas chromatograph air monitor Doty had hoped for — a state-of-the-art instrument that could continuously feed air samples directly into the agency’s database. But it still felt like progress. Doty believed his group of scientists, named the TCEQ’s “2005 team of the year,” had taken the people of Channelview one step closer to safety and K-Solv one step closer to accountability. 

***

Few people, if any, in Channelview knew about the TCEQ’s growing concern about high benzene levels outside K-Solv. That information, buried in stacks of TCEQ monitoring reports and memos, hadn’t been shared with the public.  

On the afternoon of April 19, 2007, however, K-Solv grabbed just about everybody’s attention. A tanker truck at the facility went up in flames as it was being loaded with xylene, a highly volatile liquid found in paint thinners and coatings. A plume of smoke shot into the sky, and ashes covered houses and cars with soot. Fire engines raced through the community’s narrow streets. A K-Solv worker was rushed to the hospital with third-degree burns.

Joel Lopez, the oldest son in the family that lived across the street from K-Solv, was at work when he got a desperate phone call from his mother.

“My mom was scared. It was really, really bad,” he said. “She had to evacuate the area because of the toxic fumes.” 

The fire lasted roughly an hour, but chemicals leaked into the community for 26 more hours, according to TCEQ reports. The reports said the accident released about 3,000 pounds of xylene, which can cause headaches and irritate the eyes, nose and throat, and 240 pounds of carbon monoxide, which can cause fatigue and confusion. 

“Right now, our main concern is the safety of our employees,” K-Solv owner Russell Allen told reporters at the time. “Everything has been contained and no contaminants went into the river.”

The TCEQ cited K-Solv for two violations related to the fire and told them to fix the problems. But the agency didn’t fine or otherwise penalize K-Solv. 

In fact, the agency rarely fines companies that violate Texas air pollution laws. According to a report by nonprofit advocacy groups Environment Texas and the Environmental Integrity Project, polluters in Texas were fined for less than 3% of the nearly 25,000 illegal releases between 2011 and 2016. A TCEQ spokesperson disputed those findings, telling Public Health Watch last year that “the current enforcement rate for reported emission events is more than 10%.” The TCEQ did not respond when asked if that number still stands.

Houston, Texas: Tim Doty uses a FLIR camera to look for chemical emissions at the K-Solv facility in the Channelview neighborhood of Houston, Texas on August 28, 2023.

PUBLIC HEALTH WATCH/ MARK FELIX
Tim Doty uses an infrared camera to observe emissions from K-Solv’s Jacintoport facility on August 28, 2023. The former TCEQ air monitoring expert said the chemical distribution site has grown significantly since he first documented high levels of benzene and other pollutants there in 2005. “If I was a TCEQ person, I would be trying to check out what’s going on,” Doty said as he watched fumes waft from K-Solv’s tanks. Credit: Mark Felix/Public Health Watch

Instead of punishing violators with fines, the TCEQ usually encourages them to make voluntary fixes or allows them to use the state’s “affirmative-defense” rule. It enables polluters to avoid being penalized if they file a written report describing how an incident was “unavoidable” and “beyond the control” of the company.

***

Five months after the fire, the results from Doty’s fourth trip to Channelview were circulated among TCEQ leaders. Again, his team had documented benzene levels near K-Solv that exceeded state guidelines, including a one-hour reading of 52 ppb, more than double the 25 ppb Texas considered acceptable at the time.

The scientists also reported that readings of two other chemicals outside K-Solv exceeded state guidelines. Styrene, a compound used in latex, can cause people to feel drunk and experience color changes in their vision. Methyl ethyl ketone, a solvent found in lacquers and varnishes, can cause dizziness and vomiting.

In September 2007, the TCEQ toxicology department responded with an interoffice memo to Matt Baker, the new director of enforcement, and other agency officials. 

The emissions the team found were not “expected to cause short-term health effects,” the memo said in a section titled “Jacintoport Neighborhood Area.” In a section titled “Downwind of K-Solv,” it added that long-term monitoring from the metal canister the TCEQ had installed a year earlier would help the agency “more fully evaluate long-term benzene levels and potential human health risk.” 

Two weeks after the memo was sent, the TCEQ did what the agency describes as routine air reconnaissance in Jacintoport — the type of monitoring it often does to check for obvious chemical emissions in industrialized areas. The process is quick and cheap. Investigators typically pace the streets near industrial facilities and use infrared cameras to search for visible emissions and their noses to check for odors.

[photo: row of tanks]

Houston, Texas: A Tank battery at the K-Solv facility in the Channelview neighborhood of Houston, Texas on August 28, 2023.

PUBLIC HEALTH WATCH/ MARK FELIX
A row of tanks looms above an office building at K-Solv’s chemical distribution facility. Since 2005, two large fires have broken out at the facility and the TCEQ has documented high benzene levels downwind of it. Credit: Mark Felix/Public Health Watch

A report filed by the two investigators sent to Jacintoport said they smelled an odor outside K-Solv. According to their report, K-Solv’s workers spotted them, and suddenly the odor went away. The investigators said they ducked out of sight — and the odor immediately returned. 

The inspectors returned to K-Solv a few days later and filed another report saying the same thing had happened. In both reports the inspectors said the chemical odor was so strong that they left with headaches. 

Neither incident was considered a violation of TCEQ rules, and no enforcement action was taken. 

K-Solv’s lawyer, Todd Riddle, declined to answer questions about these incidents because, he said, he hadn’t seen these reports, which are available to the public. Instead, he asked if Public Health Watch had “any more information or documentation about such conduct lately.”

It was at about this time that Texas took the unusual step of weakening its permit guidelines for benzene and six other toxic chemicals. The move was part of a years-long campaign led by the TCEQ’s lead toxicologist, Michael Honeycutt, who was known for his strong opposition to regulation.

The one-hour permit guideline was increased to 53 ppb, more than double what the agency said was permissible in 2005 and almost seven times as much as what California says is safe. Texas also increased its annual guideline from 1 ppb to 1.4 ppb. That’s more than three times weaker than Maine’s, the second-most lenient annual guideline in the country.

Loren Hopkins, Alison Cohen and Cloelle Danforth — the three scientists who analyzed the TCEQ’s Channelview monitoring data for Public Health Watch — said it’s extremely rare for U.S. regulatory agencies to relax their exposure limits for toxic chemicals. 

While Danforth was a senior scientist with the Environmental Defense Fund, she and Hopkins co-authored a paper that provided a road map for responding to high ambient benzene levels during chemical disasters. Published this year in the peer-reviewed journal Integrated Environmental Assessment and Management, it suggested more stringent and precise benzene guidelines than what are currently in place in Texas.

Houston, Texas: Dr. Loren Hopkins poses for a portrait at Bayland park in Houston, Texas on November 8, 2023.

PUBLIC HEALTH WATCH/ MARK FELIX
Loren Hopkins, a professor at Rice University and a nationally recognized expert in environmental science. Hopkins said benzene levels in Channelview are higher than anywhere else in the Houston region. “There is a real concern… People live right there.” Credit: Mark Felix/Public Health Watch

***

Honeycutt’s toxicology division soon took an even more dramatic step to weaken Texas’ benzene guidelines. 

Instead of using permit guidelines to assess health risks for residents, in October 2007 his division created a new one-hour guideline for the toxicologists to use. Called the “Ambient Monitoring Comparison Value,” it was set at 180 ppb — three times higher than the already-weakened permit guideline of 53 ppb.  

The 180-ppb limit is “just nuts, basically,” said Eric Schaeffer, a former director of the EPA’s Office of Civil Enforcement who is now executive director of the Environmental Integrity Project. “It’s way out there. I don’t know where they got that from and why it would be particularly credible.”

Schaeffer worries that raising the limit provides a false sense of security for residents of Channelview and other industrialized communities in Texas. 

"The question isn't whether there was an hour where [benzene levels] hit 180. The question is whether people were exposed to much lower levels for longer periods of time,” he said. His concern is that the TCEQ could "go out and say, 'It's below 180 ppb, so we're good.' But they're not."

Environmental advocates already viewed Honeycutt as being too friendly toward industry. His move to weaken the permit guidelines reinforced their opinion.

Jim Tarr, a chemical engineer who worked for the TCEQ’s predecessor agency in the 1970s, told a reporter that Honeycutt’s decision to weaken the agency’s permit guideline for benzene was “the most irresponsible action I’ve heard of in my life.” 

For Doty, weakening the permit guidelines for polluters was akin to raising the speed limit for motorists. He saw his team’s work in the field as more important than ever.

But in 2008, an energy boom took hold in Texas and upended Doty’s team. A process known as hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, made extracting deeply buried deposits of oil and natural gas financially feasible.  The process also released benzene and other naturally occurring compounds into the air and water.

Fracking turned the Barnett Shale, a 5,000-square-mile geological formation that stretched west and south from Dallas, into one of the nation’s largest onshore natural gas fields. It also represented a lifeline for state leaders desperate to stave off rising economic pressures from the Great Recession. The financial crisis was in full tilt, and the TCEQ was in the early stages of widespread cuts that would reduce its budget by 30% over the next six years. Clamping down on benzene emissions could jeopardize the state’s emerging cash cow. 

Houston, Texas: An air monitor at Carolyn Stone’s home in the Channelview neighborhood of Houston, Texas on July 13, 2023.

PUBLIC HEALTH WATCH/ MARK FELIX
As industrial facilities have moved into Channelview and residents have lost faith in the TCEQ, nonprofits like Air Alliance Houston have started installing air monitors at homes to track pollution. This PurpleAir monitor, located at Carolyn Stone’s home, provides residents with real-time information about potentially harmful substances they are breathing. Credit: Mark Felix/Public Health Watch

Tensions were high at the TCEQ. Its mission is to protect public health so long as it is “consistent with sustainable economic development.” 

Glenn Shankle — who held the executive director’s job from 2004 to 2008 — said the staff of Rick Perry, a Republican who served as Texas governor from 2000 to 2015, sometimes called his office to question the agency’s enforcement decisions.

Perry “would kind of stay in our business a lot, I’ll put it that way,” said Shankle, who left the agency for a job at a radioactive-waste company. “He wouldn’t call personally. He’d have a staff person call and go, ‘I understand y’all are getting ready to take enforcement action. … Well, y’all might want to take another look at that.’”

Doty’s monitoring team felt the shift in the agency’s priorities. 

“We were hunting down polluters and kicking ass before the fracking began. It really was a golden era for monitoring,” Doty said. “But everything steadily began to change from there. The TCEQ leadership’s change in strategy was obvious: The less we were allowed to look for emissions, the less we’d find problems.”

Perry and companies he is affiliated with did not respond to calls, emails and Instagram messages from Public Health Watch. The TCEQ declined to comment on Shankle’s or Doty’s claims.  

***

In December 2009, Tim Doty’s team was sent to investigate complaints about benzene emissions from fracking operations in and around Fort Worth, the state’s fifth-largest city. Some of the operations were in residential neighborhoods. 

Doty said his scientists followed the procedures they used for all their trips. They took quick, preliminary readings, then used more sophisticated equipment to collect air samples that would be tested in the agency’s laboratory. Both sets of data would appear in their final reports.

Because it was cold outside, Doty said any benzene in the air would be less active and less detectable, so he wasn’t surprised when the preliminary readings showed only trace amounts. He was eager to see the more precise canister results. 

But Doty said TCEQ field operations managers told him that additional analysis — including sending the more precise air samples to the lab — wasn’t necessary.

“That had never happened in the history of the mobile monitoring team,” Doty said. “You can’t just pick and choose the samples you want to report. You have to report them all.”

On Jan. 12, 2010, the TCEQ’s deputy director of compliance and enforcement, John Sadlier, addressed a Fort Worth City Council meeting packed with residents and clean-air advocates.  

“Everything you hear today will be good news,” Sadlier told them.

He assured them that the TCEQ’s mobile monitoring team had found no evidence of unsafe levels of benzene or other cancer-causing chemicals during its December trip. 

“Based on this study, the air is safe,” he said.

A couple of weeks later, news leaked out that Sadlier’s statement had been based on incomplete information. The agency’s chief auditor opened a fraud investigation into the incident and interviewed eight people, including two managers in the agency’s Field Operation Support division: David Bower and Matt Baker.

The auditor’s report said that while the information presented at the council meeting was “technically accurate,” it “could be considered to be misleading.” But it found no evidence that management was aware the information “could be misleading at the time it was presented” to Sadlier.

The report also revealed that after the agency’s misstep became public, the TCEQ did more monitoring in the Fort Worth area. It found that benzene levels there did, in fact, exceed the TCEQ’s annual guideline of 1.4 ppb. 

Baker, now a city council member in the Austin suburb of Round Rock, did not respond to calls and emails from Public Health Watch. The TCEQ did not allow Bower, now a special assistant in the agency’s office of compliance and enforcement, to answer questions. Instead, the agency sent the following statement:

“To assert that Mr. Bower blocked efforts to send mobile monitoring findings to the agency’s laboratory is false. TCEQ strives to provide the best service to the state of Texas and any statement suggesting otherwise is unfounded.”

U.S. Representative Michael Burgess, a Dallas-area Republican, called for then-Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott to conduct a “robust investigation” into the TCEQ’s handling of the matter. But Abbott, now the Republican governor of Texas, didn’t open an investigation. He did, however, sue the EPA nine times in 2010 for “unlawfully commandeering Texas' environmental enforcement program.”

Houston, Texas: A sign at the River Terrace Park in the Channelview neighborhood of Houston, Texas on August 26, 2023.

PUBLIC HEALTH WATCH/ MARK FELIX
Generations of Channelview families once swam and fished in the San Jacinto River. But its waters are no longer considered safe because of heavy pollution from petrochemical barge activity. Credit: Mark Felix/Public Health Watch

Meanwhile, the TCEQ was finalizing K-Solv’s request to significantly expand its operation in Channelview.  

The investigators who reviewed the permit application noted K-Solv’s proximity to residences and the history of odors they had documented outside the facility. They warned that the expansion could become “another contributing factor” to chemical exposure in the community. 

But managers dismissed their concerns, and the permit was issued in February 2010.

K-Solv was allowed to legally increase its annual emissions of volatile organic compounds, which include benzene,  by 299%: from 1,980 pounds a year to 7,900 pounds a year.

***

Over the next two years, Doty’s team was gradually reduced in size and stripped of its power to proactively track down polluters. The TCEQ stopped conducting in-depth, days-long monitoring outside industrial facilities, including K-Solv, in favor of faster and cheaper “routine air reconnaissance.” The visits were usually brief, according to four TCEQ reports filed between March 2011 and October 2012. 

On March 16, 2011, an investigator spent seven minutes outside K-Solv. 

On Aug. 12, 2011, an investigator spent 10 minutes outside K-Solv.

On June 13, 2012, two investigators spent 15 minutes outside K-Solv.

On Oct. 1, 2012, an investigator spent three minutes outside K-Solv. 

The reports said the investigators didn't see or smell anything that worried them during the visits. 

But Jacintoport’s benzene problem hadn’t gone away.

From 2013 to 2014, the neighborhood’s annual benzene levels hovered around 1 ppb, according to readings from the stationary metal canister that had been installed downwind of K-Solv. Annual readings that high would have set off alarm bells had they been taken in California, where the guideline is 0.1 ppb, or in Minnesota, which has established a guideline of 0.24 ppb. 

“The fact that the state of Texas developed their own toxicological parameters from the rest of the United States — that’s what really frustrates me,” said Loren Hopkins, the Rice University professor, when comparing Texas to the other seven states that have established benzene guidelines. “Under this system, benzene has one toxicity factor here and a completely different one when you cross the border into another state. It doesn’t make sense to me, and it never will.” 

Michael Honeycutt, the Texas toxicologist who led the effort to weaken the TCEQ’s chemical guidelines, already had a reputation for bucking widely accepted scientific research.

A dog sits on its porch in Channelview, TX, U.S., on Wednesday, December 6, 2023. 

Photographer: Mark Felix/Public Health Watch
A dog lies on the porch of a home roughly a mile from K-Solv’s Jacintoport facility. TCEQ data shows that the area has been exposed to a cocktail of airborne chemicals for nearly two decades. Independent scientists told Public Health Watch they’re worried about the long-term health of residents there. Credit: Mark Felix/Public Health Watch

In 2011, Honeycutt wrote a letter to Congress arguing that the EPA was too stringent in its efforts to protect people from mercury, a toxin that can cause lung damage, brain damage and is especially dangerous for fetuses. “EPA ignores the fact that Japanese eat 10 times more fish than Americans do and have higher levels in their blood but have lower rates of coronary heart disease and high scores on their IQ tests,” Honeycutt wrote. 

In 2014, he criticized the EPA’s efforts to regulate ozone, an odorless, colorless ingredient in smog that exacerbates asthma. “I haven’t seen the data that says lowering ozone will produce a health benefit,” he told The Texas Tribune. “In fact, I’ve seen data that shows it might have a negative health benefit.” 

Honeycutt doubled down on that claim a year later, warning that “people are going to die” if the EPA’s proposed ozone standards went into effect. 

Honeycutt did not respond to calls and emails from Public Health Watch.

***

By 2016, Joel and Randy Lopez had persuaded their 76-year-old mother, Dora, to leave Channelview for good. She needed a breathing machine to sleep at night, and the constant flow of chemicals had become unbearable for her. Joel, her primary caregiver, had done everything he could to protect her, including taping her windows and doors shut. But the fumes kept coming. 

The lush property the Lopez brothers remembered from their childhood was gone. The vegetation had withered away as the pollution worsened, Randy said, leaving behind “an empty wasteland” where nothing could grow. 

Joel Lopez said they sold the family home to K-Solv so they could pay for their mother’s rising health care costs. K-Solv used the land to build an employee parking lot and storage shed next to its office building, part of another expansion.

Around that time, the TCEQ amended K-Solv’s permit and allowed it to handle more chemicals and release more volatile organic compounds per hour than ever before. 

A TCEQ official who reviewed K-Solv’s amendment application said in an interoffice memo that K-Solv was predicted to exceed the one-hour permit guideline for benzene  — which they had changed from 53 ppb to 54 ppb — for 54 hours a year. But because that prediction was based on “worst case” assumptions, the official said the agency did not “anticipate adverse health effects to occur among the general public.”

Channelview’s Jacintoport neighborhood has changed dramatically since the 1980s when industry began moving in. Trees and wildlife have disappeared and dredging has altered the San Jacinto River where families used to swim. K-Solv is in the bottom right hand corner. Since opening in 2004, it has expanded from 3.4 acres to 8.5 acres. Credit: Google Earth; Landsat/Copernicus, Houston-Galveston Area Council; Data SIO; Texas General Land Office; U.S. Geological Survey; National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration; U.S. Navy; Geospatial-Intelligence Agency; General Bathymetric Chart of the Oceans. Credit: Google Earth; Landsat/Copernicus, Houston-Galveston Area Council; Data SIO; Texas General Land Office; U.S. Geological Survey; National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration; U.S. Navy; Geospatial-Intelligence Agency; General Bathymetric Chart of the Oceans.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency fined K-Solv twice in nine months — $51,000 in September 2015 for violations including its failure to properly vent its stored acetic acid and $50,000 in June 2016   for failing to submit years of federal paperwork detailing the amounts of hazardous chemicals it stored on its property.

At this point the TCEQ had fined K-Solv only once since the facility opened in 2004: $4,320 for the “burping” incident in 2006. 

Meanwhile, more industries were moving into Jacintoport and benzene emissions were rising. 

Data from the TCEQ’s stationary canister show that from 2019 to the beginning of 2021, annual benzene readings climbed well beyond the agency’s 1.4 ppb guideline. On Feb. 11, 2021, the canister registered an annual average benzene level of 2.1 ppb over the previous 12 months. That’s nearly 50% above Texas’ annual benzene exposure guideline and more than 20 times higher than California’s guideline.

Several days after that reading was taken, the TCEQ replaced the canister with an automated gas chromatograph, the more sophisticated instrument that Doty had hoped to see installed more than 15 years earlier. 

But the upgrade came with a catch. 

While the old monitor was in the middle of the Jacintoport neighborhood and downwind of K-Solv, the new monitor was installed on the northwestern outskirts of the community and farther from most residents’ homes — a location less likely to pick up emissions from K-Solv and other companies’ chemical-laden barges along the nearby riverbank. 

A TCEQ spokesperson said the site of the monitor was changed because the old site was too small to accommodate the new equipment.

The implications of this decision were felt in April 2021, when flames spread through K-Solv’s chemical storage area. The fire burned for nearly three hours and, according to a TCEQ report, released more than 160,000 pounds of volatile organic compounds, including 1,200 pounds of toluene, which can cause euphoria, dilated pupils and nerve damage, and 2,000 pounds of xylene, which can cause headaches and irritate the eyes, nose and throat. 

The smoke was so thick that it showed up on Doppler radar. Firefighters were told to leave the immediate area, and residents were ordered to shelter in place. 

A large fire burns at K-Solv's facility in Jacintoport on April 7, 2021. Despite releasing thousands of pounds of pollutants into the air, the blaze barely made a blip on the TCEQ's new monitor. Credit: KPRC 2

Carolyn Stone and her husband were visiting family when people started calling them about the fire.

“We could see the smoke column from miles away as we rushed home,” said Stone, who lives less than a mile down the road from K-Solv. “We were wondering, ‘Can we get to our house? Do we even have a house left? Were our pets still alive?’”

Their house was undamaged and their pets were safe. But a layer of soot covered their yard, and an oily residue coated their rain collection barrel. 

The fire barely made a blip on the TCEQ’s new air monitor. 

In the 24 hours after the fire, the monitor showed only low levels of xylene and toluene. Its highest one-hour benzene reading was just 4.62 ppb. That’s a tiny fraction of the many one-hour benzene readings Tim Doty’s team documented outside of K-Solv during its monitoring trips.

The day after the fire, the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration began an inspection of K-Solv. It found five violations — three classified as “serious” — and fined the company $28,671.

The TCEQ fined K-Solv $11,413 for the fire. A few months later the agency opened what would become an eight-month investigation into the company’s processes and practices. The probe involved at least 15 agency staffers and included on-site testing and inspections on at least 10 occasions. 

Houston, Texas: Carolyn Stone poses for a portrait at her home in the Channelview neighborhood of Houston, Texas on July 13, 2023.

PUBLIC HEALTH WATCH/ MARK FELIX
Carolyn Stone in the backyard of her Channelview, Texas, home. She leads a growing group of neighbors fighting for a safer community through the Channelview Health & Improvement Coalition. “They want to put industry in and tell us that we have no rights. That’s a slap in the face.” Credit: Mark Felix/Public Health Watch

The 458-page investigation report said volatile organic compounds were leaking from two large tanks. At least 20 more leaks were found in other parts of the compound. The report also said that K-Solv had stored its benzene reserves at a concentration that was double its permitted limit and that the facility’s vapor combustor, which was designed to burn toxic emissions to limit air pollution, hadn’t been hot enough to work properly. 

The inspectors cited K-Solv for 14 violations, five of them classified as “significant.”  K-Solv rebutted the TCEQ’s findings in a 273-page document the company shared with Public Health Watch. It denied four of the violations and described plans to fix four of the others. It did not acknowledge the remaining six.

The TCEQ is still deciding whether to fine the company for the violations. The agency didn’t respond when Public Health Watch asked when the case would be resolved.

The monitor installed in 2021 continues to operate on the outskirts of the Jacintoport neighborhood.

In 2022, the first full year it was operating, it measured an annual benzene average of just 0.79 ppb, according to the TCEQ. That’s about two-thirds less than the 2.1 ppb the old metal canister measured from the middle of Jacintoport in 2020, its last full year of operation.  

An oily residue coats a rain collection barrel outside Carolyn Stone’s home. The photo was taken on April 13, 2021 — six days after a chemical fire at K-Solv’s Jacintoport facility released more than 160,000 pounds of volatile organic compounds into the air. Credit: Carolyn Stone/Public Health Watch

*** 

Channelview residents are trying to organize themselves to defend their community against further industry intrusion. It’s an arduous process. The unincorporated area has no central government to rally behind, and with more than 60% of residents speaking a language other than English at home, there are wide language barriers. 

In 2019, Carolyn Stone formed the Channelview Health & Improvement Coalition. It meets at the local fire station every month to help residents understand the environmental dangers they’re living with and lobbies local lawmakers to step up to protect them. The group has been particularly concerned about the San Jacinto River’s rapid deterioration from petrochemical barge activity, including some serviced by K-Solv. 

Stone said her community has long felt abandoned by the TCEQ. But she was shocked when Public Health Watch told her that the agency had known for years about high benzene levels in Jacintoport — and had not shared that information with residents. 

“We’re good people. We’re not trash,” she said. “The people here are worthy of some kind of intervention.”

Cynthia Benson is part of Stone’s group. A three-time cancer survivor, she has lived for decades in her family’s trailer park a quarter of a mile from K-Solv. 

“I have a great, great nephew that was just born. I worry about him growing up here,” Benson said. “It scares me and it angers me. It’s all about the companies and the almighty dollar. They could give a rat’s ass about the people living here. How do I make peace with that?”

Houston, Texas: Cynthia Benson poses for a portrait at Meadowbrook Park in the Channelview neighborhood of Houston, Texas on November 6, 2023.

PUBLIC HEALTH WATCH/ MARK FELIX
Cynthia Benson fights back tears while looking out at petrochemical barges on the San Jacinto River. A three-time cancer survivor who lost both of her parents to the disease, Benson wonders if her remaining family has a future in Channelview. “The chemical companies have come in and taken so much. They’ve taken away our clean air and water.” Credit: Mark Felix/Public Health Watch

Tim Doty retired from the TCEQ more than five years ago, but he still thinks about Channelview. In March 2023, he testified before the Texas Legislature against a bill that ultimately failed. It would have fined residents for filing more than three complaints with the TCEQ in a year if the complaints didn’t result in enforcement action.

Before speaking, Doty handed legislators a memo that included the following paragraph:

“Perhaps this legislation is intended to … minimize complaints from the Jacintoport neighborhood in Houston that is home to elevated benzene, a known carcinogen, concentrations that the TCEQ has been ignoring for years.”

K-Solv continues to expand. Its parent company, K-Solv Group, now includes at least 20 subsidiaries, ranging from oil-and-gas equipment businesses to environmental cleanup firms. The original facility now has 67 chemical storage tanks, nearly quadruple what it had in 2005. Its TCEQ air permit allows it to release more than 39,000 pounds of volatile organic compounds, which include benzene, each year. 

In April, K-Solv Group opened a new facility next to a row of double-wide manufactured homes and about 900 feet from River Terrace Park, where Channelview families picnic and children enjoy a playground lined with swings.

The K-Solv Wash facility in Channelview, TX, U.S., on Wednesday, December 6, 2023. 

Photographer: Mark Felix/Public Health Watch
K-Solv Wash Services, which opened in April, can legally release 3,500 pounds of volatile organic compounds into the air each year. The facility is located next to a row of manufactured homes and just down the road from River Terrace Park, where Channelview families picnic and children enjoy a popular playground. Credit: Mark Felix/Public Health Watch

K-Solv Wash Services cleans tanker trucks that haul chemicals and other materials. It’s a dirty process that produces airborne emissions and toxic wastewater. According to its TCEQ permit, K-Solv Wash Services can legally release 3,500 pounds of volatile organic compounds into the air each year. That’s more than the original K-Solv facility was allowed to release when it opened back in 2004.

Todd Riddle, K-Solv’s lawyer, told Public Health Watch that K-Solv Wash Services has “a state of the art vapor recovery system” with scrubbers that “completely contain any airborne emissions of any kind.”

“All harmful substances are properly contained on site temporarily then are disposed of offsite, in compliance with all environmental regulations," he said in an email.

Riddle said the company chose the site near the park because “it was available and convenient and served our purpose.”

Public Health Watch asked the TCEQ if it considered the proximity of the park and the houses when it approved the K-Solv Wash Services permit. The agency declined to answer any further questions.

Jana Cholakovska is a former intern at the Investigative Reporting Workshop. Reporting, data acquisition and additional work were contributed by Jordan Gass-Pooré, a Public Health Watch audio journalist.

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