AUSTIN—In 2007, Texas regulators quietly relaxed the state’s long-term air pollution guideline for benzene, one of the world’s most toxic and thoroughly studied chemicals. The number they came up with, still in effect today, was 40 percent weaker, or less health-protective, than the old one.
The decision by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) was a boon for oil refineries, petrochemical plants and other benzene-emitting facilities, because it allowed them to release more benzene into the air without triggering regulatory scrutiny. But it defied the trend of scientific research, which shows that even small amounts of benzene can cause leukemia. The American Petroleum Institute, lobbyist for some of the nation’s largest benzene producers, privately acknowledged as early as 1948 that the only “absolutely safe” dose was zero.
It’s “the most irresponsible action I’ve heard of in my life,” said Jim Tarr, an air-quality consultant who worked for the TCEQ’s predecessor agency in the 1970s. “I certainly can’t find another regulatory agency in the U.S. that’s done that.”
The benzene decision was part of Texas’ sweeping overhaul of its air pollution guidelines. An analysis by InsideClimate News shows that the TCEQ has loosened two-thirds of the protections for the 45 chemicals it has re-assessed since 2007, even though the state’s guidelines at the time were already among the nation’s weakest.
The changes are being supervised by TCEQ toxicologist Michael Honeycutt, who began updating the way Texas develops its guidelines in 2003, when he was promoted to division chief. A genial, bespectacled man who takes great pride in his work, Honeycutt is a trusted advisor to top TCEQ officials and often acts as the agency’s scientific spokesman. He is also a frequent critic of federal efforts to reduce air pollution.
Honeycutt’s actions reflect Texas’s pro-industry approach to air quality, which InsideClimate News and the Center for Public Integrity have been examining for the past year and a half. Most of the air-quality guidelines the state’s oil and gas producers are supposed to meet are not legally enforceable regulations. That means violators are rarely punished, and residents who complain about foul air near drilling sites have few places to turn for help.