Houston develops tool to better monitor levels of cancer-causing benzene

A teenage girl walks around the track of a park across the street from the Valero refinery Monday, Aug. 4, 2014, in the Manchester neighborhood of Houston. Photo: Pat Sullivan, STF / Associated Press

Residents from an east Houston neighborhood started calling the city’s 311 help line after Hurricane Harvey hit two years ago. There was a strong gasoline odor in Manchester, they said, but the city didn’t know what it was.

After establishing monitoring with the help of a local environmental group, city officials discovered levels of the cancer-causing chemical benzene were 324 parts per billion — nearly twice the level at which the state considers short-term exposure to be a potential health risk.

“We sensed (Harvey) wasn’t a one-off and that we need to be prepared and sadly we were right,” said Loren Raun, chief environmental science officer for the Houston Health Department. “Harvey was the beginning of a benzene episode.”

So far this year, there have been at least four major chemical fires and a barge collision in the Houston area, which Raun says have only reinforced the need to be more diligent. “We have to be especially prepared to act,” she said.

Continue reading at the Houston Chronicle.

Houston researchers help memorialize Iceland glacier lost to climate change

The memorial plaque, the first of its kind in the world, will be installed at the very place where the glacier Okjökull, known as “Ok,” stood.Photo: Grétar Thorvaldsson/Málmsteypan Hella / Contributed by: Grétar Thorvaldsson/Málmsteypan Hella

Researchers from Rice University will be among those honoring the first major glacier in Iceland lost to climate change with a memorial plaque Sunday.

Okjökull, or Ok in English, was a glacier in western Iceland on top of a volcanic mountain that at one point reached 15 square kilometers and likely began forming in the 14th or 15th century. But today it is dead.

“Ok is the first Icelandic glacier to lose its status as a glacier,” the plaque reads in Icelandic and English. “In the next 200 years all our glaciers are expected to follow the same path. This monument is to acknowledge that we know what is happening and what needs to be done. Only you know if we did it.”

The memorial, the first of its kind in the world, will be installed atop Ok mountain to commemorate the site where Okjökull stood.

Continue reading at the Houston Chronicle.

New Texas nonprofit offers novel approach for preserving coastal lands, combating global warming

Herff Cornelius watches as his grandson, Wyatt Cornelius, 7, closes a gate on the family’s coastal land Tuesday, July 16, 2019, in Sargent. He hopes the new Texas Coastal Exchange program will help to protect the land for future generations. During the winter months his cattle graze on the land.Photo: Melissa Phillip, Houston Chronicle / Staff photographer

SARGENT — Herff Cornelius and his family have ranched in the Texas Gulf Coast for five generations, four in Matagorda County, but he is struggling to keep the tradition going.

Growing up, he was one of nine siblings. Even though he was the only boy, his sisters did as much on the ranch as he did in the kitchen. He and his wife Nancy had two children, but both went off to college and can’t be as involved.

Now Cornelius has a chance to get a helping hand in maintaining his ranch from an unlikely source: A new initiative aimed at protecting coastal lands and combating global warming.

Scientists stress the urgency of keeping the planet from getting warmer, citing the need to cut greenhouse-gas emissions, and land can play an important role in doing just that. Natural ecosystems such as Texas coastal marshes, prairies and bottomland hardwood forests absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and incorporate it into their roots. That carbon then becomes part of the soil and can remain there for a long time.

Texas has more than 8 million acres of undeveloped coastal lands, but 80 percent is privately owned, so finding a way to work with landowners is a must.

“Traditional conservation organization methods such as buying land for preservation or doing conservation easements have sort of reached their audience,” said Azure Bevington, a coastal ecologist. “Part of it is that we need something new to move even farther ahead.”

After years of trial and error, a group of local environmentalists created the nonprofit Texas Coastal Exchange to help protect natural lands. The project was officially launched this week.

Continue reading at the Houston Chronicle.

Texas sues Exxon Mobil over environmental violations from Baytown fire

Workers watch a fire burn at the ExxonMobil Baytown Olefins Plant on Wednesday, July 31, 2019, in Baytown. Photo: Jon Shapley, Houston Chronicle / Staff photographer

The state of Texas is suing Exxon Mobil for environmental violations, including releasing millions of gallons of firefighting wastewater into the Houston Ship Channel after the petrochemical giant’s most recent fire and explosion in Baytown.

The lawsuit, filed by the attorney general on behalf of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, seeks injunctive relief, civil penalties exceeding $100,000, attorney’s fees and court costs for alleged violations of the Texas Clean Air Act and the Texas Water Code. It follows the filing of a lawsuit by Harris County on Aug. 1 — a day after the company’s plant erupted in flames and injured at least 37 people.

The July 31 fire at the Baytown Olefins Plant released a plume of black smoke visible for miles. For several hours, the City of Baytown issued an order to shelter in place to residents who live west of the plant and south of Texas State Highway Spur 330.

The cause of the fire still is being investigated. Two workers who suffered second- and third-degree burns as a result of the fire have also filed lawsuits seeking more than $1 million in damages each.

Continue reading at the Houston Chronicle.

The El Paso I know

Samantha Ordaz, 20, embraces her boyfriend César Antonio Pacheco, 24, during an anti-violence rally Sunday, Aug. 4, 2019, in El Paso, a day after a shooting that killed 20 people. Both born in El Paso, but parents and grandparents migrated to the United States. Marie De Jesús/Houston Chronicle

Growing up in El Paso meant taking certain things for granted, like speaking two languages and living in two cultures. It was simply a way of life.

My grandfather, born to a mining family in New Mexico, at some point returned to Mexico, where he grew up, got married and had my mother (along with nine other children).

I was born across the border in Juárez. When I was 8, my father moved us al otro lado to El Paso in search of better opportunities.

My husband was born in El Paso but raised in Juárez, learning English by listening to oldies and watching cartoons.

My family’s story is not unique. Most of us straddle the border, not feeling foreign on either side.

To us, it is not Juárez and El Paso — it’s one big city where people cross from one side to the other to shop or eat out. Where families like my own keep a home in each place. The cities are intertwined, and so are the people. And that makes us better; it makes us stronger.

People in El Paso switch from English to Spanish, sometimes in the same sentence; we can have a carne asada (grilled meat) one day and cook hot dogs the next. Families celebrate the Fourth of July and el 16 de septiembre, Mexico’s independence day. Neither makes you less American or less Mexican.

As I read the four pages of the so-called manifesto posted by the accused El Paso shooter, I realized that the seamless blending of two cultures and ethnicities that El Paso represents was the very quality that he feared the most. The “Hispanic invasion of Texas,” as he called it.

He was against race mixing, he said, and cultural diversity. His solution was the physical separation of the races, which would in his view, “improve social unity by granting each race self-determination within their respective territory(s).”

He was afraid of people like me. Brown. He recoiled from a connection that my community embraced.

I found this jarring. Spending most of my childhood and teenage years in El Paso meant seeing others who looked like me, sounded like me. Judges. Teachers. Doctors. I was not the “other.”

It wasn’t until I moved to Tennessee in 2007 that I realized I was actually seen as a foreigner. It was the first time people questioned whether I belonged. The first time I was told to go back to where I came from.

In El Paso we live in a sort of bubble where we are generally shielded from racism and discrimination.

This doesn’t mean El Pasoans don’t have their own issues with immigration. I’ve heard plenty of conversations — including in my family’s kitchen — about Central Americans arriving and how Juárez has its own problems and how local governments should help those in need first, instead of people coming from elsewhere. About how their numbers are overwhelming the border cities. About how you don’t know who they are and what their intentions might be.

And of course, El Paso could benefit from better-paying jobs, better school equity, more voter participation and engagement.

Somehow, El Paso continues to have that small-community feel in an ever-sprawling city. It’s still the place where my parents can leave the house without locking the door and not worry about it (even though I continue to advise against it). Where you run into people you know when you’re out shopping — including at Walmart. Where people show up for each other, as we’ve seen these last few days.

When I talked to my Dad Sunday, he said he had to go to Walmart later that day.

Do you feel weird about it? I asked him in Spanish.

You can’t live in fear, he responded. Life must go on.

And if more of Texas becomes like El Paso, I say there’s nothing to be afraid of. Quite the opposite: We should embrace it.