Air-quality roolz, more WAO drama, Bus Rapide(r) Transit


I don’t know where you get your air, but Que2 suspects it doesn’t pass through an air treatment plant or labyrinthine network of pipes before it blows down your street. Unlike our centralized water systems, air comes to us as-is. When polluted by heavy industry or our millions of combusting engines there are only overburdened trees and periodic rain showers to help us out. But when we’re talking tens of millions of pounds of industry-created toxic chemicals hitting the Texas sky each year, we can’t bank on branches to keep the cancer away.

Eight years ago, the U.S. EPA examined national skies for 124 air toxins (80 of which are known cancer-causers), and labeled San Antonio as one of those special red-dot cities where the cancer risk was elevated. Meaning that, should our air stay as fouled as it was at the time, those forced to breathe it over a lifetime would develop cancer at a rate of 50 per million, higher than the national average of 36 per million.

And while powers are lining up to correct the state’s regulatory failings, the toxics in Texas have been declining — just not as fast as they should, according to the EPA and folks at the Sierra Club. Many of the older refineries and chemical plants in the state were “grandfathered” and never required to go through a review of their air-pollution emissions. Sometimes only part of a plant is required to submit to review by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.

“It’s a giant quagmire,” said Neil Carman, the clean-air-program director of the state Sierra Club. “There’s nothing like Texas. Nothing.”

The list of complaints against the TCEQ include a miasma of alleged violations of the Clean Air Act, Carman said, including: accepting “flexible” permits from plants, where only a portion of the total emissions are considered, rather than adhering to the more stringent New Source Review (NSR) process; the bundling of several smaller permit actions at a facility to avoid NSR; changing legal definitions to allow installation of weaker pollution-control systems; and the illegal grandfathering of facilities to keep them from having to go through the permitting process at all.

Texas has more industrial plants that any other state in nation. About 2,000 individual air-emission reports were filed with the TCEQ in 2007, the most recent year for which data is available. And while the EPA is prowling to take over the air-permitting process from the TCEQ if it doesn’t change its ways, the Sierra Club has announced it is preparing to sue the EPA to force stricter oversight on the state.

According to the TCEQ, all of the air pollutants regulated by the Clean Air Act have been in decline in recent years. Statewide emissions of nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxide, particulate matter, and carbon monoxide all saw minimal reductions between 2004 and 2006. A larger reduction appeared in 2007, the year the global recession kicked in.

The same is true of air toxins like those studied by the EPA in 2002.

Between 1995 and 2006, a million pounds of toxic chemicals regulated by the U.S. EPA were either sent straight into the air or into flares in Bexar County. Ten years later, that amount had only been trimmed back to 965,878 pounds. In 2006, however, toxics in Bexar County dropped to 847,624 pounds. And once the recession gripped the state in 2008, the toxics dropped precipitously to 505,842 pounds. Statewide, air toxics have dropped from 93 million pounds in 2002, according to EPA figures, to 82 million pounds in 2006. Toxic emissions statewide dropped more rapidly, down to 69 million pounds in 2008.

No one can say how large the reductions would have been if the changes the feds now want to make had been implemented years ago, but Carman said, “We think it would have been greater.”

“If these flexible permits weren’t any better or cheaper than a New Source Review permit, why would industry want them? Why would industry say, ‘We want a flexible permit rather than an NSR permit’? … Our concern is that some of the plants, but we don’t know, may have made reductions that are inadequate.”

Al Armendariz, EPA Administrator for Region 6, also couldn’t say definitely if air would be cleaner today if TCEQ had never adopted the “flexible” permit program. But he did suggest the program has served to keep such data difficult to divine, which would certainly serve a polluter’s interest.

The Lone Star State is the only state in the Union that uses the so-called “flexible” permits, never approved by the EPA, and yet the vast majority of companies regulated by them are also managing to “operate very profitably in those states without flexible permits,” Armendariz said. But perhaps the biggest problem is that flexible permits are so difficult to comprehend that EPA regulators have a hard time understanding them. “That makes it very difficult for my enforcement staff who do inspections and do oversight to properly do their jobs at these facilities.” And it doesn’t do much for the less astute media and civiliant watchdogs, either.

EPA staff are currently trying to determine if TCEQ also may have allowed some facilities to be grandfathered illegally, Armendariz said. Meanwhile, we’re still waiting to hear from the Bexar County officials and members of the Alamo Area Council of Governments, who recently passed resolutions against toughening federal air-quality rules (based on the suggestion of Metro Health that asthmatics in Texas were a tougher breed than asthmatics elsewhere). We’ll keep digging.

RIP Bubba

Wild Animal Orphanage endured yet another tough month, capped off by the euthanization of Bubba, the beloved white tiger. The start of May brought new management, with husband-and-wife team Jamie and Michelle Cryer assuming the director and chairman-of-the-board slots, respectively, after the board members fired Nicole Garcia as CEO in a messy parting of ways that involved changed locks and accusations of secret meetings. The Cryers also let several office personnel go in an effort to control costs and redirect funds to animal care and feed.  The new management released a desperate press release May 2, asking for contributions to help maintain animal care.

Unfortunately, the saddest, and most recent, story concerning WAO is the death of Bubba. We visited the exotic animal back in early May, and to our untrained eyes, the poor thing looked desperately thin and seemingly in pain with every step. Jamie Cryer told us Bubba arrived at WAO in compromised health, possibly due to poor diet and care under previous owners. After two veterinarians independently recommended euthanizing Bubba, he was put down last Friday. Though the final culprit was suspected to be lymphoma, the Wild Animal Orphanage had a necropsy performed and the results are pending.

This comes on the heels of more personnel shake-ups within the organization. In mid-May longtime board member Sumner Matthes and wife Elise (who joined the board to fill Garcia’s slot) left their positions. Three new members, including Suzanne Straw, a member of SeaWorld’s zoological team, joined, and the website lists one position still open. Samuel Sherwood, a “management specialist,” as community-relations director Robert Mitchell calls him, came in several weeks ago and left last week. Mitchell, who was recruited by Sherwood, explained the management master’s quick visit thusly: “`Sherwood’s` focus was to get things back in order and set up a management system to get everything under control. We’re still doing that, just without him.” Mitchell, a part-time employee with military public-relations training (30 years ago) said he would stay because “I don’t want to leave these people in a lurch.” Currently, there is no full-time veterinarian on staff. Animal medical care beyond what can be provided by the five animal-care technicians is provided by two volunteer vets, according to Mitchell.

We asked Mitchell if WAO had plans to replace Director Jamie Cryer, one of the more controversial staff members at WAO, though he is working without a salary. In early May, when we asked Cryer himself how long he planned to stay, he indicated his position is temporary, yet Mitchell said on May 30 there were no plans to recruit a permanent director. Garcia and former board member Kristina Brunner frequently point out Jamie Cryer’s past criminal record (several nonviolent misdemeanors from 1991-92, when Cryer was between 21 and 22 years old), and a more recent $3,500 fine levied by the Department of Transportation last fall, when Cryer worked as an animal transporter for WAO, which the Orphanage must pay off in full by July 3.

Despite all the hustle and bustle in the people department, things in the financial department still appear stagnant. Mitchell told us that donations were at the same level they were just after Cryer stepped in as director and that the Orphanage is “still in the hole,” though he did not have exact data. Tours, a primary source of income, have been reduced by two hours per day, and we’re told the Orphanage was not open for at least Sunday and Monday of Memorial Day weekend. To help prop up the organization during what Mitchell calls “a little bit of turbulence,” Mitchell is helping to plan a benefit concert for July 11 at Floore’s Country Store in Helotes. In the meantime, we’ll be very interested to see the results of the next USDA inspection, expected to be performed this week or early next, to get a better sense of how the Orphanage is being run on the level where it really matters: four paws.

Cool acronym wanted

QueQue ventured to one of VIA’s three public meetings on the ballyhooed bus rapid transit system slated for the commute between the Medical Center and the West Side down Fredericksburg Road, and came away impressed — just not with the whole “rapid” claim. The Thursday-afternoon meeting at the Wonderland of the Americas was well attended by types who ride buses and are available to discuss them at 1:30 p.m. on a weekday (read: senior citizens). Despite a large presence by VIA and URS engineering staff, the unveiling of the environmental assessment failed to wow the old-timers, even with VIA CEO Keith Parker’s enthusiastic pitch that the BRT is “the most significant public-transportation investment we’ve ever made.”

This BRT system would replace the current 91 route, which is already a limited-stop line. The time the new BRT would save commuters traveling from the South Texas Medical Transit Center to the Westside Multimodal Transit Center is 10-12 minutes, said Arturo Herrera, VIA’s strategic planner. Not exactly awe-inspiring, but probably much appreciated by daily bus commuters.

At one time, VIA had grander plans for a faster BRT accomplished by dedicated bus lanes, but a combination of nonexistent TxDOT funding and public fear of what that might do to auto traffic squelched the notion. The current plan contends with buses operating in mixed traffic by providing service every 10 minutes from 5:30 a.m.-6 p.m. (with not-as-frequent service planned until 11 p.m.), smartcard fare entrances at each bus door, and a special transit signal that buses running late may engage to extend or cause green lights. These developments provide the added speed for BRT buses, though folks attending the meeting pointed out they would still be hampered by Fredericksburg’s typical rush-hour congestion. We heard two different claims from a URS rep and a VIA rep as to whether a dedicated lane would have made future light rail more or less possible. URS said such a design might have made it easier to retrofit for light rail. Herrera said not having a dedicated lane actually “left their options open,” for a light-rail future. Both said Fred Road would need a complete overhaul to accommodate those commuter trains.

That’s not to say the $57 million price tag, 80 percent of which comes courtesy of federal funding and 20 percent through local sales tax, is for naught. In fact, it makes possible the Westside Multimodal Transit Center, which would not only service BRT and regular buses, but also sits pretty for future West-East streetcar service through downtown, Amtrak, and/or the fabled Austin-San Antonio commuter-rail service on the nearby Union Pacific rail lines. VIA also has plans to extend BRT from the Medical Center Transit Center up to UTSA’s 1604 campus, though only every third bus stopping at Med Center would travel that northern route. BRT buses are 50-percent longer than their counterparts, and VIA is considering investing in models with overhead bins, comfy seats, and free WiFi. And are we naive to hope that the station monitors will report accurately down to the minute how long the wait is for the next bus? We’ve never experienced 100-percent success with this technology in the cities that feature it for subways, but San Antonio can dream, can’t she?

The BRT also includes admirable nods to our brave new green world. The Med Center Transit center will meet LEED certifications (Westside is exempt due to historical-preservation concerns), stations may be powered by CPS Windtricity and/or solar programs, the buses are diesel-electric hybrids, and our biker friends will be happy to see bike racks and lockers at the transit stations. VIA is still evaluating where and how to install onboard bike racks, but that’s a definite consideration.

We did hear one good suggestion from public commenters at the meeting (not to say we didn’t appreciate them, but mostly they were asking either for clarification or named Jack Finger), and that was to consider a slight route variation to incorporate service to the county’s largest employer, USAA. Representatives did not respond to this suggestion publicly, but Herrera says that the extension route to UTSA’s 1604 campus will have a stop near the USAA headquarter’s pedestrian entrance.

This BRT plan is not yet a done deal, though it’s moving ever closer. Interested citizens still have time to make public comments before the final environmental analysis is issued. View the current draft at, and submit comments via the link on that page by June 10. If all goes as planned, the route could be up and running con stations by late 2012.

AGE contamination

Now that San Antonio has dodged a near miss — an early May fireball at AGE Refining on South Presa — it may be time to consider just how big a bag of contaminated groundwater the city will be left hosting.

The pollution of the groundwater in South San Antonio started under past owner Howell Hydrocarbons, but it has continued under AGE. One local TCEQ official characterized AGE’s compliance history as marred by an “inadequate response to spills.” When Sarah Schreier began remediation duties at the site for the TCEQ in 2008 she wrote to another agency employee that “forward progress on this corrective action seems to have all but stopped.”

The company, with a history of fires and spills (you can find a summary in the QueBlog), was supposed to be running a pump to recover and separate hydrocarbons from the groundwater beneath the site. Not only had that pumping stopped, she wrote, but during six months of the previous year it had only recovered five gallons of hydrocarbons. That, apparently, was not due to a lack of pollution.
At the time, AGE was fighting with Anadarko over a newly discovered plume of jet fuel in the groundwater 40 feet beneath the small refinery. After AGE’s 1991 purchase of the plant from Howell, Anadarko took over cleanup of the contamination on behalf of the previous owners. AGE insisted the plume was part of the contamination dating to the plant’s older days; Anadarko, in a letter to the TCEQ, objected.

“It seems apparent that the new plume is likely the result of AGE’s operation of the refinery for nearly two decades,” wrote Jeff Bordelon, environmental adviser to Anadarko. “The basis for this contention is the fact that Anadarko has discovered information in the TCEQ files that indicate the occurrence of at least ten (10) spills at the AGE Refinery since 1996, including at least one large spill in the 100 Tank Farm Area.”

A 2007 sampling by AGE found phthalates present in one well more than 1,000 times the EPA’s drinking-water standard. Long-term exposure to phthalates through drinking water is linked to reproductive and kidney problems and elevated cancer risk. In the summer of 2008, Anadarko reported hydrocarbon contamination in seven of the wells it tested, and that the depth of the contamination had increased in the last 12 months — in one well it expanded from a layer .02 feet thick to one 6.53 feet thick.  

Then there are fears of contamination reaching the San Antonio River, which winds within one-tenth of a mile of the plant. While a 1987 TCEQ cleanup order mentioned a seep leading to the San Antonio River from the plant, it wasn’t mentioned again when the order was updated in 1995 after AGE’s takeover. “Files are sketchy that early,” wrote Schreier, who has since moved to another department. “It might be worth the effort to walk the river bank looking for evidence of a seep.”

When contacted by the Current, Leo Butler, a TCEQ environmental investigator based in San Antonio, recalled Schreier’s email but not whether a leak was ever discovered. However, later in the day he communicated through a TCEQ media liaison that since he had not observed a “sheen” on the river during his inspection he had concluded there was no seep.

With the wells on the site tested at least twice a year by Anadarko and AGE, TCEQ’s most recent inspection report had AGE listed as in compliance with state environmental rules. Calls to AGE have still not been returned; Anadarko spokesperson John Christiansen said he didn’t want to comment on company characterizations of AGE as uncooperative in finding a solution to the pollution filed with the TCEQ.

Where’s it all going? An AGE spin-off to another petro company? Perhaps. But with the Gulf fast becoming a tar pit for a new era of extinction and refinery scares shaking sleepy little San Antonio, expect theatrical protest action at City Hall this Thursday around 5 p.m. •

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