Houston area residents who live near some scrap metal recycling facilities are inhaling dangerous levels of a metal carcinogen called Chromium Six. It’s the same pollutant at the heart of the class action lawsuit portrayed in the film Erin Brockovich.
The Houston Chronicle first reported about the pollution in 2012, after the city received 189 complaints over five years about red and yellow smoke, explosions, fire, and difficulty breathing in the affected areas.
State Representative Gilbert Peña, a Pasadena Republican, introduced a bill, HB 3760, that would give regulators at the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) more oversight over metal recyclers. At a committee hearing on the bill Tuesday, Peña said the solutions required by the bill would be simple.
“It does not require businesses install expensive, environmentally friendly material and in many instances it requires that a simple tarp be placed on top of a pile of potentially airborne scrap metal,” he said.
The Houston Bureau of Pollution Control and Prevention (BPCP) has been monitoring air pollution outside some of the recycling facilities since 2012. It says levels have fallen.
There is no regulatory code specific to scrap metal recycling. The BPCP told StateImpact Texas that the industry must follow general emissions standards set forth by the city and the TCEQ. First time violators usually enter into a compliance agreement with the Bureau, according to the interim chief, Daisy James. Repeat offenders face lawsuits from the city or the TCEQ.
Houston is in just one active compliance agreement, with Derichebourg Recycling USA. It operates in two locations in the city. The Chronicle counted 34 scrap metal facilities in 2012.
Derichebourg made modifications to reduce dust, isolate sound, and prevent fires at one of its plants after signing its agreement in 2009, according to the Chronicle. But a 40-foot pile of junked cars caught fire in the yard in November 2014, releasing acrid fumes and smoke visible for miles. The TCEQ cited it in violation of particulate matter air pollution rules.
The Texas Supreme Court will hear a case later this year about the limits of the Houston BPCP’s authority. Energy companies say it is up to the state to enforce Texas environmental law, and the city has overstepped its bounds.
The city secured funding for a five-year emissions study last fall. A representative for the scrap metal industry asked the Texas Legislature to wait for the results.
“We believe we should work through that framework to study if any changes should be made and revisit in the Legislature once we have good information to work from,” said Brad Bredeson at the hearing. Bredeson is the Environmental Manager for the Commercial Metals Company.
Peña’s bill was left pending in committee.