Public Health Watch Report Identifies Rising Benzene Issue in Channelview

By David Taylor
Managing Editor

CHANNELVIEW – It’s an issue that’s familiar to the residents of the North Channel, but now an Austin-based nonprofit that labels themselves as a nonpartisan investigative news organization, released a report in December claiming the Channelview and Jacintoport neighborhoods are being exposed to dangerously higher levels of benzene than reports confirmed some two decades ago.

The report spawned a meeting at the Martin L. Flukinger Community Center in Channelview early Friday evening with panelists entirely made up of those included in the report. No industry representatives were present. The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) was invited but, according to Public Health Watch who sponsored the meeting, never responded to the request.

“We are journalists. And that’s it. We’re not advocates. We’re not subject matter experts. Fortunately, we have some true subject matter experts here today and you can see them along the sides of the wall,” said PHW executive director and editor-in-chief Jim Morris speaking of the numerous non-profits who had tables to promote their organizations.

Morris, the founder of Public Health Watch, has been a journalist since 1978.

“We’re not going to offer advice. It’s not a political event. This is not a fundraising event. It is an informational event. It’s our way to hear directly from you what are your concerns, your questions about our work or the other panelists’ work,” he said.

A report written by investigative journalist David Leffler with PHW found that the Channelview-Jacintoport neighborhoods were being exposed to levels of benzene, allegedly as much as 20 times higher than was allowed almost two decades ago. Leffler said his research began more than 18 months ago with multiple visits to the Channelview area.

“In that time, I’ve talked to dozens of people, many of whom are in this room, and many of the organizations that are around here,” he said. “The unincorporated area of Channelview is a very, very strong and vibrant community and one where people take care of one another.”

Panelists included Juan Flores of Air Alliance Houston and a resident of Galena Park; Tim Doty, a former TCEQ employee; Loren Hopkins, PhD from Rice University who specializes in the environment; and moderators Ana Bueno from Univision and Leffler.

The report singles out Channelview-based K-Solv Chemicals and Maritime Services, a chemical distribution company, as the chief offender on the TCEQ list. Shockingly, PHW alleges K-Solv was a known offender for decades, and despite their troubles, have been allowed to expand their services.

“Today, K-Solv can legally release almost 20 times more volatile organic compounds, including benzene, into the air each year. More than it did in 2005,” Leffler said.

Leffler said he was drawn to the area by former TCEQ employee and air monitoring expert Tim Doty.

“We tried to look at things, not in a biased manner, but impartially to find out where emissions were coming from,” Doty said. He explained that the area was littered with barges containing benzene and had optical gas imaging videos they had taken.

“The agency, internally, tried to decide what to do about it and at one time we were very proactive,” he said. “We would call in the company to have a technical talk and they were asked to reduce their benzene content and change their business practices to try to lessen the exposure in this neighborhood or for the residents that lived here at the time,” he described it.

Doty admitted in the meeting that he felt like TCEQ was now much more pro industry.

Hopkins said she was disappointed with the feds and the state for raising the allowable levels of benzene muddying what was really acceptable and what was not.

“It’s (benzene) the highest concentration around here including all of the monitors that I have looked at for decades,” she said. The Rice professor also said Galena Park and the Lynchburg Ferry area have competing numbers, “but the numbers here are higher than that. It’s not the contest you want to win,” she said.

Galena Park resident Juan Flores, who now advocates for Air Alliance Houston, believes his blood cancer diagnosis comes from the elevated benzene levels in Galena Park.

“I’m 46 years old, was born in Tidelands Hospital in Channelview, and raised in Galena Park all my life,” he told the crowd at the meeting.

“You could smell things in the air,” he said. “Even as a kid I remember in the middle of the night, you could smell it. Early in the morning, you could smell it. After a rain died down, your could smell it,” he explained.

Following his diagnosis, he has become more proactive in his community, trying to warn the residents of the dangers lurking in the very air they breathe.

“We now place monitors not just where the vehicle traffic is or next to the ship channel, but in the community next to homes so we can see exactly what the elevations are,” he said.

No political leaders were present at the meeting; however, the report caught the eye of State Representative Carol Alvarado, who pledges to propose legislation to bring help to the area during the next legislature in 2025.

While the area continues to smell the wafts of chemicals most days, a group of citizens is organizing to challenge their state leaders to do something meaningful now that addresses what is an “acceptable cancer risk” standards by the EPA and TCEQ.

Leffler said this wasn’t the end of the story.

“We’re not going anywhere,” he said. “As we know, there’s no shortage of environmental issues that are occurring here.”