Texas-Mexico Border Town Approves Air Pollution Monitoring Following ProPublica and Texas Tribune Investigation
by Kiah Collier and Maya Miller
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Elected officials in the Texas-Mexico border town of Laredo have begun taking steps to conduct air monitoring after a ProPublica and Texas Tribune investigation revealed that toxic pollution from an industrial facility has increased the cancer risk for about half of the city’s residents.
This month, the Laredo City Council approved $105,360 to purchase equipment and hire a full-time technician to oversee a new air monitoring program. The Webb County Commissioners Court also gave $35,000 to an environmental coalition as part of a larger effort to conduct air monitoring at the five schools that are closest to the plant.
Owned by Missouri-based Midwest Sterilization Corporation, the facility uses ethylene oxide, a cancer-causing chemical, to sterilize medical equipment. An unprecedented ProPublica and Tribune analysis of five years of industry self-reported emissions data found that the facility released enough ethylene oxide from 2014 to 2018 to elevate the estimated lifetime cancer risk for nearly 130,000 Laredoans, including more than 37,000 children. A company spokesperson said that the plant’s emissions are within legal limits.
“I’ve read all this literature, and this is some pretty nasty stuff,” Commissioner John C. Galo said before the Monday vote. “Even if they are in legal limits, if you’re exposed to that day in and day out, you know, say 300 days out of the year, there are a lot of people that are not tolerant to that.”
A written statement from Midwest said the company “takes its regulatory compliance seriously and expects to remain in compliance.” The statement says that the company uses ethylene oxide to provide critical medical sterilization services, calling the chemical an “important tool in protecting patient health.”
“Midwest is taking all steps necessary to ensure that patients across the nation and residents locally remain safe,” the statement read.
The company declined to answer questions about what those steps are.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency this month listed Midwest’s Laredo plant, along with another facility the company owns in Missouri, among 23 high-risk commercial sterilizer facilities. The agency, which spent the past year analyzing emissions data from such facilities, announced plans to “engage and inform” nearby communities about the risks.
A community meeting is planned in Laredo on Sept. 15. The public meeting comes years after the EPA initially identified the Midwest plant as high-risk and directed its regional office to inform residents.
Last year, ProPublica and the Tribune contacted more than 100 Laredo residents to ask if they were aware of the risk posed by the plant. All but one said they didn’t even know the plant existed.
Upon learning of the public health risks posed by the Midwest plant from reporters, the city’s nonprofit environmental group, the Rio Grande International Study Center, spearheaded the creation of the Clean Air Laredo Coalition. The coalition’s membership includes the environmental group, concerned community members and elected officials. This month, the group began asking local governmental entities for money to conduct air monitoring at five school campuses closest to the plant, an initiative it says will cost roughly $115,000.
With the $35,000 approved by county commissioners, the group will begin taking air samples at Julia Bird Jones Muller Elementary School, which is less than 2 miles from the plant. The school is in an area that has an estimated elevated lifetime cancer risk of 1 in 3,700. That’s nearly three times higher than the maximum 1 in 10,000 risk level the EPA considers acceptable, making it the most at-risk school in Laredo and one of the most at-risk in the country.
The coalition plans to seek the remaining funding for the air monitoring effort from the Laredo City Council and the city’s two public school districts.
Two weeks ago, the board of trustees of Laredo’s United Independent School District voted unanimously to begin examining the cost of air monitoring at its schools, starting with Muller. While the school district did not allocate funding, board President Ramiro Veliz said in an interview that he believes there’s enough support among trustees to pay for air monitoring at one or more campuses.
City Council member Vanessa Perez, whose district includes the Midwest plant and who has been working closely with the coalition, said there’s been widespread interest in air monitoring since the community learned about the toxic air pollution from the facility.
“You could be sitting in your backyard and be breathing in ethylene oxide without knowing it,” Perez said of the odorless and invisible gas. With more air monitoring, she said, the chances of that happening again would plummet because officials would know for certain that there are unsafe levels of the chemical in the air and could take action.
An ethylene oxide sterilizer plant in the Chicago suburb of Willowbrook closed in September 2019 after EPA monitoring found that emissions levels at various sites were higher than what the agency considers safe. But air monitoring doesn’t always lead to such action. In Calvert City, Kentucky, ProPublica found that state and federal regulators did little to stop pollution despite air monitors registering high levels of a cancer-causing chemical for years.
Perez hopes her colleagues on the City Council will support providing funding to the coalition in addition to the steps the city has already taken to develop its own air monitoring program.
The details for the city’s program, including locations for air monitoring, are still being worked out but should be finalized sometime this fall, according to Dr. Richard Chamberlain, director of the city Health Department. Chamberlain said the city plans to hire someone to oversee the new air monitoring program when funding becomes available on Oct. 1.
“Air quality and water quality monitoring are essential to ensure good health of an individual and community,” he wrote in an email.
The Health Department submitted an application in March for the EPA’s Enhanced Air Quality Monitoring for Communities program in hopes of securing $400,262 to support its efforts. It has not yet heard back from the agency.
Chamberlain said the city will proceed with monitoring regardless of whether it receives funding from the EPA. He said if the city gets the money, some of it could go to support the coalition’s air monitoring efforts. While the initiatives are separate, he said the city plans to provide logistical support to the coalition and share data.
The program will monitor for not only ethylene oxide but a variety of other air pollutants, Chamberlain said.
Air monitoring efforts are pivotal, said Sara Montalvo Saldaña, who has been helping take care of her nephew, Juan Jose, or JJ, Nevares since he was first diagnosed with acute lymphocytic leukemia in 2018. The cancer has been linked to ethylene oxide exposure. At the time, JJ was just one month shy of his sixth birthday and had been attending Julia Bird Jones Muller Elementary.
“It’s a blessing,” Saldaña said, expressing relief at learning that Muller is slated to receive air monitors.
JJ, who is looking forward to celebrating his upcoming 10th birthday, returned to Muller as a fourth grader this month. He is still undergoing chemotherapy at home every day and travels to The Children’s Hospital of San Antonio for more intensive treatment every six weeks. If all goes well, doctors expect that he may reach remission in May.