Port of Houston falls short on clean air

This is an excellent opinion piece from the Houston Chronicle that this editor missed when it was published.

Agency leaders should appreciate the benefits of investing in environmental stewardship

November 8, 2014

As one of the world’s busiest ports, the Port of Houston is an industry leader in many of the things most of us think a port should do: It is the top-ranked U.S. port in foreign tonnage and it handles two-thirds of all containerized cargo in the Gulf of Mexico. But where is it on the environment and community accountability? By our metrics, the Port of Houston often falls short.
The reflection is important as the Houston Ship Channel commemorates its 100-year anniversary this week, and residents of nearby communities wonder if the air around their homes is safe to breathe.
Their concerns are well-founded. In 2012, qualms over operations at the Port of Houston Authority led the state Legislature to take the remarkable step of “sunsetting” the agency, reviewing its operations and improving them through legislation. The result should have been a more transparent and accountable agency.
That hasn’t happened, as illustrated by the abrupt resignation of the executive director earlier this year and the controversial closed-door appointment of his successor. In contrast, the Virginia Port Authority underwent an open and comprehensive search process for its executive director that provided transparency to port stakeholders
As for accountability, the port authority created a council to give citizens a direct line to the agency’s chairman. But the Chairman’s Citizens Advisory Council, on which we both serve, has turned out to be little more than a publicity effort. One advisory council member stated flatly, “In a year’s time, advisory council members have done little to no advising.”
Two years after the sunset process, the port authority has not reviewed its Clean Air Strategy Plan. The objective of such a plan – as it is for other U.S. ports – is to guide the port’s air-quality efforts and benchmark its progress. A port that makes almost daily decisions that affect air pollution, that has been experiencing tremendous growth, and that has the ability to take advantage of new clean-technology breakthroughs should biannually review and revise its clean-air plan. But the port’s plan hasn’t been updated, or even strictly implemented, since 2011. The result is a short-sighted, reactive approach to environmental action that makes poor business sense.
The Port of Houston Authority doesn’t have long-term strategies or benchmarks in place to measure progress on environmental issues or to improve the culture or practice of safety and safety regulations. An accounting of pollution emissions from the port hasn’t occurred since 2007. Since 2010, the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration has assessed more than 15 fines for port-related safety violations and accidents.
This inaction is due to a lack of initiative, not resources. In July, the port set a record monthly operating revenue of $24 million. But among a staff of nearly 550 employees, only three staff members manage environmental issues at the Port of Houston. By comparison, the Port of Corpus Christi recently increased its environmental department to five out of total staff of 180. The port authority is looking for one additional staff member, but the community has concerns that compliance with environmental laws will start to slip if the port is short-handed.
Part of the problem is that the port authority seems to view environmental compliance as a liability rather than an opportunity. Strong leadership within the port authority would appreciate the potential benefits of investment in environmental stewardship to the port’s operations, its customers and its neighbors. Investments in equipment upgrades, environmental strategic planning and safety enhancements pay dividends of improved customer relationships, efficiency and community partnerships. Environmental leadership is also an effective risk-mitigation strategy on issues such as incident-avoidance and climate-change resiliency.
Competing ports understand this and have incentivized more efficient cranes, trucks and vessels, thereby reducing emissions. The Port of New Orleans has reinvigorated its environmental program and embarked on a robust course to reduce its emissions footprint and energy costs. Behind the new technology and strategic partnerships is leadership that’s invested – financially and politically – in cleaning up.
The port authority’s record is littered with missed opportunities and failed policies. In order to help advance environmental stewardship and safety, we offer three immediate recommendations to help put the port on a safer, more sustainable and more accountable path.
1 Biannually review and revise the Clean Air Strategy Plan and establish a strict implementation plan. Set short- and long-term goals with measurable outcomes. Assess progress accordingly and make the results available for public review and comment.
2. Support emission-reduction opportunities and environmental performance benchmarks. The port authority secured some public grants to assist with environmental projects, such as the Texas Emissions Reduction Program, but the port can do a better job of taking advantage of these resources to mitigate hazardous air pollution. Complementing these initiatives, environmental benchmarks can help the port measure improvements in performance and strategize further clean air investments.
3. Commit to environmental leadership. The current executive team and commissioners must enable its staff to pursue sensible projects by publicly stating its transformative environmental goals, such as a reinvigorated Clean Air Strategy Plan. This will send a strong signal to customers and to Houstonians that the port is prepared to engage thoughtfully on these issues and can be counted on as a trusted partner.
Although two years have passed since the sunset review without measurable environmental improvement, the port still has an opportunity to implement deep structural reforms and be the industry leader that it claims to be. Port neighbors deserve to know whether the air they breathe is clean and what steps the port is taking to ensure good air quality. With the Centennial Celebration underway, we all want to be proud of the Port of Houston. As members of the Chairman’s Citizens Advisory Council concerned about our local communities, we call upon the port authority to meaningfully engage with us in charting a more sustainable course.
Butler and Caldwell are members of the Healthy Port Communities Coalition. Air Alliance Houston, Environmental Defense Fund and others contributed to this commentary.