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 Downwinders At Risk - Articles: Feds plan expanded Midlothian air pollution study after criticism of state report

Thursday, June 04, 2009

Feds plan expanded Midlothian air pollution study after criticism of state report

By RANDY LEE LOFTIS / The Dallas Morning News 

The last time the federal government agreed to assess environmental health in Midlothian, the results weren't pretty.

A December 2007 draft report inspired recriminations, bureaucratic infighting and even a blast from the chairman of a congressional investigations panel. And people in Midlothian still didn't know if it was safe to breathe the air in North Texas' most industrialized city.

Now, federal officials have vowed to try again to answer that basic question – this time with weapons missing from the earlier effort, such as a squadron of scientists, a rigorous peer-review process and a much broader mandate.

The outcome of the new review of Midlothian, which a federal agency outlined in a letter dated May 27 to state and local officials, could be the most comprehensive look at air pollution health risks ever undertaken in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. At a minimum, it addresses criticism that past government reviews of emissions from Midlothian's three cement plants and a steel mill fell short.

The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, an arm of the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, will coordinate the new review, this time taking the lead. The earlier report on Midlothian's air quality was written by the Texas Department of State Health Services under a contract to the federal agency.

No timetable for the new review was available. The ATSDR official in charge of the effort, Jennifer Lyke, could not be reached Tuesday.

Midlothian resident Sal Mier, a retired CDC official who first requested federal help in evaluating the city's industrial air pollution in 2005, said the renewed federal involvement was good news.

"I'm very pleased with the investment that ATSDR is willing to making in relooking at our situation," said Mier, who has met with the agency experts assigned to the study. "I was extremely impressed with their sincerity and their willingness to look at the broader picture."

Mier and other environmental advocates branded the 2007 report by the state health department as a shallow whitewash based on insufficient data. He reiterated that view March 12 before the U.S. House Science and Technology Committee's investigative subcommittee, which held a hearing in Washington on the ATSDR's performance.

At that hearing, the panel chairman, Rep. Brad Miller, D-N.C., called studies such as the 2007 Midlothian review examples of "jackleg assessments" that ignored communities' environmental health concerns.

That congressional grilling apparently played a role in the ATSDR's decision to launch an expanded Midlothian review. Dr. John Villanacci, manager of the Texas health department's Environmental and Injury Epidemiology and Toxicology Branch, said the federal agency launched the new study after it "got some kind of congressional direction."

Villanacci said the new study would involve more experts seeking more types of information than his department's previous effort.

The earlier review was based almost entirely upon a health department comparison of air monitoring data, gathered by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, to the commission's numerical standards for airborne pollutant levels. In its letter last week, the ATSDR said, "There is much more that needs to be examined, including how the air data is generated."

The TCEQ blasted the 2007 health department report as "riddled with errors" and said it exaggerated public risk. The environmental commission says additional monitoring since December 2008 shows no public health concern.

"Our data indicate that air quality in the Midlothian area is good," the TCEQ's chief toxicologist, Dr. Michael Honeycutt, said in an e-mail response on Tuesday. "We will provide data as requested for the ATSDR study."

Local officials in Midlothian were also critical of the health department report in 2007, saying its failure to reach any conclusions had unfairly kept the city under a cloud of doubt. City Manager Don Hastings said Tuesday that he was glad the federal agency will try to provide scientifically defensible answers to questions that have plagued Midlothian for decades.

"Protecting the public health and safety and welfare is job No. 1," Hastings said. He said the community would be glad to get the results, "whatever the answer is."