State regulators fail to disclose benzene in Fort Worth air

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by CHRIS HAWES

WFAA

Posted on May 26, 2010 at 11:07 PM

Updated Thursday, May 27 at 2:05 AM

FORT WORTH — State environmental officials said they never found evidence of elevated levels of the cancer-causing chemical benzene during a December air study in Fort Worth.

But News 8 has proof that they did, and the mayor of a Denton County town is now calling for a federal probe of state pollution regulators.

Last January, John Sadlier, deputy director of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, appeared before the Fort Worth City Council with what sounded like good news: Eight air samples analyzed in Fort Worth found no traces of benzene, the toxin that — over time — can lead to leukemia.

"Benzene is non-detect on all the slides," Sadlier said during the January presentation.

But what he didn't tell Council members was that the analysis equipment that TCEQ used in the field wasn't sensitive enough to detect lower levels of benzene — the levels that TCEQ's own scientists say can lead to cancer if sustained over a period of years.

That revelation was included in an internal TCEQ report obtained by News 8 on Wednesday.

"Every citizen should be outraged, in particular the citizens of Fort Worth, because we've been duped and lied to," said Esther McElfish of the North Central Texas Communities Alliance.

A few days after Sadlier spoke to the Fort Worth Council, TCEQ's lab tested the samples with equipment that could detect the levels they were looking for. Scientists found four of the eight samples taken indicated benzene above what the commission considers safe when considering long-term health effects.

But Sadlier and TCEQ decided not to tell the public. Why?

"I don't even know how to respond to that," Sadlier told News 8 in a telephone interview. "I don't think there's any need to. These values are so small."

Sadlier maintained that he didn't know the analysis equipment used in the field was incapable of detecting the lower levels when he talked to the city. He also said he told a Fort Worth staffer about the discrepancy last week.

Sadlier did not, however, inform State Sen. Wendy Davis, who has been active in natural gas issues.

"This agency that has been charged with ensuring the health of our community has broken our trust, in terms of assuring us that they're going to look out for our safety versus looking out for their own reputations and their own concerns about the fact that they failed to do the job that they should have been doing," Davis said.

Sadlier said follow-up testing at the sites in question detected very low levels of benzene when they returned.

The City of Fort Worth now plans to conduct its own testing, and Calvin Tillman, mayor of the tiny Denton County community of DISH, is calling for an investigation of TCEQ by the Department of Justice.

E-mail chawes@wfaa.com

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