Breakdowns in Air Quality

Air Pollution from Industrial Malfunctions and Maintenance in Texas
Released by: Environment Texas and Environmental Integrity Project

Texas leads the nation in energy production. But being number one also has its downsides in terms of air pollution. Well known for its hands-off approach to environmental enforcement, Texas allows industries to release excessive amounts of air pollution when old and poorly controlled equipment breaks down and when facilities undergo maintenance work.
In 2015, 679 industrial sites in more than 100 Texas counties released more than 34,000 tons of air pollutants during 3,421 incidents of malfunctions and maintenance events, according to industry self-reported data.

From high levels of cancer-causing benzene in the heavily populated neighborhoods from Houston to the Louisiana border, to unprecedented releases of dangerous hydrogen sulfide in the West Texas oilfields, industrial facilities are releasing large amounts of air contaminants during breakdowns and maintenance. Most of this pollution is unauthorized, or well over the limits set in the facilities’ permits. This unauthorized air pollution not only threatens public health and our environment, but also our confidence in the regulatory agencies charged with enforcing anti-pollution laws.

Some industrial plants release more air pollution annually during malfunctions and maintenance than they do during their routine, legally permitted operations. For example, in 2014, the Keystone Gas Plant in West Texas released 226 tons of sulfur dioxide during routine, permitted operations, but the plant released 5,493 tons of this dangerous pollutant during malfunctions. In 2015, the Keystone plant released 3,569 tons of sulfur dioxide during equipment breakdowns, including a single malfunction that lasted for six months. 

The single largest pollution incident from an industrial malfunction in the Houston area last year came from Shell’s Deer Park oil refinery, which released 171 tons of air pollution — including 154 tons of the carcinogen 1,3-Butadiene — during a breakdown that lasted for an hour on August 9, 2015.

Nowhere is this problem more pronounced than in the oil and gas extraction industry. Oil and gas production is responsible for releasing more acid rain-causing sulfur dioxide, and more smog-causing and often toxic volatile organic compounds from malfunctions than any other industrial sector. Unlike other industrial sectors, oil and gas producers appear to treat malfunctions – and the unfettered air pollution releases that accompany these events – as a routine business practice. In fact, in 2014 (the most recent year for which comprehensive data is available) the oil and gas extraction industry released 10,021 tons of sulfur dioxide during malfunctions and maintenance, or 41 percent of the industry’s entire annual emissions. (The oil and gas industry released a total of 24,192 tons.) By comparison, the oil and gas industry reported 14,171 tons of sulfur dioxide releases during routine, permitted operations.
But excessive air pollution is not confined to the oil and gas fields. Refineries and chemical plants along the Gulf Coast are among the state’s worst emitters of unauthorized pollution during breakdowns and maintenance. In 2015, Dow Chemical’s Freeport plant, just south of Houston, released 15,717 pounds of the carcinogen benzene during equipment malfunctions and maintenance activity, more than any other facility in the state. Five of the state’s top 10 worst benzene emitters during malfunctions and maintenance are in the working class and largely African American communities in Jefferson County, near the Texas-Louisiana border.

Year after year, the same industrial plants repeatedly break down and release dangerous air pollution. For example, the Pasadena Refining System oil refinery east of Houston, currently owned by Brazil’s national oil company, chronically releases high levels of unpermitted particulate matter (soot). The refinery released 76,000 pounds of this dangerous pollutant in a 45-minute period due to an operator error in January 2012, even though the facility’s permit allows only 34.8 pounds per hour of soot emissions. In 2015, the Pasadena Refinery reported 92,994 pounds of soot emissions, making it the state’s second highest emitter of unauthorized soot from malfunctions and maintenance. In March 2016, the refinery caught fire when a compressor exploded, injuring an employee and releasing a black cloud of soot.

State environmental regulators have the tools they need to protect our health from dangerous air pollution, but enforcement is inconsistent. In addition, the U.S. Environmental Protection
Agency can do more to see that Texas follows federal permitting rules, which prohibit industrial plants from routinely releasing excessive air pollution during malfunctions and maintenance events. Swift and consistent enforcement of laws already on the books is the most effective way for regulators to rein in rogue polluters.

EPA is conducting a national review of state air pollution control plans regarding emissions from startups, shutdowns, malfunctions and maintenance to make sure the plans protect public air quality as required by the federal Clean Air Act. Through this re-examination of State Implementation Plans, EPA should ensure that the state rules and definitions are clear, and that industries’ potential to emit air pollution are reasonably controlled and subjected to the law’s permitting rules, which include requirements for industries to use best available pollution controls. In addition, EPA should ensure that current and planned federal rulemaking, such as EPA’s review of emissions from the nation’s oil and gas plants, focus on reducing excessive emissions from malfunctions and maintenance. These recommendations are discussed more fully in Section IV of this report.

This report ranks the top worst emitters of air pollution during malfunctions and maintenance, and is based on self-reported industry numbers in the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality records. For a detailed description of these databases, see Appendix A, Methodology and Data.

Different pollutants harm people, animals, and the environment in different ways, and so we present five snapshots – based on five pollutants of concern – in Section II. Below are the state’s top malfunction and maintenance air polluters for two dangerous pollutants, sulfur dioxide and benzene.