AUSTIN -- Texas industrial facilities reported releasing more than 63 million pounds of air pollution without authorization in 2017, a 27 percent increase over the previous year, according to a new report by Environment Texas Research and Policy Center. While the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) could issue fines as high as $2.3 billion for 2017 violations, the report found the agency only levied a total of $1.2 million in fines in 2017 or 2 cents per pound of pollution.
“Air pollution is making people sick, especially children, senior citizens and people with respiratory problems,” said Luke Metzger, Executive Director of Environment Texas. “The data show that polluters routinely violate the law, but TCEQ too often lets them off the hook. We need to crack down on illegal pollution and make our air safe to breathe.
Environment Texas called on the Legislature to close a loophole known as an “affirmative defense” that polluters use to escape penalties. The Environmental Protection Agency directed TCEQ to eliminate the loophole, but TCEQ refused, and the issue is now in the courts.
The Midland area, home to an oil boom in the Permian Basin, was the site of more than half of the state’s total unauthorized pollution in 2017. The Trans-Pecos Pipeline’s Waha Header Compressor Station in Pecos County was the state’s worst polluter, releasing 3.8 million pounds of unauthorized pollution in 2017. In another case, after the Seminole Gas Processing Plant reported an unauthorized release of more than 1.1 million pounds of sulfur dioxide, which can damage the respiratory systems of those exposed, a complaint was filed with the TCEQ alleging that the emissions were “impacting children at a summer camp.”
Greater Houston, hammered by illegal pollution resulting in part from Hurricane Harvey, took the number two spot among metro areas. The Galena Park Terminal was the worst industrial facility in Houston and fourth worst in Texas for total volume of unauthorized pollution. Chevron Phillips Chemical Cedar Bayou Plant, ExxonMobil Baytown Refinery and Dow Texas Operations Freeport were among the top polluters in the Houston area.
Seventeen community leaders wrote to Dow CEO Jim Fetterling on Thursday urging him to put “a stop to the frequent, often flagrant, violations occurring during emissions events at your Freeport, Texas facility.” The letter gave as an example a Dow report to TCEQ that on September 26, 2017, “a position switch malfunctioned which lead to a lost signal used in the automation code. This caused an unplanned closing of a valve resulting in a process upset and associated flaring” of more than 119,000 pounds of air pollution.
The report found that the Dow chemical plant ranked as 2nd worst in the state for unauthorized releases of carcinogenic benzene. According to a cancer cluster investigation of Freeport by the Texas Department of State Health Services, the “observed number of liver and intrahepatic bile duct, lung, nasopharynx/nose/nasal cavity and middle ear, and stomach cancers were statistically significantly greater than expected.”
Valero’s Port Arthur refinery had the highest unauthorized emissions of particulate matter, which is linked to a range of cardiovascular problems, including heart attacks, strokes, and congestive heart failure, followed by Arkema’s Crosby chemical plant, for which the plant manager and company CEO are facing criminal charges for illegal pollution following Hurricane Harvey.
Over the last seven years, the total number of enforcement orders filed by TCEQ is less than 3 percent of the total number of emissions events recorded by the agency in that time. The trend since 2011 is that enforcement actions are declining.
"The report highlights that large volumes of illegal air pollution are being ignored by the TCEQ by failing to enforce the law at hundreds of Texas industrial plants,” said Dr. Neil Carman, Clean Air Program Director at the Lone Star Chapter of the Sierra Club. “The illegal emissions are a public health concern because it involves toxic chemicals like cancer-causing benzene and hundreds of harmful substances. Plus the TCEQ needs to use its authority to enforce the permits where emissions events were preventable as it occurs in many cases, and TCEQ can require permit amendments to order the plants fix problems to reduce the numbers and volume of emissions events."