Industry belching chemicals by the ton in Texas

AUSTIN (KXAN) — Millions of pounds of unpermitted hazardous chemicals spew into the state’s air each year, and Central Texas’s portion of that pollution may be increasing, according to a report released Wednesday by two Texas environmental groups.

Unpermitted pollution near Austin is relatively light compared to areas on the Gulf Coast, home to some of the world’s largest oil, gas and chemical plants. Still, “for the first time in many years, we are seeing significant oil and gas emissions being reported” in Central Texas, said Ilan Levin, Texas director of Environmental Integrity Project and an author of the report, Breakdowns in Air Quality.

You can read the report here.

Chemicals released at industrial sites include volatile organic compounds, nitrogen oxide, particulates (soot), sulfur dioxide and benzene, which is carcinogenic, according to the report.

Levin noted a pollution incident at the Luling Gas Plant, a gas processing facility owned by Davis Gas Processing. That facility reported releasing 30,939 pounds of pollution Nov. 24, 2015 — the largest pollution incident last year near Austin caused by maintenance or malfunction, according to the report. Samsung Austin Semiconductor came in a distant second, releasing less than 500 pounds of pollutants due to malfunction or maintenance, the report states.

KXAN reached out to the Luling Gas Plant for a comment or explanation of the emission event. We will update this story with the company’s response, when it becomes available.

For comparison, two facilities near Houston reported emissions events in 2015 that were nearly 10 times larger than the event at Luling Gas Plant. A single ExxonMobil refinery near Beaumont had an emission incident releasing roughly 874,000 pounds of pollution last year.

“It’s a chronic and systematic violation of air pollution laws.” — Ilan Levin, attorney with Environmental Integrity Project

“Companies routinely exceed those air pollution limits in their permits,” Levin said. “It’s a chronic and systematic violation of air pollution laws.”

Industrial sites are issued permits by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality that allow a certain amount of air emissions. During maintenance or due to a malfunction, excessive air emissions can happen. Companies are required to self-report the estimated amount of chemicals released during these so-called events. TCEQ makes these emissions events publicly available to view. The environmental advocates behind the analysis examined thousands of air pollution incidents for the report.

Environmental advocacy projects The Environmental Integrity Project and Environment Texas authored the report.

The report says the EPA and TCEQ could both do more to see that Texas companies follow pollution rules.

“State environmental regulators have the tools they need to protect our health from dangerous air pollution, but enforcement is inconsistent,” according to the report.

TCEQ spokesperson Andrea Morrow said the agency is reviewing the document and would provide a statement as soon as possible. KXAN will update this story, when that statement becomes available.

A statement provided by TCEQ spokesperson Andrea Morrow is posted below.

To characterize TCEQ’s environmental enforcement as “hands off” is patently untrue and misleading to the public.  TCEQ consistently pursues administrative, as well as civil enforcement, against non-compliant regulated industries in accordance with a vigorous, clearly articulated regulatory framework.

Contrary to the assertions in EIP’s report, Texas does not allow industries to release excess amounts of air pollution when old and poorly controlled equipment breaks down and when facilities undergo maintenance work. Rather, TCEQ has a multifaceted approach to minimize emissions from maintenance activities and upsets (malfunctions). 

For maintenance activities, this is accomplished by either including planned, routine, predictable, and quantifiable maintenance activities in a permit complete with emission limits and control requirements. Texas has one of the most extensive permitting programs for authorizing maintenance activities. For maintenance activities that are not planned but are needed to prevent or respond to equipment failures and possibly even larger amounts of emissions, companies must meet regulatory requirements in TCEQ rules to minimize emissions, duration, and impacts.  The agency has extensive reporting requirements regarding excess emissions and the review of those reports includes using  criteria such as design, frequency, and patterns of emissions. 

And while EPA has recently proceeded with a State Implementation Plan call, or re-evaluation of its prior approval, against 36 states, including Texas, it is important to note that TCEQ regulatory framework has been approved by EPA and upheld as consistent with the Federal Clean Air Act in the Fifth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals. TCEQ is challenging the SIP Call in the D.C. Circuit.

In Fiscal Year 2015, the TCEQ conducted over 109,000 investigations. There were 4,512 incidents, including emissions events and scheduled maintenance/startup/shutdown events, reported and reviewed during the course of 1,652 investigations (which included multiple events). Likewise, for Fiscal Year 2015, the TCEQ assessed $2,875,661 in administrative penalties related to emissions events.

The TCEQ has a robust air monitoring network that indicates air quality has been improving. For example, between 2000 and 2015, statewide regulatory sulfur dioxide (SO2) levels have decreased 67 percent and ozone levels have decreased 26 percent. Air toxics like benzene have also been trending downward.

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