Houston News & Search
Photo: Kin Man Hui, Staff
From the chemical plants of Houston to the oil and gas wells of West Texas, the state is letting polluters off the hook, foregoing penalties in about 97 percent of incidents, environmental groups reported Friday.
Companies chalk up the releases as unavoidable consequences of complex chemical processes and necessary maintenance. But they could be stopped with equipment upgrades if companies had the incentive to do so in the form of stiffer penalties, according to the report, “Breakdowns in Enforcement.”
Houston, with its massive industrial complex, had more such incidents than anywhere else during the five-year period examined in the report. But in one surprising finding, the analysis showed that supposedly small polluters were escaping penalties for big emissions by gaming the system.
“The result is that thousands of tons of illegal air pollution is threatening public health, but is not being taken into account by Texas regulators,” said Gabriel Clark-Leach, an attorney for the Environmental Integrity Project, which produced the report with Environment Texas.
State officials and companies have not seen the report, because it was published early Friday.
The groups logged more than 400 million pounds of pollution in the incidents, and penalties averaged just 3 cents per pound.
In the absence of state enforcement, advocates have turned to lawsuits, including a recent one that netted a civil penalty of $20 million against Exxon Mobil for releases from its Baytown complex.
The analysis of state records reveals that Texas imposed penalties on 588 out of 21,179 malfunction and maintenance events reported by companies from 2011 through 2016. The total fines for these violations of the law was $13.5 million.
The Houston area had more than 3,800 incidents, which released 5.2 million pounds of illegal air pollution, the analysis found.
But the largest releases of illegal pollution, in terms of total pounds, happened in the oil fields of West Texas, where 10 million pounds were released.
Under state and federal law, sources that emit less than 25 tons of sulfur dioxide and volatile organic compounds each year can claim an exemption from the federal Clean Air Act’s more stringent permitting requirements that call for public notice and modern air pollution control equipment.
But many Texas facilities that have claimed this exemption emitted more than 25 tons of these pollutants during 2016, meaning that they violated emission limits, the report said.
Of the 96 sites statewide that reported more than 25 tons of sulfur dioxide emissions during maintenance and malfunction in 2016, almost half — 47 — improperly claimed to be “insignificant sources” that are exempt, according to the analysis.
A Chronicle series last year, Chemical Breakdown, exposed the lack of penalties and oversight for chemical facilities across the nation.
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