Environmental Groups Score Victory in Fight Against Industrial Polluter
State Environmental Regulators Refer Repeat Violator to Texas Attorney General
AUSTIN, Texas – At the urging of statewide environmental groups and Texans who live near the TPC Group petrochemical plant, in Port Neches, which exploded last month, state environmental regulators today recommended that the Texas attorney general consider possible enforcement action for a previous, unrelated violation last year.
The highly unusual decision – approved unanimously by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) – came after compelling testimony about the physical and psychological effects of the Port Neches incident, and the TPC Group’s history of air quality violations. The commission remanded the previously mentioned 2018 enforcement action to TCEQ Executive Director Toby Baker with instructions to refer it to the attorney general.
“Members of the Port Neches and surrounding communities made their case to decision-makers in Austin and got a better outcome than they could have hoped for,” said Adrian Shelley, director of Public Citizen’s Texas office. “But we still need strong enforcement from the attorney general. And going forward, the TCEQ must be willing to punish polluters without first having to receive pleas from people whose lives were put at risk.”
On Nov. 27, two explosions and a fire rocked the TPC Group facility in Port Neches, 90 miles east of Houston. The incident injured three workers and forced the evacuation of residents within four miles, including parts of Port Neches, Nederland, Groves and Port Arthur, Texas. The conflagration was yet another in a series of dangerous and, in one case, deadly explosions in Texas’ petrochemical corridor this year.
The TCEQ fined TPC Group $214,000 for excessive emissions and pollution earlier this year. The TPC Group, which manufactures highly flammable 1,3 butadiene, exceeded allowable air pollution emissions five times in 2019, including hundreds of pounds of cancer-causing butadiene, according to the Texas Tribune. In fact, the Environment Texas Research and Policy Center reported today that in 2018, the TPC facility had the second highest illegal release of butadiene in the state.
Residents from the Port Arthur, Groves and Nederland communities that surround Port Neches told TCEQ commissioners that they need help in holding petrochemical companies accountable for violations of state and federal environmental laws. They also asked the state environmental agency to do a better job of informing residents of air quality conditions in the aftermath of chemical disasters.
“Workers are scared to turn in these companies to the federal labor regulators, TCEQ or federal environmental regulators for fear of being fired or harassed for not being a team player,” said Todd Perkins, a resident of Nederland, Texas, who spent 25 years as an operations manager for an oil and gas refinery in the petrochemical corridor. “Our workers and the communities depend on the TCEQ to help control these serious issues.”
John Beard Jr., a Groves resident, said he has numerous family members and friends who experienced respiratory, eye and throat issues from acrid smoke stemming from the TPC Group fire. He said the nominal fines imposed on companies like TPC Group aren’t enough to deter violations. According to the Texas Tribune, the last federal censure of TPC Group was in 2017, when it was ordered under a consent decree to pay a civil penalty of $72,187.
“These petty cash fines do nothing to prevent the repeated incidents and releases we are exposed to, nor address health concerns from industrial exposure,” Beard said. “The TPC explosion and fire were the result of years of regulatory neglect and failure to enforce compliance with pollution laws.
“We need the TCEQ and other state and local governments to improve oversight, inspection and enforcement of regulations that protect our communities,” Beard added. “Our lives and the air we breathe depends on it.”
Texas industrial facilities reported releasing 135 million pounds of illegal air pollution in 2018 – more than double the amount released the previous year, according to the Environment Texas report.
“Texans are sick and tired of oil refineries and petrochemical plants catching fire, exploding and pumping out harmful pollution,” said Catherine Fraser, clean air associate with Environment Texas Research and Policy Center. “And the data show the problem is getting worse, not better. “We need our state leaders to crack down on illegal pollution and stop putting the interests of polluters over the rest of us.”