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State Ignores “Upset” Air Emissions by Industrial Plants At Tremendous Costs to Texas Taxpayers, Human Health

New Public Citizen Study Released as TCEQ Begins Hearings on Upset Rules

AUSTIN – A new Public Citizen study demonstrates the need for the state to tighten rules governing so-called “upset” air emissions from oil refineries and chemical plants in Texas.

The study found that the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) took disciplinary action in fewer than 1 percent of the more than 7,500 incidents where unpermitted emissions were reported to the agency during 2004.

“Failure to stop these unpermitted emissions threatens the state’s ability to meet federal clean air safety standards,” said the report’s author, Beth O’Brien of Public Citizen’s Texas office.

The release of the new report, Industrial Upset Pollution: Who Pays the Price?, comes on the first day of a series of hearings by the TCEQ on proposed changes to rules governing reporting requirements for unpermitted air emissions.

The study shows how some plants regularly release far more pollution than they are allowed under their permits. It also provides evidence that these upsets are taking a toll on public health. These emissions occur when plants are being started up or shut down, during maintenance or during accidents due to operator error or leaks.

Other unpermitted emissions occur when companies illegally burn plant byproducts that should have been disposed of as hazardous waste, O’Brien said. One plant released 10 times more of one toxic chemical during a single upset event than it was permitted to release during the entire year. Another industrial plant emitted 37 times more toxic pollution during several upset events than it was permitted to release during an entire year.

“These rules are important to local communities because upsets, startup, shutdown and maintenance emissions often dramatically affect people living around industrial facilities,” said Denny Larson of the National Refinery Reform Campaign. “Since these emissions aren’t required to be put through pollution control devices, these emissions are frequently more harmful to local communities than permitted emissions. Yet emissions from upsets have historically been allowed to slip through legal loopholes and avoid the health effects reviews and pollution control requirements included in the permitting process.”

The study found significant evidence that unpermitted air pollution is affecting the health of children who live in communities near facilities with these emissions.

“The data show an alarming pattern,” O’Brien said. “On days following these unpermitted emissions of respiratory irritants and neurotoxins, school attendance drops. Upset events are making Texas children sick and keeping them from going to school.”

She said the subsequent decreases in attendance rates at schools near refineries are frequent and large enough to show there is a statistical correlation that warrants further study.

“Our study is not the final word on the impact of unpermitted emissions,” O’Brien said. “But we did find sufficient evidence to show the health and economic impacts of these emissions are significant and preventable. Worst of all, our state regulatory agency turns a blind eye toward these large companies when they repeatedly and illegally pollute the air with toxic emissions far beyond what their permits allow.”

The TCEQ is accepting public comments on proposed changes to rules governing unpermitted emissions until August 8. Citizens may submit written comments by mail or oral comments at five public hearings around the state. The hearings will be Tuesday in Austin, Wednesday in Arlington, Thursday in Houston, Friday in Corpus Christi and August 8 in Midland.

“Communities near refineries and chemical plants are burdened daily from toxic emissions that these facilities release from everyday operations,” said Suzie Canales of Citizens for Environmental Justice in Corpus Christi. “Under the cover of darkness, people are routinely assaulted, as they sleep, from pollution from flares so bright they light up the sky and toxic clouds of hazardous chemicals that leave the plants and invade the community. In the slim chance a company is caught and fined, the fines are so low that the polluter profits from breaking the law.”

The Public Citizen study examines in detail the causes and impacts of 20 upset events in Corpus Christi and Port Arthur. The unpermitted emission events studied were from facilities owned by Valero, Flint Hills Resources, Motiva Enterprises, BASF FINA and TOTAL Petrochemicals USA.

“Each year refineries and chemical plants dump tons of poisonous gases and chemicals that are out of compliance with state and federal laws and it’s time to stop,” said Hilton Kelley of Community In-power and Development Association in Port Arthur.    “Polluters must shoulder the responsibility of protecting the people living on the fence lines from the toxic chemicals they emit.”

Findings in the study include:

  • The TCEQ has the authority to take enforcement action against unpermitted air emissions but rarely does so. Of the 7,553 upset events reported to TCEQ in 2004, fewer than 1 percent resulted in a potential penalty, and TCEQ approved only nine corrective action plans for the 7,553 events.
  • Unpermitted emissions aren’t required to be included in the states’ clean air plans. If the state’s air quality staff doesn’t include the predictable but unpermitted emissions that occur when a plant is started up, maintained or shut down, they may be seriously underestimating emissions that are causing ozone violations. For example, one plant reported emitting 1,986,880 pounds of criteria air pollutants during routine operations in 2003. The facility released an additional 2,323,980 pounds during emission events and scheduled maintenance, start-up and shutdown activities.
  • The agency ignores evidence of willful violations of the law, such as upsets that result from repeated human error or the illegal burning of poor-quality product.
  • The acute health effects from upset events and unpermitted emissions can keep children home from school and force parents to miss work. Public Citizen’s study performed a statistical analysis of the attendance rates at nearby schools following upset events at nearby plants. The analysis found that several schools have dramatic decreases in attendance rates following upset events at a nearby refinery. All of the schools showed some decrease in attendance rates.
  • Upset emissions include hazardous air pollutants that can have significant impacts on the public’s health, causing cancer, birth defects, reproductive and neurological disorders. The residents of Nueces and Jefferson counties, where many industrial facilities are located on the   coast, have higher death rates from cancers associated with industrial pollution.
  • Upset pollution can lead to respiratory diseases, decreased lung function and exacerbations of asthma attacks. The rates of hospital admissions for adult and pediatric asthma in NuecesCounty are significantly higher than the   average. Hospital admissions for chronic obstructive pulmonary disease in JeffersonCounty are also significantly elevated compared to the state average.

“ ‘Oops, I did it again’ shouldn’t be an acceptable excuse for health-endangering pollution,” said Luke Metzger of TexPIRG. “The TCEQ’s   proposed rules aren’t strong enough to stop the problem. These new rules won’t get emissions controls installed to prevent harm to the public’s health, don’t assure that the plants don’t violate pollution limits, and don’t assure that penalties are high enough to deter repeat violations. We need Gov. Perry to take charge, round up Texas polluters, and make our air safe to breathe again.”

For more detail on the TCEQ hearings, click here.

To view Public Citizen’s report, Industry Upset Pollution: Who pays the Price?click here.