A report by environmentalists states that the largest releases of illegal pollution, in terms of total pounds released, occurred in the West Texas oilfields near Midland. Joyce Marshall Star-Telegram archives
A report by environmentalists states that the largest releases of illegal pollution, in terms of total pounds released, occurred in the West Texas oilfields near Midland. Joyce Marshall Star-Telegram archives

Business

Texas failing to crack down on big air polluters, study shows

July 07, 2017 10:26 AM

Texas regulators are failing to crack down on companies emitting illegal toxins into the atmosphere by allowing industry to pay pennies on the pound for each violation, an environmental study states.

An analysis of state records shows that Texas imposed $13.5 million in penalties on about 3 percent — or 588 of 24,839 instances — of illegal emissions at oil refineries, chemical plants and other industrial facilities from 2011 to 2016, according to the Environmental Integrity Project and Environment Texas.

Since the incidents accounted for about 500 million pounds of air pollution, the penalties amount to about three cents per pound for those violations, an indicator that a lack of enforcement results in industry being less likely to invest in plant upgrades and repairs, the report states.

It’s the Wild West when it comes to environmental enforcement in Texas, except the sheriff seems to be asleep at his desk,

Luke Metzger, director of Environment Texas and report co-author

“With less than a 3 percent chance of getting busted, it’s no wonder Texas polluters are repeatedly and flagrantly breaking the law,” Luke Metzger, director of Environment Texas and a co-author of the report, said in a prepared statement. “It’s the Wild West when it comes to environmental enforcement in Texas, except the sheriff seems to be asleep at his desk.”

The Texas Commission for Environmental Quality, which is charged with monitoring air quality in the state, said it has not had time to review the report but stated that it complies with all of the requirements of both the state and federal Clean Air Act.

“TCEQ consistently pursues administrative, as well as civil enforcement, against non-compliant regulated industries in accordance with a vigorous, clearly articulated regulatory framework,” said spokeswoman Andrea Morrow in a statement.

For years, industries in Texas have argued that they should not be held accountable for much of the air pollution they release because of a loophole in the law that allows for malfunctions or maintenance, also known as “upset” events, according to the report, “Breakdown in Enforcement.”

A boy runs across the tennis court in Hartman Park next to petrochemical plants along the Houston Ship Channel in the east part of Houston.
Rodger Mallison Star-Telegram archives

The Houston region, home to many of the state’s largest oil refineries and chemical plants, had 454 incidents that released 5.2 million pounds of illegal air pollution, according to the report.

But the 26-page report finds that the largest releases of illegal pollution, in terms of total pounds released, occurred in the oilfields near Midland, which is in the midst of a shale drilling boom. It states that there were 2,004 “upset” incidents that released 34 million pounds of pollution.

The report states that oil and gas wells release as much pollution during equipment breakdown as large factories, but escape more stringent regulation because they claim to be minor, or “insignificant,” polluters. Under state and federal law, those sources can claim an exemption from the federal Clean Air Act’s more stringent permitting requirements, the environmental groups said.

Of the 96 sites across Texas that reported more than 25 tons of sulfur dioxide emissions during maintenance and malfunction in 2016, almost half claimed to be “insignificant sources” that are exempt from the tougher requirements, according to an analysis of the records by the environmental groups.

Max B. Baker: 817-390-7714, @MaxbakerBB

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