Houston-Area Refinery Hit With Clean Air Lawsuit

HOUSTON (CN) – Two environmental groups hit the owner of a Houston-area refinery that has neighbors holding their breath with its rotten-egg smell – and a recent history of fires, explosions and a chemical release that prompted a shelter-in-place order – with a Clean Air Act lawsuit Thursday.

Pasadena Refining System Inc., a subsidiary of Brazil’s state oil company Petroleo Brasileiro S.A. – Petrobras – owns the oil refinery, which can produce more than 100,000 barrels of crude a day in Pasadena, Texas.

Pasadena is a Hispanic-majority Houston suburb in Harris County that’s home to dozens of chemical plants and several oil refineries that are clustered there due to the city’s proximity to the Houston Ship Channel.

The Sierra Club and Environment Texas are stepping into the Environmental Protection Agency’s air-regulating shoes with their citizen enforcement lawsuit, in which they seek civil penalties and ask the court to appoint a special master to oversee the refinery’s operations at PRSI’s expense.

PRSI has made life miserable for residents of a neighborhood that is about one-quarter mile south of the refinery’s property line, according to the lawsuit.

The nonprofit plaintiffs must establish they have standing to bring the lawsuit.

They attempt to do that by stating in the complaint that together they have more than 5,000 members who live in Harris County.

“Plaintiffs have members who live and work near the Refinery and who, along with their families, suffer from: asthma, headaches, running nose, sneezing, coughing, and watering eyes,” the complaint states.

The environmental groups also claim they have members who can smell the air pollution coming from the refinery. “The types of odors emanating from the refinery that plaintiffs’ members smell include: a rotten egg odor, an odor like something burning, and chemical odors,” the filing states.

Around 75,000 people live within a three-mile radius of the plant. There are also eight schools and several day cares within that area, the Sierra Club said in a statement, citing figures provided by the EPA.

And the hazards coming from the plant have not all been intangible, the environmental groups say. They cite two fires at the refinery in 2011, and an explosion in March 2016 that closed the Washburn Tunnel under the Houston Ship Channel that connects Pasadena to the city of Galena Park.

“On July 25, 2016, a recommendation to ‘shelter-in-place’ was issued for residents of Galena Park. The July 25, 2016, shelter-in-place recommendation was issued in response to a July 25, 2016, chemical release at the refinery. A portion of the Washburn Tunnel and Houston Ship Channel were closed as a result of the July 25, 2016, chemical release,” the complaint states.

PRSI has violated the refinery’s state and federal air-pollution permits by releasing excessive amounts of sulfur dioxide, carbon monoxide, soot and nitrogen oxides, which cook in sunlight on hot summer days and cause ground-level ozone that contributes to Harris County’s ozone levels that exceed federal standards, the Sierra Club says.

A PRSI spokesman said it is reviewing the lawsuit, which it knew was coming because the Sierra Club and Environment Texas served it with a pre-suit notice required of citizen enforcement lawsuits on Dec. 22, 2016.

“We are committed to complying with all local, state and federal regulations and keeping our team’s focus on safe and reliable operations,” PRSI said in a statement.

The Sierra Club and Environment Texas are represented by Philip Hilder in Houston.