EPA Blamed for Compounding Pollution With Lax Gas-Flare Checks

A natural gas flare is pictured near Orla, Texas, in 2018. (Courthouse News Photo/Travis Bubenik)

WASHINGTON (CN) — Accusing the government of shirking its mandatory gas-flare duties for the last 34 years, 10 environmental groups claim in a federal complaint that pollution has soared as a result.

“There is no excuse for continuing to permit antiquated pollution-controlling technology in new industrial facilities,” said Joseph Otis Minott, executive director and chief counsel of Clean Air Council, one of the organizations that brought Thursday’s suit in Washington.

Back in June, the Environmental Integrity Project notified the agency that it would sue if flare standards were not reviewed. The EPA never responded, and the Environmental Integrity Project is the lead plaintiff in today’s action.

“It’s hard to quantify exactly how big of a problem this is just because almost any permit you look at you’ll see this reference to these outdated standards,” Adam Kron, senior attorney for the project, said in an interview. “So we’re hoping to go to the source of this and get the facilities to actually control the pollution.”

Urging the court to take swift action to enforce review of the EPA standards, the environmentalists warn that facilities relying on flares to dispose of harmful gases — among them petrochemical sites, oil and natural gas producers and municipal solid waste landfills — are often located alongside communities of color and lower-income communities.  

“As a result, these communities have higher incidences of asthma and other respiratory ailments,” the complaint states. “Most recently, these same communities have been disproportionately affected by Covid-19.”

An EPA spokesperson said the agency could not comment on the pending litigation.  

The agency’s duty to review the flares is mandated under the Clean Air Act, but, but Thursday’s suit says it has failed to do so comprehensively since the general requirements were rolled out in 1986 and 1994. 

As a result, the flares are running below efficiency and “releasing correspondingly larger quantities of pollutants that are toxic, smog-forming, or otherwise hazardous to the health of nearby communities,” according to the complaint.

Even so, Kron noted, the EPA updated flare requirements for ethylene and petroleum standards under the National Emissions Standards for Hazardous Air Pollutants, or NESHAP, in 2015 and again this year to ensure they are operating at 98% destruction efficiency. 

In an agency memo supporting the 2020 rulemaking, EPA scientists estimated that revising the flare standards could reduce hazardous air pollutants by 1,430 tons per year and volatile organic compounds by 13,020 tons per year.

“Those are a good example of EPA acknowledging the problem and actually showing that it’s capable of resolving it,” Kron said. 

But the environmental attorney said those limited changes under NESHAP didn’t go far enough.  

EPA administrators have long failed to review regulations under NESHAP, issued in 1994, and the New Source Performance Standards, issued in 1986, and make necessary changes to the pollution control standards across all facilities where flares burn, the environmental groups argue.  

“The Administrator has not conducted the statutorily mandated review of the NSPS General Flare Requirements within the last eight years, nor has the Administrator determined that ‘such review is not appropriate in light of readily available information on the efficacy of such standard,’” Thursday’s complaint states. 

As for the timing of the lawsuit, Kron said the groups had long fought EPA to kick start its review of flare standards, but the urgency is heightened with the coronavirus pandemic ravaging communities near refineries. 

“You’ve got a pandemic that specifically has a huge respiratory health effect and you’ve got emissions of these volatile organic compounds that are smog forming, they’re toxic, they can lead to asthma and other respiratory ailments — the cumulative effects of all this is that there’s really a higher problem now than ever,” he said.  

The other eight plaintiffs in Thursday’s lawsuit are Air Alliance Houston, Chesapeake Climate Action Network, Earthworks, Environment America, Environment Texas, Hoosier Environmental Council, PennEnvironment and Texas Campaign for the Environment. 

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