Texas Air Pollution More Than Doubled in 2018

(CN) — “Unauthorized” air pollution from Texas industries more than doubled from 2017 to 2018, an environmental group reported Wednesday, and it’s not expected to get better under the lax rules of the Trump administration.

Environment Texas found that heavy industry spewed more than 135 million pounds of pollution into the air during “emission events.”

That more than doubled the 63 million pounds released in 2017, according to a similar report released in January. Both reports analyzed pollution data that companies are required to submit to regulators at the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.

The new report comes amid a string of high-profile industrial accidents in southeast Texas this year, including a November refinery explosion that injured three workers and prompted at least six lawsuits.

The Shell Deer Park oil refinery in Deer Park, Texas. (AP photo)

“Texans are sick and tired of oil refineries and petrochemical plants catching fire, exploding, and pumping out harmful pollution,” Catherine Fraser, with Environment Texas, said in a statement. “And the data show the problem is getting worse, not better.”

Oil refineries, petrochemical plants and other facilities in Texas often release air pollution beyond limits set by state regulators because of technical problems, breakdowns, maintenance or other issues. Nature can play a role, too: Parts of the Texas Gulf Coast saw an uptick in pollution after Hurricane Harvey in 2017, as refineries and plants underwent the dirty process of shutting down and restarting before and after the storm.

The Wednesday report found the statewide increase in 2018 was largely attributable to a methanol plant near Beaumont that released more than 53 million pounds of carbon dioxide into the air over multiple days as the plant was being ramped up.

Other facilities contributed. The report found unauthorized emissions in the sprawling West Texas oil patch increased by almost 5% from the year before, while the Corpus Christi region’s share grew by 112%.

In an interview, the environmental group’s president Luke Metzger attributed the increases to the ongoing Texas oil boom, the associated growth in plastics production along the coast, and the industry-friendly policies of the Trump administration.

“So, more facilities and also kind of a dip in enforcement on the federal level,” Metzger said. “Meaning companies perhaps don’t need to pay as much attention to compliance as they have in previous years, and kind of all of that adding up to increased emissions.”

Still, some parts of Texas saw fewer pollution spikes.

The Houston region, despite its recent reputation as prone to industrial disasters, saw an almost 18% drop in unauthorized emissions from 2017 to 2018, according to Environment Texas. Declines were seen in Amarillo and Laredo as well.

The Wednesday report called on Texas regulators to be more aggressive in enforcing pollution laws and to get rid of a provision of state law that allows companies to claim that pollution spikes were unplanned or unavoidable. Such a claim, if confirmed by the TCEQ after an investigation, can allow a company to duck penalties for excess pollution.

The Environmental Protection Agency under the Obama administration challenged Texas on that issue, saying the arrangement made the state’s plan for complying with the Clean Air Act “substantially inadequate.”

Texas countered that its approach to handling such claims is “narrowly tailored” and that the claims are limited by “numerous, stringent criteria” that companies must prove. Under the Trump administration, the EPA agreed with the state and reversed course.

The Trump administration is proposing to formally withdraw the EPA’s previous position, a move that the TCEQ supports in a regulatory filing, but one that environmental groups have argued would “immorally authorize” companies to pollute “without facing meaningful consequences.”

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