Illegal Air Pollution in Texas Declined 54% During COVID Recession

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Austin, TX – Texas industries reported releasing 46 million pounds of illegal air pollution in 2020, a decrease of 54 percent from 2019 caused by the COVID-19 economic downturn, according to state data analyzed by the Environmental Integrity Project and Environment Texas Research and Policy Center.

The emissions last year during industrial accidents, shutdowns, and other “upset” events were about a third lower than the 72 million pound average over the previous five years. However, the decline will be short-lived as the economy improves, unless the state increases penalties for illegal emissions and closes regulatory loopholes, according to the report, “Illegal Air Pollution in Texas, 2020.”

“To protect Texans from dangerous air pollution, state regulators need to do a much more consistent and thorough job of penalizing industry for illegal emissions,” said Gabriel Clark-Leach, attorney for the Environmental Integrity Project (EIP).  “Many of these industrial ‘accidents’ could be avoided if industry felt a financial incentive to improve. While unauthorized pollution dipped during the COVID interruption, the respite is likely to be fleeting unless the state steps up enforcement dramatically.”

“Texas regulators have been looking the other way when polluters break the law for too long,” said Luke Metzger, Executive Director of Environment Texas Research and Policy Center. “The Biden administration has taken important and encouraging steps to close loopholes that let polluters off the hook for violations, which is a great first step. The EPA should keep going and take bold action to hold polluters accountable and clean up Texas’ air.”

The report analyzed data reported by industries to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) on 2,980 unpermitted air pollution incidents in 2020 that released an array of harmful emissions, including benzene (a carcinogen), particulate matter (which can trigger asthma and heart attacks), sulfur dioxide, butadiene, hydrogen sulfide, and nitrogen oxide.

The numbers do not include carbon dioxide emissions, pollution released during the normal, daily operations of industries, or accidental releases not reported by companies to the state. For this reason, the numbers in the report significantly under-represent the true amount of illegal air pollution released in the state.

Overall last year, reported illegal emissions dropped in each of the state’s 16 regions except one. In the Dallas Fort Worth region, unauthorized pollution increased by 37 percent from 2019 to 2020, according to state figures.

The Midland region of West Texas reported by far the largest quantity of unauthorized emissions last year, at 30.7 million pounds – nearly six times more than the next highest region, Houston, which reported 5.5 million pounds.

Four of the top five biggest polluters in the state’s database of reported emission incidents last year were in West Texas, with the leading one being the Sand Hills Gas Plant in Crane County, which reported releasing 2.3 million pounds of total pollutants.

The stark difference between the higher emissions in sparsely populated West Texas and relatively lower emissions in the Houston area highlights a regulatory issue: supposedly minor sources of air pollution, like the oil and gas wells in the Midland region, actually release as much or more pollution during accidents and other “upsets” as the large refineries and chemical plants in urban areas. But the oil and gas wells in West Texas escape factory-style regulation because they claim to be minor or “insignificant” polluters.

“Texas really needs to issue stronger pollution control permits for the oil and gas wells in the Permian Basin, because the numbers prove they are major sources of air pollution, not minor sources,” said Clark-Leach of EIP.

The report also found that in 2020, TCEQ and the state financially penalized companies $1.2 million for 155 unauthorized air pollution events, a 30 percent increase from the 119 penalties in 2019. However, the bulk of these events took place between 2017 and 2019, with a few in 2015 and 2016 and two in 2020.

Over the last nine years, the total number of enforcement orders filed by TCEQ for air pollution events is less than 3 percent of the total number of unauthorized air pollution events recorded by the agency in that time.

“We have seen Texas getting tougher on polluters. But still have work to do, if only a few violators – around three percent — will ever face penalties from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality,” said Adrian Shelley, Director of Public Citizen’s Texas office. “It is good news that we saw a decline during an economic downturn and global pandemic. But illegal air pollution still happens every day in Texas.”

Among the dangerous air pollution incidents last year was on October 13, 2020, TPC Group’s Houston chemical plant released 91,000 pounds of air pollution, including 11,200 pounds of 1,3 butadiene, a carcinogen, into the neighborhoods of Park Place, Pecan Park, and Glenbrook, and less than two miles from Manchester, Galena Park, and Pasadena.

“Along with penalizing industry for its illegal emissions at a consistent rate, there needs to be a focus on equity and environmental justice,” said Stephany Mgbadigha, Legal and Advocacy Director for Air Alliance Houston.  “Communities of color are carrying a disproportionate share of the burden of the consequences of air pollution.”

In Corpus Christi, Valero’s Bill Greehey Refinery, during a heavy rainstorm on June 3, 2020, suffered a failure of a floating roof on a crude oil storage tank and released more than 75,000 pounds of chemicals into the air, including 4,100 pounds of benzene, a carcinogen, according to state reports cited in the “Illegal Air Pollution in Texas” report.

The Top 10 worst polluters in 2020 are ranked in the report by eight different categories of emissions, including particulates, sulfur dioxide, and volatile organic compounds. Below are the charts for the worst emitters of particulates (microscopic soot, which can trigger asthma and heart attacks) and benzene (a known carcinogen):

Some of the policy recommendations in the report include the following.  The Texas Legislature’s upcoming “sunset review” of the TCEQ (a renewal of authorization) affords an opportunity for lawmakers to strengthen enforcement programs in the ways listed below.

  • Texas should more vigorously and consistently penalize illegal pollution releases to create a stronger financial incentive for plant owners to upgrade their facilities and protect public health. To this end, the state should adopt mandatory minimum fines.
  • Texas should eliminate the “affirmative defense” loophole for illegal emissions, which functions as a near-automatic exemption from fines so long as illegal pollution releases are timely reported to the TCEQ.
  • Texas should require all sources, but especially repeat violators, to provide evidence supporting any claim that malfunctions resulting in illegal pollution releases are not preventable before deciding not to pursue enforcement actions for penalties and cleanup.
  • Texas should establish additional pollution monitors to accurately measure air quality impacts from unauthorized industrial emissions. The state should also work with federal and local agencies to implement continuous monitoring requirements for toxic pollutants.

The Environmental Integrity Project is a 19-year-old, nonpartisan, 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization dedicated to enforcing environmental laws and strengthening policy to protect public health and the environment.

Environment Texas is a nonprofit advocate for clean air, clean water and open spaces with more than 35,000 members and supporters in Texas.