Environment Texas and Sierra Club File Second Lawsuit to Stop Illegal Air Emissions in Harris County

Media Contacts

Groups Allege Illegal Pollution from “Upset” Events at Chevron Phillips’ Cedar Bayou Chemical Plant in Baytown

HOUSTON – Sierra Club and Environment Texas filed a lawsuit today in federal district court against Chevron Phillips Chemical Company LP. The suit, coming on the heels of the groups’ landmark settlement with Shell Oil Company in June targeting illegal air emissions arising from so-called “upset” events, claims that Chevron Phillips has repeatedly violated the Clean Air Act at its Cedar Bayou chemical plant in Baytown, Texas. The suit alleges the company released more than a million of pounds of excess air pollutants since 2003, including toxic chemicals such as benzene and 1,3-butadiene.

The groups expect to discuss a resolution of their claims with the company in the near future.

Chevron Phillips had net income of $1.04 billion in 2006, $387 million in 2007, and $103 million in 2008. It is the primary subsidiary of Chevron Phillips Chemical Company LLC, which is owned equally by Chevron  Corporation and ConocoPhillips. The 1,200-acre Cedar Bayou facility is located right next to Interstate 10, about 25 miles east of downtown Houston. It is the largest of Chevron Phillips’s domestic manufacturing facilities, producing over six billion pounds of chemicals annually.

“Like many companies in Texas, Chevron Phillips has repeatedly violated its own permit limits by emitting a wide range of harmful pollutants into the air from the Cedar Bayou plant,” said Luke Metzger, Director of Environment Texas. “Because the state of Texas has failed to stop such violations at Cedar Bayou and elsewhere, citizen groups have had to step up and enforce the law themselves.”

The Clean Air Act contains a “citizen suit” provision that allows private citizens affected by violations of the law to bring an enforcement suit in federal court if state and federal regulators do not. 

“The effects of pollutants released from the Cedar Bayou plant can be felt as far away as downtown Houston and beyond,” explained Dr. Neil Carman, a chemist and the Clean Air Program Director for the Lone Star Chapter of Sierra Club. “I know because on October 7, 1999, I was in Houston when a cloud of volatile organic compounds released from a single upset event at the Cedar Bayou plant contributed to extraordinarily high  ozone levels all along the Houston Ship Channel and in the City of Houston itself; it was the single worst ozone day in Houston in the last twenty years.” 

Chevron Phillips’s permits contain both hourly and yearly limits on the amounts of pollutants it can emit into the atmosphere. The lawsuit alleges that equipment breakdowns, malfunctions, and other non-routine incidents at the Cedar Bayou complex have resulted in the release of more than a  million pounds of pollutants into the surrounding air, frequently in violation of legal limits. A single such “upset” or “emission event” can result in the release of tens of thousands of pounds of air pollutants in a matter of hours or even minutes.

The groups’ analysis of Chevron Phillips’s own emission event reports submitted to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality since 2003 reveals:

  • Over three-quarters of a million pounds of unauthorized emissions of volatile organic compounds (VOCs);
  • Over 300,000 pounds of unauthorized emissions of carbon monoxide; 
  • Nearly ten tons each of unauthorized emissions of benzene and 1,3-butadiene;
  • Ten separate violations of the state’s hourly limit on “highly reactive VOCs,” the chemicals most responsible for ground-level ozone formation;
  • Nine instances in which flares were operating without a flame in violation of federal law, allowing the release of pollutants with no control whatsoever.

VOCs and carbon monoxide contribute to the formation of ground-level ozone, which, according to EPA, can trigger a variety of health problems including chest pain, coughing, throat irritation, and congestion. Air quality in
Harris County regularly violates standards for ground-level ozone set by EPA. Benzene and 1,3-butadiene are carcinogens.

The lawsuit seeks a court order requiring Chevron Phillips to end its Clean Air Act violations. In addition, Chevron Phillips faces civil penalties of up to $32,500 or more per day for each violation of the Clean Air Act. 

Sierra Club has approximately 24,000 members in Texas who are dedicated to exploring, enjoying, and protecting Texas’ environment and natural resources.

Environment Texas advocates for clean air, clean water, and preservation of Texas’s natural areas on behalf of approximately 5,000 members statewide.

The lawsuit was filed by Josh Kratka, a Senior Attorney at the
National Environmental Law Center, attorney David Nicholas of Newton,
Massachusetts, and Houston attorney Philip Hilder; copies of the complaint
are available upon request.