Texas breakdown: 68 million pounds of pollution released during industrial malfunctions and maintenance last year

Media Contacts

New Report Ranks Worst Polluters and Regions

Environment Texas

AUSTIN — More than 68 million pounds of mostly illegal air pollution poured from 679 facilities in Texas during 3,421 incidents of breakdowns and maintenance in 2015, according to a new report based on state records.

The report, Breakdowns in Air Quality, by the Environmental Integrity Project and Environment Texas, ranks the state’s worst industrial sites in terms of air pollution releases during equipment malfunctions and maintenance.  The report provides evidence that the oil and gas industry is the worst for spewing a huge portion of its pollution during malfunctions. 

Oil and gas facilities in Texas released more than 20 million pounds of illegal sulfur dioxide emissions, which contribute to smog and acidification of water and soil, during breakdowns and maintenance activities in 2014, the most recent year for which comprehensive data was available.  This total is more than 40 percent of the total (48 million pounds) of sulfur dioxide released by oil and gas producers all year. 

“This unauthorized air pollution is a threat to the health of Texans,” said Ilan Levin, Director of the Texas office of the Environmental Integrity Project. “Oil and gas producers appear to treat equipment malfunctions as routine and acceptable business practices. State and federal regulators need to start cracking down on this problem.”

Luke Metzger, Director of Environment Texas, said: “By their own admission, polluters in Texas are routinely and egregiously violating the law and endangering public health with unauthorized emissions.  And too often regulators look the other way when polluters break the law. This lawlessness must come to an end.”

The state’s enforcement of air pollution limits in permits has been poor.  When Texas does impose penalties for violations, the fines are often small in comparison to the cost to public health and the profits generated by the industry.  For example, 10 Texas oil and gas plants reported 43,326 tons of sulfur dioxide air pollution from 2009 through 2014, and received $463,299 in penalties. But that breaks down to only about $11 per ton for the illegal pollution, which is a tiny fraction – one or two percent — of the $567 to $842 per ton in health-related costs caused by the pollution, including for emergency room treatment of asthma and heart attacks, according to federal and state data and a widely used scientific model for estimating public health impacts.

In some cases, industries have successfully argued that they should not be fined by regulators for air pollution released during “malfunction incidents.”   Some malfunctions continue for days or even months.  

For example, the Keystone Gas Plant in West Texas – the worst in the state for releasing pollution during breakdowns and maintenance – reported one malfunction incident in 2015 that lasted for six months. The Winkler County facility has a permit that authorizes no more than 1.6 million pounds of sulfur dioxide emissions per year.   Yet, the plant reported almost seven times that permitted limit, about 11 million pounds, of sulfur dioxide emissions during malfunctions in 2014.   

The “Breakdowns in Air Quality” report shows that oil refineries and chemical plants — mostly along the Gulf Coast – are the worst emitters of the carcinogen Benzene during industrial malfunctions and maintenance.  Industrial sites across Texas – from El Paso to the Texas Panhandle to deep East Texas – ranked among the worst emitters of dangerous particulate matter (soot) in 2015. 

The report also ranks the top 10 worst industrial polluters in Texas for each of five different pollutants (sulfur dioxide, hydrogen sulfide, nitrogen oxides, benzene, and particulate matter) released during malfunctions and maintenance (see lists at bottom). Sometimes, plants belch several times more pollution during brief bursts than their permits allow in an entire year.

The report shows how the state’s major cities compare in terms of air pollution caused by industrial malfunctions and maintenance.

 1. Houston: Of all metropolitan areas in the state, the Houston area has the most air pollution from plant breakdowns. Last year, 405 breakdown and maintenance incidents in the Houston metro area resulted in the release of 5 million pounds of pollutants, according to state data.  The worst polluter in the region for these types of incidents was Dow Chemical’s Freeport plant, south of Houston, which released almost 1.3 million pounds of pollutants last year. The plant also emitted 15,717 pounds of benzene, a carcinogen, during malfunctions and maintenance, more than any other facility in the state.  During a malfunction on February 2, 2015, the facility released 1,407 pounds of benzene over a 13 hour period, even though its state permit allows no more than 339 pounds.   The single largest “upset” incident in Houston last year came from Shell’s Deer Park oil refinery, which released 341,508 pounds of pollution – including 309,213 pounds of the carcinogen 1,3-Butadiene during a malfunction that lasted one hour on August 9, 2015.   The nearby Pasadena Refining Systems plant released 92,994 pounds of particulate matter (soot) during malfunctions and maintenance, making it the second worst in the state.

 “These unpermitted and illegal pollution events cannot continue,” said Adrian Shelley, Executive Director of Air Alliance Houston.  “People breathe all the time, and it doesn’t matter to us that pollution is caused by a malfunction, or by ‘routine maintenance.’ We have to breathe this air, and if it isn’t safe for us to breathe, someone needs to be held accountable.”

2. Beaumont/Port Arthur: The Beaumont/Port Arthur area suffers from similar excessive releases of smog-causing and toxic pollution as the Houston area, due to the large concentration of refineries and petrochemical plants.  About 3.8 million pounds of pollutants were released during 177 malfunction and maintenance incidents in this area in 2015. The worst polluter for these types of cases was the ExxonMobil Beaumont Refinery, which released 1 million pounds of pollution last year. The worst single incident in the region last year came on November 1, when the Beaumont Refinery spewed 873,990 pounds of pollutants into the air.  Between April 15 and April 20, 2015, the BASF Total Fina Nafta Complex in Port Arthur, on the Texas-Louisiana border, released 13,065 pounds of cancer-causing benzene due to a cooling tower leak. This event made this plant the state’s number one benzene polluter in 2015.  Five of the state’s top 10 worst sources of benzene emissions during malfunctions and maintenance are in the working class and largely African American communities in Jefferson County, near the Texas-Louisiana border.

3. San Antonio:  Oil and gas producers around San Antonio were responsible for much of that area’s air pollution from malfunctions and maintenance.  In 2015, 587,152 pounds of pollution were released during 81 incidents.  The worst polluter in the area last year was EOG Resources Inc.’s Cuellar B Production Facility, which released 96,631 pounds of pollution. The single worst incident in the San Antonio area last year was on May 8, when the Mars Production Facility, also owned by EOG, released 59,221 pounds of pollutants.

4. Corpus Christi:  Corpus Christi is home to six major oil refineries and a large petrochemical complex, which are the primary contributors to air pollution from industrial breakdowns and maintenance. These types of incidents totaled 559,376 pounds of pollution during 114 “upset” events in 2015.  The worst single polluter was the Equistar Corpus Christi Plant, which released 167,338 pounds last year.  The worst single incident was on June 3, 2015, when the Equistar Corpus Christi Petrochemical Plant   released 66,821 pounds of air pollution.

5.  Dallas-Fort Worth: Industrial plants in this metropolitan area released 91,639 pounds of pollution in 31 malfunction and maintenance incidents in 2015. The worst polluter was the Targa Midstream Services Chico Gas Plant, which discharged 35,700 pounds of pollution last year. The worst incident of 2015 came on September 3, 2015, when the Chico plant released 35,700 pounds of air pollutants.

6.   Austin:  Last year, 32,142 pounds of air pollution were released by industries in 11 events in the Austin area.  Most of this was discharged on November 24, when the Luling Gas Plant, owned by Davis Gas Processing, spewed 30,939 pounds of pollutants, which was the worst single incident of the year in this region.

While some of these malfunctions may be unavoidable, many breakdowns are the result of operator errors, poor plant design, and a lack of preventive maintenance.  In the summer of 2013, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality used aircraft equipped with infrared monitors to randomly check oil and gas sites in West and South Texas.  The study found 800 storage tanks leaking volatile organic compounds, and the agency concluded: “Nearly all of the issues documented arose from human or mechanical failures.”

The “Breakdowns in Air Quality” report concludes with recommended solutions to the problem.   Although Texas has performed poorly in its enforcement of air pollution limits in state permits – which prohibit industrial plants from routinely releasing excessive air pollution during malfunctions and maintenance –swift and consistent implementation of the law, with financial penalties, is the most effective way to reign in rogue polluters. 

At the federal level, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is conducting a national review of state air pollution control plans in an effort to reduce emissions during startups, shutdowns, malfunctions and maintenance. The Environmental Integrity Project and Environment Texas call on EPA to ensure that these “State Implementation Plans” include rules and definitions that are clear, and that industries’ legal ability to emit pollution is strongly curtailed, even during breakdowns.

In addition, Environment Texas is launching a new website called NeighborhoodWitness.org. This website notifies people living in fenceline communities when industrial polluters report unauthorized emissions and provides them tools to quickly and easily file complaints with the companies and the state.