Clean Air Elusive in Beaumont/Port Arthur, Texas

BEAUMONT, Texas, April 2, 2004 (ENS) - The air quality in the Beaumont/Port Arthur area of Texas has been officially downgraded to a "serious" nonattainment of federal standards, but only after a legal and regulatory tug-of-war that has lasted for years. The area is home to some of the largest petrochemical plants in the world.

In a final rule effective on April 29, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) reclassified the Beaumont/Port Arthur area from "moderate" to "serious" because the air is not clean enough to meet the agency's health based one-hour standard for ground level ozone, or smog.

The reclassification resulted from a decision of the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in a 2001 case brought by the Sierra Club challenging the EPA's original designation of "moderate" for Beaumont/Port Arthur.

Originally the EPA had agreed with the city that it was pollution traveling through the air from the Houston/Galveston that was causing problems for Beaumont/Port Arthur in its attempt to meet federal standards, and gave November 15, 2007 as the deadline date for ozone attainment. The Houston area is classified as being in "severe," violation of the ozone standard.


ExxonMobil Chemical's largest synthetics plant is in Beaumont, Texas. The company manufacturers synthetic base fluids and additive packages. (Photo courtesy ExxonMobil)
On December 11, 2002, the Appeals Court ruled that the EPA was in violation of the Clean Air Act when it delayed implementation of a cleanup plan for the area's smoggy air. The court reversed the portion of EPA's approval that extended Beaumont/Port Arthur's attainment date to 2007.

To comply with the court ruling, Beaumont/Port Arthur will have to take steps to reduce pollution and reach health-based ozone levels by November 2005.

After much strategizing, on March 22 the Lone Star Chapter of the Sierra Club and two other community groups joined with representatives of the EPA, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ), and five local industrial facilities to announce a new plan to improve air quality in Beaumont-Port Arthur.

Dr. Neil Carman, director of the Lone Star Chapter of the Sierra Club's Clean Air Program, said, "The air quality in the Beaumont and Port Arthur communities has been unhealthful for many years, and we felt a new approach was needed that would accomplish improved air quality quickly."

The five companies will voluntarily reduce their emissions. The state of Texas agreed to expedite completion of a revised state implementation plan for the Beaumont-Port Arthur area that will demonstrate prompt attainment of both the one-hour and eight-hour federal ozone standards, and EPA will act swiftly to review and act on the new state implementation plan.

"Since much of the air pollution from industries in BPA both cause ozone and have toxic effects, the immediate reductions in the amounts of air pollution emitted will help with both regional ozone problems as well as local toxics issues," Carman said.


Children play near some of the refineries in Port Arthur, Texas (Photo courtesy Sierra Club)
Speaking for the community groups, Linda Simpson of the Community In-Powerment Development Association (CIDA) expressed hope at press conference in Beaumont, "We look forward to working positively and cooperatively with the state and federal regulatory agencies that safeguard the public's health. And we look forward to the day, may it come soon, when there is never a concern that our children cannot safely go outside and play because of the air pollution."

"We believe that this event signifies a turning point in the struggle for clean air and healthful communities in the Beaumont-Port Arthur region," said Simpson. "As representatives for the residents that breathe the air downwind from a number of industrial facilities, we look forward to strengthening the working relationship with the operators of those facilities that has begun here today. "

But Bill Wimberley, chairman of the Air Quality Monitoring Committee of the South East Texas Regional Planning Commission, said the reclassification does not mean the area's air quality is getting worse.

"We were in attainment last year," Wimberley told the "Beaumont Enterprise." "This is not due to our air quality degrading. Our air quality is continuing to improve."

The new air quality strategy includes a commitment by the Southeast Texas Plan Manager's Forum to fund a series of community workshops examining the sources, controls and effects of local air pollution. The forum will also fund the purchase of two state-of-the-art air quality monitors for the community to use in evaluating local air quality.


In Port Arthur, BASF FINA Petrochemicals LP, operates the largest steam cracker of its type in the world, turning naphtha and light hydrocarbons into ethylene, propylene, and other chemical raw materials. (Photo courtesy BASF)
"We believe the community will rest easier once we are able to independently verify what is in the air that we are breathing," said CIDA Executive Director Hilton Kelly. "Our community has lived under the shadows of these facilities for decades, wondering whether a release is harmless or deadly. We will now have the means to know, instantaneously, what is in the air and to tell the community the appropriate response."

"This agreement will help accelerate air quality improvements for residents of Beaumont/Port Arthur. By collaborating to combine voluntary and regulatory efforts, we will bring benefits to the area above and beyond regulatory requirements," said EPA Regional Administrator Richard Greene.

"We believe that this historic agreement between the community, industry and regulators will provide a foundation for the aggressive efforts needed to protect the health of the residents of the Beaumont and Port Arthur communities in the future," said Kelly.

Petrochemical plants and industrial facilities in the Beaumont area include EI DuPont de Nemours, Sabine River Works, Bayer Corporation, Huntsman Corporation, TDI Halter, ExxonMobil Corporation, Motiva Enterprises, Inland Eastex, Clark Port Arthur Refinery, Goodyear Tire and Rubber, and DuPont Beaumont Works.