Texans Sickened by 'Accidental' Gas, Oil, Chemical Emissions

WASHINGTON, DC, July 18, 2012 (ENS) - Flares, leaking pipelines and tanks emitted 92,000 tons of toxic chemicals into the air during accidents, break-downs and maintenance at Texas oil and gas facilities, refineries and petrochemical plants over the past three years, finds a report released today by the nonprofit Environmental Integrity Project, EIP.

Based on data from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, a state agency, the EIP report shows that, in addition to the emissions from normal operations, more than 42,000 tons of sulfur dioxide, and just over 50,000 tons of smog-forming volatile organic compounds were released from 2009 through 2011. The report shows a "pattern of neglect" as the pollution from these events drags on for weeks or months.

Emissions from the Valero refinery in Port Arthur, Texas (Photo by Mike Breaux)

Community groups, including the EIP, notified the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency today that they will take the agency to court if it fails to crack down on this toxic pollution.

Hilton Kelley, executive director of Communities In-power and Development in Port Arthur, Texas, sees the health effects of these emissions every day. "The EPA knows there are a disproprortionate number of people living with respiratory, cancer, liver and kidney disease directly related to what they're being exposed to," he told reporters on a conference call today.

"Within Port Arthur I personally know at least 12 people who have recently died from cancer and one young lady who died from an asthma attack," said Kelley. "The Environmental Protection Agency must do a better job of counting the toxic pollution dumped into low-income and minority communities."

In Houston, Juan Parras, founder of Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services, said, "I am a firm believer and advocate for clean air, however, I live in an environment where 'clean' is dictated by petrochemical, gas plants, and oil refineries in the Houston Region. They decide what they can get away with and blame their highly toxic emissions on 'accidents' that they claim are beyond their control."

While both sulfur dioxide and volatile organic compounds, VOCs, are linked to asthma attacks and other respiratory ailments, and can contribute to premature death from heart disease, because they result from these so-called "emission events," they are usually not included in the data the government uses to establish regulations or evaluate public health impacts.

Natural gas operations, including well heads, pipelines, compressors, boosters, and storage systems, accounted for more than 85 percent of total sulfur dioxide and nearly 80 percent of the VOCs released during these emission events, the Environmental Integrity Project report shows.

ExxonMobil's refinery at Baytown, Texas 20 miles east of Houston is one of the largest petroleum refineries in the world. (Photo courtesy Center for Land Use Interpretation)

The Clean Air Act makes polluters strictly liable for their mistakes, but loopholes in regulations either excuse violations that result from malfunctions altogether, or allow polluters to escape penalties by claiming that such mishaps are beyond the control of plant operators. As a result, federal or state agencies rarely even investigate these events, much less take enforcement action.

EIP director Eric Schaeffer told reporters, "Too many of these 'accidents' are the norm at some natural gas and chemical plants. These upsets can dump a lot of pollution in a few short hours, and some of them continue releasing benzene and other toxins for weeks."

"Many of these breakdowns and the pollution that comes with them could be prevented by upgrading pollution controls, improving maintenance, and recapturing and reusing gas instead of releasing it to the environment as pollution," Schaeffer said.

In the EIP report most of the emissions documented were reported "not on monitoring but on formulas based on assumptions about leak rates," Schaeffer said. "These are very wrong - actual measurements and studies of combustion are as much as 10 times higher."

"The U.S. EPA needs to crack down on polluters who seem to think that these events - no matter how many or how severe - somehow excuse them from the Clean Air Act," he said.

Juan Parras, founder of Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services in Houston, told reporters he lives in the city's east end in the midst of a 16-mile stretch of refineries bordering the Houston Ship Channel.

The Houston Ship Channel is lined with refineries and storage tanks. (Photo courtesy Kim Lytle)

"There is a lot of accidental flaring," Parras said, "and a lot of it is not reported, otherwise the EPA would have stepped up to the plate a long time ago. Even if they do report there is no penalty; they should also be fined. Industry has been allowed to continuously pollute and pay minimum fines while the community suffers from huge amounts of toxins."

"Studies say if you live within a two mile radius of the Houston Ship Channel you have a 56 percent chance of coming down with leukemia; there are also other cancers - you name it- we've got it," said Parras.

Parras said, "To be fair to the EPA, under the Obama Administration we did have a meeting with EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson six months after they took office. We told them about all this, but we haven't seen any results from that."

The community groups are hoping to get better results from two notices of intent to sue filed with the EPA today.

One notice says the groups will take the EPA to court for failing to meet Clean Air Act deadlines for revising rules to require more accurate reporting of refinery emissions.

The other letter demands that the EPA meet its responsibility under the law to evaluate how refinery pollution affects the health of downwind communities and to set standards that protect those neighborhoods from unreasonable health risks, with "an ample margin of safety."

In addition, EPA must review and upgrade limits on toxic air pollutants, based on the maximum reductions that can be achieved.

EPA has missed both deadlines for many years, the groups allege, depriving communities of the protection they are entitled to under the law.

Matthew Tejada with Air Alliance Houston told reporters the federal regulators are using outdated formulas to account for these emissions instead of doing actual monitoring.

"We are using a playbook that is complete fantasy to regulate and permit these industries. Until we start to appreciate the actual emissions that are coming out of these facilities, we are never going to make the progress that is right in front of us," said Tejada.

"So much research has been done even here in Texas, there are a wealth of improvements and advances at our fingertips but we won't embrace it," Tejada said. "Until the EPA does, and it trickles down to the states, we are using 1960s technology to regulate 21st century industries and it is "simply too great of a burden on these communities that already have so many other challenges impacting their lives."

The air quality has gotten so bad that some communities are considering moving away from the emitting facilities.

Kelley said, "Living in Port Arthur you grow up with the odor of sulfur, strong pungent odors of various types of chemicals and you're exposed to toxins dumped into our air daily."

"We have Motiva, the largest oil refinery in the western hemisphere, and we also have the Veolia incinerator," Kelley said. "Veolia solicits other states and countries for their toxic wastes, millions of pounds of toxic waste."

People are dying from cancer, liver and kidney disease. We have three dialysis clinics here, they're all full. I am really shocked about how much is being emitted. Our people are suffering the exact illnesses associated with these chemicals," Kelley said. "We're looking at a mass exodus out of these communities if our federal government cannot do something."

"Hiding emissions through bad data does no one any favors," said EIP Director Schaeffer. "Without accurate monitoring, communities near refineries are exposed to dirtier air. Refineries also miss opportunities to stop leaks, and recapture and reuse gases that are released to the environment today as pollution."

"Refineries have the know-how to fix some of these problems," said Schaeffer, "and they will if EPA starts accounting for this pollution."

The five Texas facilities in the petrochemical, oil and gas, and refining sectors reporting the most sulfur dioxide from "emission events" between 2009 and 2011 are:

The five Texas facilities in the petrochemical, oil and gas, and refining sectors, reporting the most volatile organic compounds from "emission events" between 2009 and 2011 are: "Communities around the U.S. should not have to keep waiting for basic public health protection from the dangerous pollution that refineries put into our air," said attorney Emma Cheuse with the nonprofit environment law firm Earthjustice, which is representing the community groups. "EPA must act now to do its job and get the refineries air toxics rule done, as the Clean Air Act requires."

Jane Williams, executive director of California Communities Against Toxics said, "Children's health and environmental justice must be the touchstone of what EPA does in its rules for refineries. EPA needs to strengthen the pollution limits that apply to refineries now, so that another generation of kids doesn't have to grow up without the basic protection that EPA is supposed to give them."

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