Coalition Sues EPA Over Texas Air Permits that Allow Too Much Pollution and Prevent Enforcement

Lawsuits Target Four Refineries and Petrochemical Plants Near Houston and a Power Plant East of Dallas

Washington, D.C. – The Environmental Integrity Project today filed federal lawsuits against EPA challenging the agency’s failure to prevent Texas from issuing air pollution control permits that violate the law by allowing too much pollution and make limits for some of the state’s largest polluters nearly impossible to enforce.

The five deficient pollution control permits targeted by the lawsuits are for ExxonMobil’s Baytown Olefins Plant and Refinery outside Houston; Petrobras’s Pasadena Refinery east of the city; Motiva’s Port Arthur Refinery; and SWEPCO’s Welsh Power Plant east of Dallas.

Working on behalf of partners at Air Alliance Houston, Sierra Club and TEJAS (Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services), EIP filed petitions last year urging EPA to require Texas to issue stronger permits to these five facilities. EPA did not respond to the petitions – even though the law requires a response within 60 days.

In the face of EPA’s failure to perform its duty, EIP filed suit this morning against EPA in the United States District Court for the District of Columbia.

“EPA knows that Texas issues unenforceable permits with illegal loopholes that render useless some of the most basic pollution control requirements of federal and state law,” said Gabriel Clark-Leach, attorney for the Environmental Integrity Project. “EPA’s unwillingness to object to faulty state permits deprives the public of health protections guaranteed by the law.”

A lack of enforcement of air pollution violations is a major problem in Texas, as documented by a report, “Breakdowns in Enforcement,” released on July 7 by the Environmental Integrity Project (EIP) and Environment Texas. The report used state records to document that the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality imposed penalties on less than 3 percent of 24,839 illegal air pollution incidents from 2011 through 2016. These self-reported incidents released more than 500 million pounds of air pollution during industrial malfunctions and maintenance.

One reason enforcement of pollution violations like this is so poor in Texas is because the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) issues weak permits, an issue highlighted in the lawsuits filed against EPA today. Some of the permits do not require monitoring or modern air pollution control equipment and are so inscrutable it makes it hard for TCEQ’s own employees to know when a plant is in violation.

“Houston area residents suffer preventable asthma attacks and heart attacks associated with the illegal air pollution from these refineries and plants. It is long overdue for both EPA and the state of Texas to get more serious about protecting public health,” said Dr. Bakeyah S. Nelson, Executive Director of Air Alliance Houston.

ExxonMobil’s Baytown plant, located on 3,400 acres adjacent to the Houston Ship Channel, is the largest integrated petrochemical manufacturing complex in the United States.

The Pasadena Refinery, located just east of Houston adjacent to the Galena Park neighborhood, is a mid-sized refinery, but led all Texas sources in illegal particular matter emissions during malfunctions and unauthorized maintenance in 2016.

The Saudi owned Port Arthur Refinery is the largest petroleum refinery in the United States, with a crude oil capacity of over 600,000 barrels per day.

The Welsh power plant is a large coal-fired power plant located in Titus County, Texas, east of Dallas.

“Coal fired power plants like Welsh spew a toxic soup of pollution that hurt people and the environment,” said Chrissy Mann, Senior Campaign Representative with the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal Campaign. “Meanwhile, EPA and the state of Texas look the other way while the Welsh plant routinely releases more dangerous small particle – soot – pollution than is allowed.”

Juan Parras, Executive Director of TEJAS, said: “The state of Texas has continually put industry interests ahead of our frontline communities. They have consistently shown more willingness to provide emitters tax relief and exemptions while our communities are forced to contend with the consequences of the states lax approach to protecting our neighborhoods.”

EPA is supposed to oversee state permitting programs and to make sure that state-issued permits do not undermine public health protections. In Texas, several parts of the state – including in the Houston, Dallas and El Paso areas – routinely fail federal health standards for ozone (or smog), meaning that the state needs to do more to reduce pollution from industry.

When a state-issued permit is weak, and EPA does not object to it, the law allows the public to petition EPA to object based on concerns that were raised during the state-level permitting process. EPA has objected to three permits issued by the TCEQ since 2015 based on petitions filed by EIP. In those cases, EPA objected to the permits only after being sued by EIP for failing to respond to public petitions filed by the group. The five petitions covered by the current lawsuits address defects in Texas permits that were raised in EIP’s previous petitions that were granted by EPA.

For example, EPA objected to two permits issued by the TCEQ for Shell’s Deer Park Refinery and Chemical Plant in September in 2015 because the permits failed to include reasonable monitoring requirements and failed to explain how emission limits in Texas’ regulations applied to units at the complex. EPA also objected to the TCEQ’s permit for the Pirkey Power Plant in February, 2016 because it created an illegal exemption to pollution control requirements during planned maintenance activities.

Federal operating permits are supposed to make complicated air pollution laws easier to enforce by locating all the limits and requirements that apply to each large industrial source in a single document. Texas has turned the purpose of these permits on its head by issuing permits that are long volumes of incomplete and confusing legal citations that do not state applicable emission limits and that establish illegal loopholes to clearly applicable requirements.

As EPA has commented in the past, Texas operating permits lack transparency, so that local community organizations and federal regulators cannot even find out what pollution limits apply to a source or hold the sources accountable for violations. Even where pollution limits are relatively clear, the permits repeatedly fail to require enough monitoring to make the limits enforceable.

The Environmental Integrity Project is a 15-year-old nonprofit, nonpartisan organization, based in Washington D.C., dedicated to enforcing environmental laws and holding polluters and governments accountable to protect public health.


Media contacts:
Tom Pelton, Director of Communications, Environmental Integrity Project, or (202) 888-2703
Ryan Small, Communications Director, Air Alliance Houston, or (713) 528-3779