Environmental Groups Sue EPA for Allowing Texas to Approve Weak Air Pollution Control Permits

Texas Rubber-Stamped Authorizations for Eight Major Sources of Pollution that Undermine Public Health

Washington, D.C. – Four environmental groups sued EPA today for the agency’s failure to prevent Texas from issuing air pollution control permits that violate the law by failing to protect public health and by not requiring needed emissions monitoring.

Texas issued these weak permits to eight of the largest polluters in the state, including a refinery, chemical factory, and oil and gas processing plant south and east of Houston, in an area that EPA has determined is not meeting national air quality standards for smog. Other facilities cited in the lawsuit are a gas plant near Odessa in West Texas, and a pair of coal-fired power plants south of Dallas.

The Environmental Integrity Project, Sierra Club, Environment Texas, and Port Arthur Community Action Network, along with a West Texas resident named Neta Rhyne who is suffering from the air pollution, filed the lawsuit against EPA in the United States District Court for the District of Columbia.

The plaintiffs are demanding that EPA respond to petitions they filed challenging the adequacy and legality of the permits by March 31.

“For too long, EPA has turned a blind eye as Texas has routinely violated the federal Clean Air Act by rubber-stamping weak permits for the state’s biggest polluters,” said Gabriel Clark-Leach, Senior Attorney for the Environmental Integrity project, which filed the action on behalf of the other groups.  “Problems with a lack of accountability, transparency, and inadequate monitoring plague nearly every permit Texas issues to industrial plants, and the people paying the price for this negligence are the predominantly poor and minority communities living downwind.”

The eight facilities with air pollution control permits (called “Title V” permits) cited in the lawsuit are the following, with links to petitions filed by the environmental groups to EPA complaining about the emissions the permits allow from the plants:

Working on behalf of partners at the Sierra Club, Environment Texas, and the Port Arthur Community Action Network, EIP filed petitions between 2017 and 2020 urging EPA to require the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) to issue stronger permits to these eight facilities.  Some of the permits do not require monitoring and are so inscrutable it makes it hard for TCEQ’s own employees to know when a plant is in violation.

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.

“Until EPA steps up to do its job and ensures that emission limits in Texas permits are actually enforceable, Permian Basin gas plants will continue to fill the air with illegal air pollution,” said Neta Rhyne, a plaintiff in the legal action who lives in Reeves County in northwest Texas. “This is a problem that’s getting worse, not better and, as a lung cancer survivor, I fear for my health and well-being every time I walk outside and breathe the polluted air.”

Catherine Fraser, Clean Air Associate for Environment Texas, said: “Texas facilities are too often given the green light to pollute our air and our communities. We need the EPA to fulfill its mandate to protect the health of Texans.”

John Beard, Jr., President of Port Arthur Community Action Network, said: “The continuous, ongoing emissions from Valero pose an existential risk to the lives and health of Port Arthur residents. The EPA’s failure to enforce laws that protect people and the environment is criminal, and we demand the EPA take swift, corrective action; We are watching, we will not be silent.”

Background: Under the federal Clean Air Act, EPA is required 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 fail federal health standards for smog, meaning that the state needs to do more to reduce pollution from industry.

Federal operating permits for industrial plants (called “Title V” 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 lists of incomplete and confusing legal citations that do not state emission limits and that create illegal loopholes.

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.

Neil Carman, Clean Air Program Director, for the Lone Star Chapter Sierra Club, said: “Title V air permits are critical enforcement tools used by the TCEQ in making sure that industrial plants operate in compliance with air pollution limits and we need the strongest Title V permits in place.”

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.

Environment Texas is a nonprofit advocate for clean air, clean water and open spaces with more than 35,000 members and supporters in Texas.

The Sierra Club is a national nonprofit organization dedicated to exploring, enjoying, and protecting the wild places of the earth; and to educating and enlisting humanity to protect and restore the quality of the natural and human environment.

The Port Arthur Community Action Network is a community-based, environmental justice non-profit organization working to protect the people of Port Arthur.

Media contact: Tom Pelton, Environmental Integrity Project, tpelton@environmentalintegrity.org or (202) 888-2703