EPA Agrees to Investigate Texas for Alleged Civil Rights Violations Caused by Air Pollution from Port Arthur Plant

Complaint Targets 85-Year-Old Oxbow Petroleum Coke Plant in Port Arthur, One of the Largest Sources of Sulfur Dioxide Pollution in the State

Austin, Texas. –  The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency today agreed to investigate whether Texas violated the civil rights of a mostly African-American community in Port Arthur by allowing dangerous amounts of air pollution to pour from an industrial plant for years, without any modern pollution controls.

The Port Arthur Community Action Network, through its attorneys at Lone Star Legal Aid and Environmental Integrity Project, on August 18 asked EPA to investigate Texas’s lax oversight of the 85-year-old Oxbow Calcining plant, which manufactures a petroleum byproduct called petroleum coke.

EPA responded with a letter today saying, “EPA’s External Civil Rights Compliance Office is accepting for investigation your administrative complaint filed against the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) that was received by the EPA on August 18, 2021. The complaint alleges that TCEQ discriminated on the basis of race in violation of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.”

“I am encouraged by the response of the EPA to investigate our concerns and issues surrounding Oxbow,” said John Beard, Founder and Chairman of the Port Arthur Community Action Network. “My hope is that they will thoroughly investigate their emissions and their impact on the community and draw what we believe to be an inescapable conclusion that Oxbow is an eminent danger to the life and health of people in Port Arthur and southeast Texas.”

“Our thanks to the Biden Administration’s EPA for taking up this matter and launching this investigation, because it had promised to prioritize environmental justice issues,” said Environmental Integrity Project Attorney Colin Cox. “Now they can do that and really help the people of Port Arthur.”

“Lone Star Legal Aid’s Environmental Justice Team appreciates the agency’s acceptance of jurisdiction over this administrative complaint against the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality and its related decision to launch an investigation into the TCEQ’s regulation of Oxbow Calcining, LLC’s operations in Port Arthur,” said Amy Dinn, Managing Attorney of Lone Star Legal Aid’s Environmental Justice Team. “This decision will directly benefit the residents of Port Arthur, and it is a first step towards appropriately regulating this facility to control its excess sulfur dioxide emissions that are so harmful to this environmental justice community’s health and wellbeing.”

The Port Arthur community group and allies had complained to EPA that the Oxbow plant released about 22 million pounds of sulfur dioxide each year from 2016 through 2019 – making it one of the largest sources of this air pollution in Texas.

Sulfur dioxide (SO2) can trigger coughing, lung disease, and eye irritation and is a main ingredient in microscopic soot particles that can trigger asthma and heart attacks. Unlike most other modern industrial facilities, the Oxbow plant does not have a pollution control device called a “scrubber” to capture sulfur dioxide because TCEQ has not required it.

Ninety-two percent of the sulfur dioxide air pollution in Jefferson County, including Port Arthur, comes from the Oxbow plant. About 2,624 residents live within a three-mile radius of the plant, 98 percent of whom are people of color, and 62 percent of whom are lower income, according to census data.

The Port Arthur Community Action Network is asking EPA to investigate whether TCEQ violated the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Title VI), which prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, or national origin in any program or activity that receives federal funds.  The groups allege that TCEQ did this by issuing air pollution control permits to Oxbow, and failing to require modern pollution control devices, despite the large amount of air pollution released by the plant.

The coalition is asking TCEQ to issue a stronger air pollution control permit for the Oxbow plant, and make sure its terms are in compliance with health-based air quality standards for sulfur dioxide.  The community organization is also demanding that Oxbow hold an outreach event with the Port Arthur community to explain what they are doing to control the pollution.

For a copy of EPA’s letter, click here.

The Environmental Integrity Project is a 19-year-old, nonpartisan, 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization dedicated to enforcing environmental laws and strengthening policy to protect public health and the environment. www.environmentalintegrity.org

The Port Arthur Community Action Network is a community-based, environmental justice non-profit organization working to protect the people of Port Arthur, Texas. https://www.pa-can.com.

Lone Star Legal Aid’s mission is to protect and advance the civil legal rights of the millions of Texans living in poverty in its 76 county service area by providing free advocacy, legal representation, and community education that ensures equal access to justice. http://www.lonestarlegal.org/

Media Contacts:

Clarissa Ayala, Communications Director at Lone Star Legal Aid, (713) 652-0077 or cayala@lonestarlegal.org

Colin Cox, Environmental Integrity Project (832) 316-0580 or ccox@environmentalintegrity.org