Rapid Growth of Houston Plastics Industry Increases Air Pollution and Safety Risks

New Report Finds 64% of Plastics Plants in Houston Region Violate Clean Air Act, and 20% Break Disaster Planning Requirements

Houston – In the wake of a series of fires, explosions, and pollution releases at chemical plants this year, a new report reveals that the Houston region’s rapidly growing plastics industry is significantly increasing air pollution and safety risks.

A review of state and federal records by the nonprofit Environmental Integrity Project found 90 plants that manufacture plastics or the ingredients of plastics in the Houston/Port Arthur region. Nearly two thirds of these plants (57 of 90) violated air pollution limits over the last five years, and 20 percent (19 of the 90) were cited by EPA for failing to follow federal disaster management planning requirements over the last five years, according to Environmental Integrity Project’s (EIP) report, “Plastics Pollution on the Rise.”

In terms of total pollution released, the 90 plastics-related plants in the Houston area emitted 55,704 tons of potentially health-damaging pollutants in 2017, the most recent year for which data are available. That was 22 percent of total emissions from all industries in the region – and that percentage is likely to grow as several new planned facilities come online in the next few years.

Across the Gulf Coast, the rise of hydraulic fracturing has lowered the price of natural gas, and this has sparked a boom in the plastics industry, which uses gas as a primary ingredient.

An additional 45 plastics-related expansion or plant construction projects in the Houston region are proposed but not yet built, and three new expansions were completed in 2018 for which emissions data are not yet available.

It is not yet clear how much air pollution will rise from all of these 48 new Houston-area plastics industry projects. However, permit documents are available for a third of the projects (16/48), and these would authorize emissions of up to an additional 14,192 tons of pollution annually, according to documents on file with Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ).

Dr. Bakeyah Nelson, Executive Director of Air Alliance Houston, said that public officials must prepare for the rapid growth of the plastics industry and work to protect local public health.

“Too often residents in our region are forced to shelter in place or breathe toxic fumes and suffer the health consequences because of explosions, fires, and pollution releases,” said Dr. Nelson.  “Because we cannot rely on Texas and federal regulators to work diligently to protect public health and the safety of our communities, as the plastics industry booms in the Houston area we ask that local decision-makers are prepared to take action. We need to dedicate the necessary resources to implement a robust community air monitoring strategy, streamline communication between agencies and departments, and improve public notification to reduce health impacts when incidents do occur.”

Ilan Levin, Texas Director of the Environmental Integrity Project, said: “We are calling on the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality and EPA to issue strong air pollution control permits for all new or expanded plastics plants, impose significant fines for pollution violations, and require companies to invest in better maintenance and emergency planning to prevent fires, explosions, and other disasters.”

While the plastics industry is growing rapidly in the Houston area, it is often not following the federal Clean Air Act, according to the EIP report. Fifty-seven of the 90 plastics-related plants examined were responsible for a total of 222 air pollution violations over the last five years, according to federal and state records.

Moreover, a significant portion of plants – 20 percent of the facilities — were cited by EPA for failing to follow federal disaster management planning requirements over the last five years, according to federal records. This should raise concerns because two of these plants erupted in flames in just the first seven months of 2019.

On July 31, a major fire erupted at the ExxonMobil Baytown petrochemical complex just east of Houston — the largest petrochemical complex in the country. The fire was in a unit containing propylene, an extremely flammable material used in plastics. Thirty-seven people suffered injuries in the explosion, which released 14,103 pounds of benzene, a carcinogen, and 25,938 pounds of butadiene, 1-3, which also increases the risk of cancer and other diseases. It was the second major fire this year at the Baytown site, with the first on March 16, which released benzene and hydrogen sulfide air pollution. Harris County is suing ExxonMobil over both incidents for violating the state’s clean air laws.

In addition, an explosion and fire on April 2 at the KMCO plant in Crosby, northeast of Houston, killed one worker and critically injured a second. Like many of the plastics-related plants listed in EIP’s report, the KMCO plant had been cited by EPA for not following federal disaster planning requirements, but the company was fined a modest $5,200 for the violation in 2015, according to EPA records.

EIP’s examination of the plastics industry in the greater Houston/Port Arthur region included both plants that manufacture plastic products, and facilities that make chemicals that are the ingredients in plastics. The report looked at emissions of what EPA calls “criteria” air pollutants (sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, lead, soot, volatile organic compounds and carbon monoxide.)

EIP’s report, “Plastics Pollution on the Rise,” found:

  • The industry is growing rapidly in the Houston region, with three expansions of plastic plants completed in 2018.  An additional 45 expansions or new plants are planned for the future, according to permit applications and an industry database.
  • Although information is not available for all of these 48 new plastics projects in the Houston area, permitting documents are available for a third of them (16 of 48). These documents show these new plants would emit up to 14,192 tons of additional air pollution per year.
  • Texas has been too lax in issuing and enforcing permits for industrial facilities, including plastics plants, allowing them to release more air pollution than they should. For example, TCEQ in 2014 approved a permit for the ExxonMobil Baytown Olefins plant that improperly exempts the facility from federal requirements that mandate the installation of appropriate pollution control systems when the plants significantly upgrade or expand.
  • From 2015 to 2017, Texas or EPA fined only 7 percent (57 out of 872) of unpermitted pollution releases from the Houston area’s plastics industry during industrial accidents, startups, shutdowns and maintenance. These 872 incidents released 11 million pounds of air pollution, but the fines were minimal, totaling only about 6 cents per pound of illegal pollution.

To help reduce pollution and risks from the growing plastics industry, EIP’s report recommends the following solutions:

1) EPA and Texas should step up their enforcement of federal disaster planning requirements so that more plastics plants are prepared for fires, floods, hurricanes and other calamities and nearby communities are better protected. The agencies should increase their oversight of the creation of risk management plans by companies to prevent accidents.

2) Texas should penalize polluters for the failure to properly maintain equipment or to conduct required inspections, even if these violations do not result in the release of illegal pollution.  Poor maintenance and irregular inspections increase the risk of disasters and significant illegal releases.

3) Texas should be consistent when it issues penalties for pollution violations. TCEQ should require all facilities, but especially repeat violators, to pay penalties for emission events during malfunctions, startups, and shutdown that release substantial amounts of pollution into nearby communities.

4) State and local agencies should establish a more effective system for quickly testing air quality after chemical disasters, and requiring industries to notify the public and local fire departments.  These kinds of  location-based alert systems already exist for extreme weather and missing children.

5) Local governments across the region should create zoning policies to avoid building large chemical facilities in close proximity to residential neighborhoods. Zoning laws remain non-existent in the Houston area, even as the Houston area’s population has nearly doubled over the last thirty years. This elevates risk and threatens the quality of life for many low-wealth and minority communities, which are almost always the ones found closest to petrochemical plants.

The Environmental Integrity Project is a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization based in Washington, D.C., and Austin, Texas, that protects public health and the environment by investigating polluters, holding them accountable under the law, and strengthening public policy.

You can listen to the Sept. 5, 2019, press conference for the release of the report here.

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