A Baytown city park and playground sit directly across the street from the refinery. photo: Dave Mann soon spew more pollutants into Houston’s airthreatening the health of the fourth-largest city in the nation. The White House has carved a gaping loophole into a key provision of the federal Clean Air Act that will ease pollution limits on thousands of refineries and power plants. The new rules will save the energy sector billions of dollars in environmental fines. ExxonMobil’s Baytown facility offers a prime example of just how beneficial the Bush administration’s environmental stewardship has been to industry. upgraded the segment of its refinery that produces lube oil with a more efficient oxygen-enrichment process. Exactly a year later, Exxon added to this section of the refinery again, installing two oxygen blowers. These improvements made the refinery more profitable and productive. Problem is, the refinery also became dirtier. The upgrades boosted the refinery’s emissions and ran Exxon afoul of a section of the Clean Air Act known as new source review. New source review’s dry, bureaucratic name belies the common-sense public policy behind it. When Congress passed the federal Clean Air Act in 1970, lawmakers exempted older power plants and refineries from the stricter pollution limits, hoping to ease the new law’s economic drag on industry. They assumed that the energy industry would soon have to replace these older facilities with new plants. Instead, energy producers skirted the Clean Air Act requirements by continually updating their “grandfathered” plants. To combat this, Congress in 1977 fashioned the new source review stipulations that simply state that if plant owners perform “significant” upgrades to their facilities that result in more air emissions, they must install the latest pollution controls. The energy industry howled about what it deemed the inherent unfairness of new source review. Eventually, power plants and some refineries took to ignoring the new source review mandates; they simply upgraded their plants and increased their emissions without bothering to tell the government about the expansions. That’s what Exxon did in Baytown. When the company expanded its refinery in 1988 and 1989, it didn’t apply for a new source review permit from the Environmental Protection that seemed the right decision. No one from the state environmental agency or the EPA questioned Exxon about the upgrade for nearly a decade. In 1996, the Clinton EPA opened an investigation into new source review compliance, and found there wasn’t much. Hundreds of plants and refineries across the country had apparently expanded and increased their output without building in corresponding pollution controls. The EPA enforcement division compiled evidence and painstakingly built cases against dozens of facilities it believed to be in violation of clean air laws. During the next three years, the crackdown produced results. On November 3, 1999, the Justice Department filed suit against 51 facilities in 10 states for new source review infractions. Some companies settled out of court; others the Justice Department prosecuted and fined. Eventually, ExxonMobil’s turn came. On March 14, 2000, according to government records, the EPA requested documents about Exxon’s expansions at its Baytown refinery. On January 19, 2001, EPA sent ExxonMobil a notice of violationthe first step in an environmental prosecution for violating new source review requirements at the Baytown refinery. Specifically, the EPA charged that Exxon’s upgrades 13 years before had “significantly” increased the refinery’s nitrogen oxide emissions in Baytown. Nitrogen oxide helps form ground-level ozone, the very pollutant that has long caused Houston to have some of the dirtiest air in the nation. The effects on public health can be devastating, especially for children and the elderly. Even at low levels, according to the EPA, ground-level ozone scars lungs much like sunburn inflames the skin, triggers asthma, and increases the chances of pneumonia and bronchitis. Repeated exposure causes permanent lung damage. In Baytown, the problem could be even more acute. Unfortunately, it’s hard to know what impact emissions from the Exxon refinery have had on the community. Long-time 4/23/04 THE TEXAS OBSERVER 5
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