Report: Lax Enforcement, Loopholes Lead to Few Consequences for Polluters

In a new report, researchers write that industrial air pollution, enabled by legal loopholes and lax enforcement, was particularly pronounced in the Permian Basin in West Texas. pollution
In a new report, researchers write that industrial air pollution, enabled by legal loopholes and lax enforcement, was particularly pronounced in the Permian Basin in West Texas.  gastgeb/flickr/creative commons

Update, April 28: TCEQ spokesperson Andrea Morrow said in a statement that the agency has a “multifaceted approach” to minimize emissions during maintenance events and malfunctions and that it has a “robust air monitoring network that indicates air quality has been improving.”

“To characterize TCEQ’s environmental enforcement as ‘hands off’ is patently untrue and misleading to the public,” she said.

Original story:

Lax enforcement and legal loopholes have allowed industrial facilities to illegally release thousands of tons of air pollutants during breakdowns and routine maintenance events in 2015, while regulators are doing little to clamp down on those emissions, according to a new report.

Texas’ environmental agency issues permits allowing operators to release pollutants up to certain limits. But researchers at two environmental nonprofits have found that Texas industrial facilities are illegally releasing thousands of tons of pollutants, in excess of their permit allowance, during malfunctions and routine maintenance.

Looking at industrial sites in over 100 counties, the report’s authors analyzed self-reported emissions data for five major pollutants — sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, soot, benzene and hydrogen sulfide — and identified 34,000 tons of pollutants emitted, the vast majority of it illegal. Researchers found that the oil and gas industry was responsible for the biggest share of emissions, and problems were particularly pronounced in the Permian Basin in West Texas.

The report, released Wednesday by the Environmental Integrity Project and Environment Texas, also found that industrial polluters have been allowed to exceed pollution limits due both to vaguely worded permits and poor enforcement by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ).

The report’s authors wrote that excess emissions “not only threaten public health and our environment, but also our confidence in the regulatory agencies charged with enforcing anti-pollution laws.”

The TCEQ has said it will release a statement after it has reviewed the study.

State law permits industrial operators to exceed emission limits during unforeseen circumstances, such as a storm. In such cases, the excess emissions are forgiven, provided operators have taken steps to prevent similar events from reoccurring and have been adequately maintaining the equipment. But the report’s authors found that in many cases, operator errors, lack of preventive maintenance and poor plant design are to blame for the malfunctions — not unpredictable emergencies.

The oil and gas industry was responsible for the biggest share of Texas' malfunction emissions.
The oil and gas industry was responsible for the biggest share of Texas’ malfunction emissions.  Environment Texas/Environmental Integrity Project

Researchers found that one plant in Kermit released thousands of pounds of toxic pollutants during planned maintenance events and breakdowns — emissions that the limits of Keystone Gas plant’s permit dictate should have been kept at zero. The plant released 488 pounds of hydrogen sulfide and 23 tons of sulfur dioxide, known to contribute to smog formation, from its flare during planned maintenance in February. At one point, the plant’s operator claimed a single malfunction lasted for six months.

Last year, when pollution control equipment failed at the Keystone plant, operators attempted to “burn out the blockage,” releasing about 67 tons of sulfur dioxide over four days in the process. That’s 27 more tons per year than industrial operators are permitted to release under the Clean Air Act when they install pollution controls.

The Keystone plant is among several repeat offenders identified by researchers, but it has faced relatively little punitive action by the TCEQ. Between 2009 and 2016, the TCEQ issued 12 violation notices to Keystone, followed up with only one enforcement action, and has collected less than $10,000 in fines from the plant’s operators so far.

“They are chronic polluters and they get a slap on the wrist,” Ilan Levin, associate director of the Environmental Integrity Project and a co-author of the report, told the Observer. “There’s no incentive to clean up.”

When malfunctions occur, operators are supposed to notify the TCEQ within 24 hours and submit a full account of the incident within two weeks. But in many cases, the TCEQ does not follow up with on-site inspections. Instead, the TCEQ officers conduct “file reviews,” essentially going over the operator’s paperwork from their desks.

The report also found that boilerplate language in the permits allowed industrial facilities to significantly exceed emission limits by classifying maintenance events as routine, and that the TCEQ allowed operators to conduct maintenance without applying for separate permits for those emissions.

“When we see examples of companies routinely way over their permit limits, it calls into question the entire process that the state is relying on to clean up the air,” Levin said.

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Naveena Sadasivam is a staff writer covering the environment, energy and climate change at Grist. She previously covered environmental issues at the Texas Observer, InsideClimate News and ProPublica. At ProPublica, she was part of a team that reported on the water woes of the West, a project that was a 2016 Pulitzer Prize finalist for national reporting. She has a degree in chemical engineering and a master’s in environmental and science reporting from New York University and was a 2017 Ida B. Wells fellow at Type Investigations. You can contact her at [email protected] and follow her work on Twitter.

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