Energy & Environment

Report: Unauthorized Air Pollution In Texas Has More Than Doubled Since 2015

In 2019, industrial facilities in the Houston area alone emitted more than 23 million pounds of air pollutants beyond what they’re permitted for, according to a new report.

Heavy industry on the Houston Ship Channel

Texas companies spewed more than 170 million pounds of unauthorized toxic air pollutants during 2019, according to a new report by Environment Texas Research & Policy Center.

The report looked at instances in which facilities emitted more than what's allowed under their air permits. These excess emissions can occur from things like equipment malfunctions, maintenance work, or during startups and shutdowns of facilities — and companies are required to report these emissions to state regulators.

In Texas, the amount of excess emissions has more than doubled since 2015 when facilities across the state reported emitting 68 million pounds of unauthorized pollutants, according to the report.

"We found that every single day in 2019, an industrial facility somewhere in Texas illegally polluted our air. And we think that's unacceptable," said Catherine Fraser, a Clean Air Associate with Environment Texas. "What can seem like small everyday pollution events, they really add up. And that's why we need better accountability for polluters in Texas."

The researchers found that companies only face financial penalties for these excess emissions about 3% of the time, due to an "affirmative defense" policy that exempts polluters from paying penalties if they meet certain criteria.

"We found that a lot of these huge increases in pollution has coincided with declines in enforcement and rolling back of protections from EPA," Fraser said.

The report looked at unauthorized emissions of chemicals like particulate matter, nitrogen oxides, benzene and butadiene.

"These different chemicals can irritate the respiratory system or exacerbate asthma, even in some cases cause cancer," said Fraser. "So we know that they can have really real impacts on human health and the environment in Texas."

In the Houston area, unauthorized emissions more than tripled in 2019 compared to the previous year, due in part to a series of chemical disasters that occurred.

"When you look at 2019, it's been a record year in all the wrong ways," Ramanan Krishnamoorti, the Chief Energy Officer at the University of Houston, said at a press conference. "We've had five significant impacts within the Greater Houston area, whether it was ITC, KMCO, the two Exxon Mobil fires, or the TPC fire, all of these have been massive events that, in my opinion, were certainly preventable."

The massive fire that broke out at ITC's petrochemical facility in Deer Park, burned for days, sending a black plume of smoke over the area. That fire alone released more than 15 million pounds of air pollutants, including benzene, and particulate matter.

Read the full report, here.

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