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Energy & Environment

Environmental Groups Sue EPA Over Failure To Reduce Air Pollution From Industrial Flaring

The lawsuit asserts that outdated standards are leading to increased levels of air pollution during flaring at industrial facilities, like petrochemical plants and solid waste landfills.

Heavy industry on the Houston Ship Channel

A coalition of environmental groups, including several Texas-based organizations, has sued the EPA over what they say is a failure to update industrial flaring standards.

Flaring is used as a pollution control technique to burn off and destroy excess gases. But the lawsuit states that it has been decades since the EPA updated pollution control standards for flaring at industrial facilities, including petrochemical plants, gasoline terminals, solid waste landfills and natural gas processing facilities.

This in turn has led to emissions being higher than what is currently estimated or reported by plant operators, the suit alleges.

"Unfortunately, many industrial facilities around the United States are still using technology from the 80s to burn off this pollution," said Luke Metzger, the executive director with Environment Texas, which is part of the lawsuit. "And what we found is that those older kind of flaring technologies aren’t destroying the pollution as they’re supposed to, or as you know, industry claims they will."

The lawsuit states that though the current standards assume 98% of organic pollutants will be destroyed in the flare, subsequent research has found that percentage is actually closer to 90% or lower.

"What that means that is that you’re potentially seeing five times as much pollution being released because it’s not being destroyed," said Metzger. "And so what’s being reported in terms of pollution is likely far less than the actual emissions going out the flare and into the community."

Pollutants released during flaring can include things like benzene, which is known to cause cancer, and volatile organic compounds, which are a key component of smog.

Corey Williams, the research and policy director at Air Alliance Houston, which is also part of the lawsuit, said this has major implications for the Houston area.

"The fact that the estimates of air toxics that are emitted in the Houston area are potentially much higher than was previously known, that this information was based off of inaccurate estimates of flare efficiency, that means that Houston communities are actually being exposed to far more pollution than we had first understood," Williams said. "And that’s very troubling for fenceline communities, for people who work in these facilities, and for the region."

Under the Clean Air Act, the EPA is required to review the standards at least once every eight years. But the plaintiffs assert that the EPA hasn't updated two sets of air pollution control standards for industrial flares since they were first set in 1986 and 1994, respectively.

The federal agency updated its flaring standards for petroleum refineries in 2015. Oil and gas wells were also excluded from the lawsuit as they have their own unique standards.

You can view the full lawsuit, here.