Energy & Environment

Houston-Area Refineries, Plants Emitted Thousands Of Pounds Of Additional Air Pollution During The Winter Freeze

State documents show facilities released some 700,000 pounds of excess air pollutants last week, as they faced electrical outages and equipment failures due to the severe winter weather.

More than 40 facilities in the Houston area emitted excess pollution during last week’s winter freeze.

Refineries and petrochemical plants in the Houston area released thousands of pounds of excess pollution into the air during the winter storm last week, according to state environmental records analyzed by Houston Public Media.

In numerous instances, facilities had to burn off excess gases, causing the Houston Ship Channel to light up with flaring from nearby industrial plants as the rest of the area went dark.

Between Feb. 15 and Feb. 22, companies filed 50 initial reports with the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality indicating they had emitted more air pollutants than what they're permitted for. Forty-four of those reports cited the severe weather as the reason for the excess pollution. Some facilities said they had to shut down when they lost power, which led to flaring, while others had equipment malfunctions due to freezing temperatures.

In total, some 700,000 pounds of excess air pollutants were released because of issues related to the winter storm, according to the companies' initial estimates. Companies have two weeks to file their final emissions reports with the TCEQ.

Among the pollutants emitted were carbon monoxide and benzene.

Bakeyah Nelson, the executive director of Air Alliance Houston, said excess air pollution adds another health risk to people already facing one disaster.

"We know that all of these various pollutants can really harm the respiratory system, make breathing difficult, particularly for groups that are particularly vulnerable, such as children and people with asthma," she said.

On top of that, low-income communities of color are disproportionately impacted by both disasters and air pollution.

"What we’re seeing is disaster after disaster after disaster," Nelson said. "And we know that Black and brown communities, working-class neighborhoods, have greater vulnerability to not only being exposed to the emissions and the health impacts from those exposures, but also from the adverse impacts of the disasters themselves — the flooding, the freezing."

As the frequency and intensity of natural disasters ramps up, Nelson said, so too does the amount of times companies are polluting beyond their permitted levels.

"As storms and weather-related disasters become more frequent and more powerful, we can anticipate this happening, and excess emissions happening more and more," she said.

Based on preliminary reports, the arctic freeze led to more unauthorized emissions than Tropical Storm Imelda, when companies reported releasing 81,000 pounds of pollutants beyond what they're permitted for. Both are dwarfed by Hurricane Harvey, however, during which some 8 million pounds of pollutants were released.

In the Houston area, ExxonMobil's Baytown refinery and olefins plant accounted for the largest share of emissions, emitting a combined total of 204,000 pounds of air pollution, according to the company's initial estimates. That included nearly a ton of benzene.

The refinery had to shut down multiple units when it lost its "third-party natural gas supply, instrument air systems, and steam due to severe inclement weather," according to its filings with the TCEQ.

In a statement, the company said its primary focus is "the safety of employees, contractors and the communities in the region." A spokesman noted that the company left some units in operation in order to export electricity back to the grid to help power homes. He said there may be additional flaring this week as operations start back up.

Other major emitters in the Houston area included Ineos' Chocolate Bayou Plant in Brazoria County, which estimates releasing some 81,000 pounds of air pollution due to "a sitewide loss of electrical power," and TPC's Houston Plant in Harris County, which emitted around 72,000 pounds when "extreme cold weather and freezing conditions" caused a pump to spring a leak.

In a statement, a TPC spokeswoman said the company "mobilized a third-party service to conduct air monitoring at the fence line and in the surrounding community" and didn't find any "adverse offsite impacts."

Ineos didn't respond to a request for comment.

Both Harris County Pollution Control Services and the TCEQ have been conducting community air monitoring this week as facilities start back up.

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