Energy & Environment

Six Houston-based refineries dump millions of gallons of contaminated wastewater with little penalty, report finds

When they are penalized, researchers said the penalties are little more than a “slap on the wrist.”

The LyondellBasell refinery, located near the Houston Ship Channel, is seen in Houston, Texas, U.S., May 5, 2019.
Loren Elliott/REUTERS
FILE: The LyondellBasell refinery, located near the Houston Ship Channel, is seen in Houston, Texas, U.S., May 5, 2019. The refinery was found to have been responsible for dumping gallons of wastewater containing harmful chemicals into local waterways.

A new report shows that 6 Houston-area refineries are dumping a total of 55 million gallons of wastewater containing harmful chemicals into local waterways, with little to no regulation by the EPA.

The Environmental Integrity Project, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit, released a report stating that 81 oil and gas refineries around the country discharge around 500 million gallons of polluted wastewater each day.

"That's the equivalent of around 700 Olympic swimming pools," said Kira Dunham, a research manager at the organization. "That wastewater is full of pollutants that can corrode drinking water systems and can also be very harmful for fish." Some of the pollutants found in the wastewater include benzene, cyanide, selenium and mercury.

Six specific refineries in the Houston area dump a combined total of around 55 million gallons of wastewater into local waterways every day. Those refineries include ExxonMobil Baytown, Pemex Deer Park, Valero Houston, Chevron Pasadena, LyondellBasell-Houston and Kinder Morgan Galena Park. The pollution is discharged into the Houston ship channel which flows into Galveston Bay and, eventually, the Gulf of Mexico.

Despite the danger this pollution poses, very little regulation exists and seldom is enforced. "A lot of the water pollution from refineries is essentially unregulated by the EPA," said Tom Pelton, co-director of the Environmental Integrity Project's Center for Investigations. "The EPA has never set any limits for discharges of pollutants like selenium, cyanide, benzene, mercury and many others that are very harmful."

When it comes to the regulations that the EPA has set, companies that exceed these limits rarely face financial penalties. Of the 81 refineries included in the report, 67 reported enough pollution from 2019-2021 to exceed their pollution control permits. Of those 67, only 15 were actually penalized for water pollution violations during that time frame.

When they are penalized, Pelton said the penalties are little more than a "slap on the wrist." The Phillips 66 refinery in Sweeny, Texas, about an hour south of Houston, reportedly exceeded its pollution limits 44 times between 2019 and 2021. Most of those violations involved dumping cyanide into the Brazos River. Still, the company was only fined $30,000.

Pelton said he believes a step forward would be for the EPA to update its technology standards for wastewater systems. Despite the Clean Water Act, which calls for these regulations to be updated every five years, the EPA has not updated them since 1985. "We have a lot better wastewater treatment technologies since the Reagan administration, and we think it's time for the EPA to require these better systems in our refineries," said Pelton.

As important as the oil and gas industry is to Houston's local economy, Dunham said she believes companies can still function at a high level while doing their fair share to protect waterways by updating their technologies and adhering to regulations. "Some of these companies are making record-breaking profits," she said. "And if they're going to be existing in our communities, I think it's their responsibility to make sure that they're cleaning [their pollution] up."