Energy & Environment

Environmental activists in Houston, across Texas call for increased pollution enforcement by TCEQ

A report released Tuesday by the Environmental Integrity Project found that five industrial facilities in Harris County accounted for 45 of the 119 “excessive” emissions events reported to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality between September 2016 and August 2022. None was deemed to be a “chronic” polluter by the state agency.


FILE: Firefighters battle a petrochemical fire at the Intercontinental Terminals Company Monday, March 18, 2019, in Deer Park, Texas.

A report released Thursday by the Environmental Integrity Project suggests that Texas is not doing enough to combat illegal air pollution, with industrial facilities in the Houston area being some of the state's most significant offenders.

The report, titled "The Polluter's Playbook: How Loopholes and Lax Enforcement Harm Air Quality in Texas," found that industries in the state reported nearly 22,000 incidents of unauthorized, unpermitted emissions events that released more than 409,000 tons of pollutants into the air between September 2016 and August 2022. The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) deemed 119 of those releases – or half of one percent – to be "excessive," which requires the polluter to conduct an analysis of the root cause and submit an action plan to the agency to prevent future releases.

Designating a polluter as a "chronic" offender would allow for stiffer penalties and potentially prevent the company from receiving authorization for expansion projects. The Environmental Integrity Project (EIP) report that found that the TCEQ has not issued such a designation since at least the beginning of 2017, even though three facilities in the Houston area have had at least 10 "excessive" emissions events apiece during that span.

"TCEQ, the environmental agency for the state of Texas, must stand up for its mission of protecting public health by ensuring the just and timely enforcement of environmental regulations, especially when these laws are violated," Inyang Uwak, the research and policy director for Air Alliance Houston, said in a news release about the report. "Their continued laxity is unacceptable."

The TCEQ said in a statement that it “disagrees with the characterization of agency programs, enforcement process, and conclusions drawn in EIP’s report,” adding that its own review found that total unauthorized emissions over the last six years were “about half” of what was reported by the Environmental Integrity Project. The state agency also said there has been about a 60 percent decline in unauthorized emissions reported to the TCEQ during the last few years, from approximately 54,000 tons during the fiscal year 2019 to about 21,000 tons last year.

“The TCEQ has been working with the regulated community to reduce these emissions through outreach, technical assistance, and enforcement and those emissions have been declining,” the agency said.

The TCEQ also was the subject of a hearing held in Austin on Thursday by the Texas House Committee on Environmental Regulation. The hearing was regarding House Bill 1505, which was filed by Republican state Rep. Keith Bell of Forney and includes reforms for the TCEQ in response to a sunset review of the agency.

The state's Sunset Advisory Commission wrote in a report last year, ahead of the current Texas Legislature session, that TCEQ commissioners had become "reluctant regulators" that encourage companies to self-govern and self-police. The TCEQ should improve its enforcement policies to "better focus on the riskiest actors" while also being more transparent and engaging with the public, according to the commission.

Air Alliance Houston and Public Citizen, a nonprofit consumer advocacy organization, said Thursday they support the current version of Bell's proposed bill, which would increase maximum fines for polluters, among other measures. They also want the TCEQ to be required to consider the cumulative health effects of approving multiple air permits in the same neighborhoods; to remove "economic development" from its mission statement, in order to prioritize public health over industry interests; and to consider environmental justice in permitting and enforcement.

"The TCEQ needs to go from reluctant to responsive and effective," said Adrian Shelley, the Texas director of Public Citizen. "Too many Texans in some of the most vulnerable communities live with a polluting facility not far from their front door. Lawmakers must take this opportunity to pass a bill that makes bold changes to an agency that needs it. A healthier Texas is possible when we protect people, not polluters."

The report by the Environmental Integrity Project found that five facilities in Harris County – the Chevron Phillips Cedar Bayou Plant, ExxonMobil Baytown Refinery, Lyondell Houston Refinery, Shell Deer Park Chemicals and the Arkema Crosby Plant – accounted for 45 of the 119 "excessive" emissions events reported to the TCEQ during a six-year period. The first three facilities listed had at least 10 "excessive" events apiece, and none was designated as a "chronic" offender.

The report also noted that statewide there were 1,634 of the unpermitted, unexpected emissions events – which could be caused by startups, shutdowns, maintenance activity, malfunctions or accidents – that each lasted longer than a week and could therefore have been considered "excessive."

Among other policy recommendations by the Environmental Integrity Project, it asks for the elimination of an "affirmative defense" loophole that allows polluters to avoid penalties as long as the unauthorized emissions events are promptly reported to the TCEQ. The agency granted affirmative defense in more than 85 percent of cases between 2017 and 2021, according to Sunset Advisory Commission.

"TCEQ is all bark and no bite," said Luke Metzger, the executive director of Environment Texas. "The numbers speak for themselves. Big polluters routinely, and sometimes egregiously, violate clean air laws, but they're rarely held accountable. This is not the fault of the hardworking staff at the TCEQ – the fish rots from the head. The TCEQ and the Legislature need to put a stop to this lawlessness and stop the polluters from poisoning our air and water."

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