Texas Refineries And Chemical Plants Releasing Tens Of Thousands Of Tons Of Pollution

Read time: 5 mins

A damning new report from the Environmental Integrity Project (EIP) reveals some startling information regarding pollution in the state of Texas. According to the report, oil refineries and chemical plants in the state are releasing tens of thousands of tons of pollution every year, without as much as a peep from state regulators or the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA.)

Most of these emissions are the result of industrial accidents and other “equipment malfunctions” taking place at processing plants across the state. Among the more dangerous chemicals being released into the atmosphere and surrounding environment are sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide, both of which are major contributors to ozone depletion.

A few highlights from the new report:

Every year, refineries, chemical plants, and natural gas facilities release thousands of tons of air pollution when production units break down, or are shut off, restarted or repaired. Most of these “emission events” release pollution through flares, leaking pipelines, tanks, or other production equipment. Information obtained from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) for the last three years shows just how significant that pollution can be.

Between 2009 and 2011, emission events at chemical plants, refineries, and natural gas operations released a combined total of more than 42,000 tons of sulfur dioxide and just over 50,000 tons of smog- forming Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs), according to industry reports filed with TCEQ. See Table 1. These releases are in addition to the amounts released year-round during so-called “normal operations,” and are usually not included in the data the government uses to establish and enforce regulations, or to estimate their health impacts. Natural gas operations — which include, well heads, pipelines, compressors, boosters, and storage systems — accounted for more than 85% of total sulfur dioxide and nearly 80% of the VOCs released during these episodes. Both pollutants are linked to asthma attacks and other respiratory ailments, and can form fine particles that contribute to premature death from heart disease.

Upsets or sudden shutdowns can release large plumes of sulfur dioxide or toxic chemicals in just a few hours, exposing downwind communities to peak levels of pollution that are much more likely to trigger asthma attacks and other respiratory systems. The working class and minority populations typical of neighborhoods near refineries and chemical plants bear the brunt of this pollution.

As stated in the report, the amount of pollutants being released is based on estimates that are provided by industry, not by any regulatory agency. And as EIP’s independent research has shown (available in the report), the actual pollutant levels are likely much, much higher than those reported by the industry.

Their claim is based on the fact that the majority of these emissions are not monitored at all, and the flow rate of chemicals and gases resulting from a flare or equipment malfunction will vary wildly between events.

The following chart from EIP shows the biggest culprits in regards to total emissions of sulfur dioxide:


And these are the largest emitters of volatile organic compounds (VOC):


And here are the worst offenders, by number of “accidents” reported:


Again, most of the emissions are the result of what are called “accidents” or other “malfunctions” that might require full equipment shutdown. EIP director Eric Schaeffer said the following regarding these so-called accidents: 

Too many of these ‘accidents’ are the norm at some natural gas and chemical plants. These upsets can dump a lot of pollution in a few short hours, and some of them continue releasing benzene and other toxins for weeks. Many of these breakdowns – and the pollution that comes with them – could be prevented by upgrading pollution controls, improving maintenance, and recapturing and reusing gas instead of releasing it to the environment as pollution. The US EPA needs to crack down on polluters who seem to think that these events – no matter how many or how severe – somehow excuse them from the Clean Air Act.”

EIP hosted a conference call on Wednesday in correlation with the release of the report. During the call, a common theme heard from the speakers was that the EPA is doing very little, if anything, to address the issue.

It is because of this lack of action, that the EIP has sent the agency notice that they intend to file a formal suit against the agency within 60 days if they do not do their “mandatory duty” and begin enforcing the rules at these Texas plants.

Their suit is based on Section 130 of the Clean Air Act, which requires the agency to adjust their methods of estimating emissions if the current estimations are inadequate. They are also required to revise their estimates every three years, and as we learned on the conference call, the same standards have been in place in Texas for decades.

The EIP also listed in their report a few points about how these industries are able to skirt the few EPA restrictions that are in place:

The Clean Air Act makes polluters strictly liable for their mistakes, but loopholes in regulations either excuse violations that result from malfunctions altogether, or allow polluters to escape penalties by claiming that such mishaps are beyond the control of plant operators. As a result, federal or state agencies rarely even investigate these events, much less take enforcement action. EPA’s current standards are so relaxed that even the most serious violations are excused, inviting plant operators to defer improvements that could make plants safer — and sometimes even turn a profit.

As we were told on the call, and as the EIP report points out, it is those communities with fewer economic resources that suffer the most from the pollution being emitted by these chemical and energy plants. If the EPA continues to let these violations go unpunished and industry remains unaccountable for their actions, the state of Texas could easily become a toxic wasteland for generations to come, with those who have the greatest need for government protections being the victims in this tragedy.

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The statement

“…sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide, both of which are major contributors to ozone depletion”.

is incorrect. When these are released by industrial processes at the surface, they never make it to the stratosphere. They have plenty of adverse effects in the boundary layer (where we live) though.

Anyway, the problem is well-known since over a decade when the Texas Air Quality Study I took place. And most problems, such as teh accidental release issues, were/are still ongoing as the TexAQS II showed. Still, little has been done since except for attention to storage leaks venting the equivalent of hundreds of barrels of oil to the atmosphere in Houston daily. No surprise there, the industry actually saves money in solving this issue.

The EPA has been trying to get TCEQ to address the other problems, but with limited success. You can read a bit about it here:


The problem lies with the “flexible permit” system in Texas. TCEQ lumps the permit to a larger facility, not a process. If you have a new process to add or an existing to expand, the permit renewal is uncomplicated because of that. As long as your total stays below a certain limit, you are legal, even though you may have one or more very inefficient process(es) that would ordinarily not get permitted by itself any more. As a result, you can keep operating old (and possibly delapidated) equipment, which is prone to “accidental release”. So “beyond the control” of operators is correct … sort of. As a side effect, industry gets to legally pollute in Texas much more than in any other state of the nation.

Changing the permit system to standards, as the EPA would like to force on Texas (aka: EPA is not the bad guy here IMO), would be a big deal:

1. it would create a huge work-load on TCEQ “regulators” (bad word in Texas) as they have to permit thousands of processes and face an equal number of industry laywers

2. it would force the oil and gas industry to renew its facilities, aka replace current profits by investments (you do not stop that money press of yours!)

3. it could drastically improve air quality if done to BAT standards

1&2 are just not going to happen in the Texas buddy system, and 3 does not have enough support in the population for the reasons listed in the report.

The Texas laissez-fair attitude is a well-oiled machine …