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Environmental Groups Sue EPA Over Lax Texas Air Pollution Permits

Dave Fehling NPR StateImpact / KUHF Houston Public Radio
ExxonMobil refinery in Baytown, Texas

A Washington, D.C.-based environmental advocacy group sued the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on Thursday, arguing the federal government isn't properly policing air pollution permits the state of Texas issued to some of the largest industrial facilities in the U.S.

The Environmental Integrity Project— founded by former EPA officials — alleges that permits the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) issued to mega-plants across the Houston, Dallas and East Texas regions are illegal because the limits set on their emissions are too high, allowing them to spew too much pollution into the air.

The suit, filed in federal court, also claims the permits are so vague and complicated that TCEQ employees aren’t always sure if a plant is in violation, and therefore fail to adequately punish bad actors.

The Texas Tribune explored that low penalty rate in a recent investigation, finding that the TCEQ has so far fined fewer than 1 percent of the 3,723 emissions events that occurred in 2016.

“EPA knows that Texas issues unenforceable permits with illegal loopholes that render useless some of the most basic pollution control requirements of federal and state law,” said Gabriel Clark-Leach, a lawyer for the Environmental Integrity Project, which says it filed the lawsuit on behalf of the Texas environmental groups Air Alliance Houston, Sierra Club and TEJAS (Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services).

“EPA’s unwillingness to object to faulty state permits deprives the public of health protections guaranteed by the law,” Clark-Leach added.

The lawsuits the advocacy group filed target permits issued to ExxonMobil’s refinery and chemical plant in Baytown, Petrobras’ refinery in Pasadena, Motiva’s refinery in Port Arthur and SWEPCO’s Welsh Power Plant east of Dallas. The group petitioned the EPA last year hoping the agency would force TCEQ to strengthen the permits for those facilities, but says the federal agency did not respond within 60 days as required.

An EPA spokeswoman said the agency doesn’t comment on pending litigation. The TCEQ did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The Environmental Integrity Project says the complexity of some air pollution permits is one reason why the TCEQ so rarely fines industrial facilities for emitting unauthorized air pollution during malfunctions and unplanned maintenance events.

“Some of the permits do not require monitoring or modern air pollution control equipment and are so inscrutable it makes it hard for TCEQ’s own employees to know when a plant is in violation,” the group said in a news release.

Environmental groups have sued the EPA and TCEQ in the past over permitting issues in Texas, including delaying approval of permits and exempting coal plants from federal air pollution limits.

The Texas Tribune provided this story.

Kiah Collier reports on energy and the environment for the Tribune, where she began working in July 2015. Since graduating from the University of Texas at Austin in 2009 with degrees in philosophy and multimedia journalism, Kiah has reported on government and politics for publications across the state, including the Austin-American Statesman and the Houston Chronicle. A Central Texas native, Kiah began her career at the San Angelo Standard-Times in West Texas, where she covered the city council and 83rd Legislature and won awards for her reporting on the oil-and-gas boom and prolific drought. When she is not reporting the news, Kiah enjoys consuming the news, cooking, exercising and belly laughing with friends and family. She also enjoys spending time with her calico cat, Carol.