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EPA's Proposed Emissions Limits Drawing Debate

A proposal by the federal government would place stricter limits on emissions from petrochemical and other industrial plants. An EPA hearing this week in the Houston area reflected the heated debate over balancing economic growth with air quality concerns.

By Neena Satija, The Texas Tribune and Reveal
An oil refinery is shown in the Houston Ship Channel in 2011.

GALENA PARK — In this city east of Houston, petrochemical facilities are a common part of the landscape and a major engine for the local economy.

But they can also be heavy emitters of what the Environmental Protection Agency labels “toxic air pollutants,” such as benzene, which have been linked to health problems like cancer, reproductive problems and birth defects. And at times, the facilities can emit huge amounts of pollution that normally wouldn't be allowed, but are exempt from rules because they happen only when facilities are starting up, shutting down or malfunctioning. 

After years of court battles with environmental groups over those exemptions, the EPA is now proposing stricter limits on when petrochemical and other industrial plants can allow for such emissions. And on Tuesday, more than 100 people gathered in a Galena Park community center to voice their opinions at a public hearing held by EPA, in one of the epicenters of the debate over how to balance economic growth with air quality concerns. The agency is asking for the public to comment on its proposal in the coming months and will finalize its decision by next May. 

Local residents joined environmental and health advocates to support the plan, while representatives of the energy industry, joined by two congressmen, said the rules were unnecessary and overly burdensome.

“You have to consider the vulnerability of these communities," said John Sullivan, an environmental health researcher at the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston. "We’re about to undergo a period of great expansion [of the petrochemical industry]." And while that's good for the economy, he said, "we have to think about the added burden of pollution that this is going to create."

Matt Todd, a senior policy adviser at the American Petroleum Institute, said communities near refineries are safe today and emissions aren't at levels that are dangerous for people's health. "The public is protected with an ample margin of safety from refinery emissions," he argued.

Today, there are limits on emissions from petrochemical and industrial plants during their normal operations, but not during periods when they are starting up, shutting down or malfunctioning. That means the limits apply only when plants are running properly, even though facilities often spew out 10 or more times the amount of normal pollution during these "start-up, shutdown and malfunction" events, known as SSM events. The EPA proposal gets rid of that exemption, meaning that those events are also subject to the pollution limits on normal operations, though the agency says it may raise the limits in certain cases. 

"The bottom line is, they need to be controlling their emissions all the time," Alison Davis, a senior adviser for public affairs at the EPA, said in an interview.

The implications of the proposal could be significant in Texas. State law generally allows facilities to go above their normal emissions limits during what Texas calls "planned" or "unplanned" maintenance, start-up and shutdown (MSS) events — as long as companies can make the argument that the pollution was unavoidable. The EPA has not made clear whether those arguments could stand under the new rule. Asked whether many more facilities could now be in trouble for excess emissions during SSM events, Davis said, "It's a possibility."

Terry Clawson, a spokesman for the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, said the agency would comment on the proposal at the end of August. The agency could ask for the SSM exemptions to continue for Texas, but the EPA has not said whether that will be possible.

Industry representatives said at the hearing that there would be catastrophic consequences if the exemptions were lifted. They said that excessive pollution is often unavoidable and that companies would too often have to pay huge fines under the EPA's new rule, increasing energy costs for everyone. 

Controlling emissions during SSM events as much as the EPA is asking "is a physical impossibility," David Friedman, vice president of regulatory affairs for the American Fuel and Petrochemical Manufacturers, said of the rule. He compared the idea to allowing police to take action every time a car malfunctions and emits more air pollutants than usual. 

Environmental advocates, on the other hand, said the exemptions for SSM events let companies get away with excessive pollution. 

"Refinery emissions can be reduced dramatically, but this only happens when companies are forced to do so," Luke Metzger, director of the group Environment Texas, said at the hearing. The group sued ExxonMobil in 2010 for allegedly emitting more than 8 million pounds more toxic air pollutants than allowed in the last five years from its industrial complex in Baytown. ExxonMobil and state regulators say those excessive emissions are due to unavoidable MSS events; Environment Texas disagrees. The case went to trial in the Southern District of Texas in Houston in February. While the judge denied ExxonMobil's attempts to dismiss it, a final judgment has not been made.

Environment Texas has reached settlements with other companies in similar cases, which resulted in new pollution controls at Houston-area refineries. But those lawsuits are expensive and take years. Metzger said he hopes the new rules eliminate the need for them.

The EPA has also proposed taking away some exemptions for excessive pollution from coal plants, which are not considered "toxic air pollutants" and aren't covered by the rule in question with the proposal targeting SSM events in refineries and other petrochemical facilities.

The new rules, which include stricter monitoring requirements for specific emissions like the carcinogen benzene, would cost the industry about $240 million per year to implement and reduce emissions of toxic compounds by tens of thousands of pounds per year, the EPA has estimated. Friedman and other industry representatives at the hearing disputed that figure and claimed the cost would be over $1 billion. 

U.S. Rep. Gene Green, D-Houston, whose district includes the Port of Houston, told the EPA on Tuesday he feared the rules would drive business out of the Houston area, which he called the economic engine of the state. "Those refineries don't make products that somebody doesn't need," he said. If it becomes too expensive to operate petrochemical plants in Houston, he said, "somebody else will make them." U.S. Rep. Pete Olson, R-Sugar Land, also spoke out against the proposal. 

But residents of Galena Park, as well as speakers who said they lived near petrochemical plants in Detroit and Los Angeles, said the new rules are important. 

"You can tell that it's risky to live there," said Yudith Nieto, a graphic designer and artist who lives in a neighborhood on the other side of the Houston Ship Channel from Galena Park that is also surrounded by industrial plants. When Nieto went out of town, "I was able to breathe better," she said. Coming back, "the smells are noticeable," and she was more likely to experience sinus pressure and congestion. 

More strict monitoring requirements for harmful emissions like benzene were good news to Nieto, but she said her neighbors still have no idea when major problems at nearby plants occur and result in huge amounts of toxic air emissions, which can be as often as once a month, according to industry-reported data. "We need to be notified directly about incidents," she said. 

Disclosure: The University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston was a corporate sponsor of The Texas Tribune in 2012. A complete list of Texas Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here

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