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Environmental Groups Sue Over Lapsed Permits

A coalition of environmental groups sued the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality Tuesday, claiming the state is dragging its feet in approving operating permits for several major industrial plants.

ExxonMobil refinery in Baytown, Texas.

A coalition of environmental groups sued the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality Tuesday, claiming the state is dragging its feet in approving operating permits for several major industrial plants, delays that effectively deprive the public of meaningful information on emissions and related health risks.

In a lawsuit filed in state district court in Austin, the Environmental Integrity Project, Sierra Club, Air Alliance Houston and Texas Campaign for the Environment say the agency has not acted on eight different applications for Title V permits within 18 months, as required by state law. Most of the applications, which include ExxonMobil Corporation's Baytown Refinery and British Petroleum's Texas City Refinery, were submitted to the TCEQ years ago, according to the groups.

A TCEQ spokeswoman declined comment via email.

Title V of the federal Clean Air Act requires most major emitters of air pollution to obtain operating permits from a state environmental agency, with approval from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The permits last five years, and companies must certify annually that they are complying with them, including emissions monitoring and reporting requirements meant to give the public a glimpse of the plant's potential health risks.

"The TCEQ’s failure to timely act on Title V applications deprives members of the public of the protection that these permits provide and interferes with their right to challenge deficient permits," according to the group's petition. "Texas law establishes a cause of action to compel TCEQ’s expeditious action on Title V applications."

The most overdue permit application cited in the group's lawsuit is for the largest refinery in the United States, Motiva Enterprises' Port Arthur Refinery, whose most recent permit expired in early October 2009. Its renewal application has been placed on hold or "management delay" ever since, according to a letter the groups sent to the TCEQ in early October imploring it to act on the permits.

The agency confirmed receipt of that letter and indicated that it would respond, but it hasn't yet, said Environmental Integrity Project Associate Director Ilan Levin.

He said companies don't particularly care about having up-to-date operating permits because they are protected from legal action as long as they file applications on time.

"The duty is really on the environmental agency to issue these permits," Levin said. "When the agency just sits on the permits" it's a problem "not so much for the company but for the neighbors because there's no way to know" how much the facilities are emitting.

The eight refineries and power plants cited in the lawsuit are "just the tip of the iceberg," Levin said, with many others past due. The groups chose to target those because they have been following them and submitted comments on their permit applications, he said.

Disclosure: ExxonMobil Texas is a corporate sponsor of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.

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