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Report: Major Texas industrial facilities rank first nationally in illegal water pollution

A study by a Texas environmental group and a California think tank found that about half of Texas’ major industrial facilities released illegal levels of pollution into rivers, lakes and other waterways over the past two years.

The Brazos River as it flows past Glen Rose on Aug. 2, 2013. Drought conditions have led to a significant decrease in water levels in the river. Use of the river by cattle farmers along its route is another factor leading to a decrease in water quality and shore erosion is.

About half of Texas’ major industrial facilities released illegal levels of pollution into rivers, lakes and other waterways over a 21-month period ending September 2017, according to a new report by Environment Texas and California-based think tank Frontier Group.

Analyzing self-reported industry data compiled by the federal government, the study found that about 40 percent of the nation’s 2,772 major industrial facilities released pollution that exceeded maximums set in their federal clean water permits from January 2016 to September 2017 and often faced no fines or penalties from state or federal environmental regulators.

The number of excess releases totaled 8,100 during that period, according to the study, and Texas’ 269 major industrial facilities accounted for 938 of them — the most of any state by far. Pennsylvania came in second with 633.

Forty-nine percent of Texas’ industrial facilities — 132 of them — exceeded their permit limits at least once during the study period.

Offending industrial sites in the state range from oil refineries to facilities operated by universities, cities, counties and state agencies. Texas A&M University, for example, discharged illegal levels of e. Coli into the Brazos River from a wastewater treatment plant on its main College Station campus a dozen times during the study period, and three releases were more than five times the maximum allowable amount under the law, according to the study. Yet the university was fined only once for $12,600.

In a statement, A&M said the primary causes of the incidents were an "operational issue at the plant" and flooding from Hurricane Harvey. The issues have since been fixed, the university said. 

"We realize that any occurrences are serious and we certainly do not take the matter lightly, however, what happened during that period mentioned in the study was not normal for us," said James Riley, executive director of utilities and energy services at A&M. 

Dozens of facilities owned by big-name energy companies including ExxonMobil, Shell and Chevron Phillips also have violated their clean water limits — some of them repeatedly.

The study concludes that "weak and delayed enforcement of the Clean Water Act is common across the country," with a majority of violations going unpunished. 

"Each year from 2011 to 2017, an average of 27,849 facilities were non-compliant across the U.S., while an average of 13,076 – less than half – faced any EPA or state enforcement action," the report said.

Environment Texas Director Luke Metzger said in a statement that “All Texas waterways should be clean for swimming, drinking water, and wildlife."

"But industrial polluters are still dumping chemicals that threaten our health and environment, and no one is holding them accountable," he said.

Shell and Chevron Phillips also did not immediately respond to requests for comment. ExxonMobil declined to comment. 

The study acknowledges that Texas’ ranking is due largely to the high number of industrial facilities in the state, which is home to many of the nation’s largest cities, the nation’s largest refining and petrochemical complex and prolific energy production.

But Texas also ranks first in the number of industrial facilities with the most repeated excessive releases: More than 35 percent of the state’s 269 major facilities had more than one clean water violation during the 21-month study period. The state with the next highest number of repeat violators was Louisiana, also home to major oil and chemical manufacturing and energy production, with more than 25 percent.

About three-quarters of the nation’s industrial facilities were repeat offenders, the study found.

Texas also ranks among the top 10 for industrial facilities with the most extreme violations — six of the state's facilities exceeded their permit limits by more than 500 percent at least once. Texas industrial facilities also released the third-highest amount of pollution into waters that were already considered “impaired” by either state or federal standards, meaning they were already too polluted to meet their intended purpose — whether that’s drinking water, ecological or recreational.

The study also warned that federal environmental enforcement is dwindling under President Donald Trump, whose U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has moved to unwind an Obama-era clean water regulation that was aimed at better defining the scope of bodies of water protected under the federal Clean Water Act.

During the first 266 days of his administration, the federal government has brought 1,900 cases and secured $1.3 billion in repairs and penalties. That's compared to 2,900 cases and $10.1 billion under the Obama administration and 2,600 cases and $2.6 billion under the George W. Bush administration in the same amount of time.

Disclosure: Texas A&M University and Exxon Mobil Corp. have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

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