36 Organizations Protest Weakening of EPA Air Pollution Enforcement Policy

César E. Chavez High School is pictured here, with the Houston Petrochemical plant in the background.
Source: Thinkprogress.org
EPA recently changed its policies to specify that air pollution violations shorter than seven days in duration will not be given high priority. 

Given the frequent short-term but large and dangerous emissions of toxins by petrochemical plans into the air of overburdened communities, this action seems contrary to the goal EPA set earlier this year to target enforcement to “Advance environmental justice and protect overburdened  communities”.

The press release below, sent by Environmental Integrity Project, explains the consequences of this policy change.  Among the organizations that signed the letter to EPA are several MFN members, including the Environmental Integrity Project.

The letter, with many more details, is here.

36 Organizations Protest Weakening of EPA Enforcement Policy

WASHINGTON, D.C., October 6 — The Environmental Integrity Project (EIP) and 35 allied organizations sent a letter to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency today protesting the agency’s weakening of its policy over what constitutes a “high priority” air pollution violation, worthy of federal enforcement action.
Last year, EPA revised its enforcement policy so that only air pollution violations that last for seven days or longer are considered a “high priority violation.”
The environmental groups argue this change makes no sense, because oil refineries and other industrial facilities sometimes spew large and dangerous amounts of toxic gases into the air for relatively brief periods of time. These discharges can trigger asthma attacks, lung disease, and other health problems in communities downwind, even though they do not last for a week.  EPA should not ignore violations just  because the events do not persist for an arbitrary length of time.
In a letter addressed to Cynthia A. Giles, Assistant Administrator in EPA’s Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance,  EIP and several allies, including the Natural Resources Defense Council, Sierra Club, Earthjustice and Air Alliance Houston, ask that EPA reverse the change to its “high priority” violator policy, and enforce the law based on the amount of pollution released and the public health risk to people living nearby.
“The communities most affected by these episodes are typically working class neighborhoods, where a majority of the residents are Latino or African American,” Eric Schaeffer, Executive Director of the Environmental Integrity Project and former Director of Civil Enforcement at EPA wrote in the letter to EPA.
“The local people may also include large numbers of children and elderly residents, who are more sensitive to the respiratory ailments triggered by air pollution,” Schaeffer wrote.  “On its webpage, EPA’s Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance promises to ‘advance environmental justice by protecting communities most vulnerable to pollution.’ It will be hard to keep that promise if emissions from catastrophic or chronic upsets at plants near these vulnerable communities are classified as a lower priority for EPA or state enforcement.”
Below are some recent examples, taken from the letter to EPA, of brief but potentially dangerous releases of air pollution. These examples are from Texas, but they illustrate the broader problem across the U.S.
  • On August 9, 2015, Shell Oil Deer Park released more than 300,000 pounds of 1,3-butadiene, a carcinogen, when relief valves opened on a spherical tank at its Houston petrochemical plant. This emission event lasted just 55 minutes.
  • Over a six hour period beginning August 11th, 2015, nearly 12,000 pounds of 1,3-butadiene and 35 tons of other smog-forming volatile organic chemicals escaped from an unlit flare at the Texas Petrochemicals manufacturing site in Houston’s Manchester neighborhood. The Houston area remains in violation of federal ozone standards.
  • The Conoco Phillips Borger refinery in Hutchinson County, Texas, reported emitting more than 177 tons of particulates during startup of its catalytic crackers between July 12 and July 17. Three short term upsets in June, none of which lasted longer than two days, released another 90 tons of particulates.
  • Between August 12 and 14, the Ascend Performance Materials Chocolate Bayou plant in Texas released 8,678 pounds of acrylonitrile, a human carcinogen even more potent than benzene, according to the inhalation risk assessment posted on EPA’s “Integrated Risk Information System.”
  • On August 13, the Huntsman Port Neches chemical plant in Texas vented 12,900 pounds of ethylene oxide to the atmosphere in just fifteen hours following an electrical outage. Ethylene oxide is a probable human carcinogen, according to EPA.
  • Between April 15 and April 20, a cooling tower leak at the BASF Total Fina Nafta Complex in Port Arthur released 13,065 pounds of benzene, a known carcinogen, and 9,060 pounds of other pollutants classified as hazardous under the Clean Air Act.
  • The Dow Texas Operations Chemical Plant in Freeport released nearly 9,000 pounds of benzene during a plant startup that began late afternoon on July 17 and ended the early morning of July 20. Including six other startups or malfunctions, the longest of which lasted less than six days, the facility has released 18,149 pounds of benzene, 8,968 pounds of 1,3-butadiene, and more than 180 tons of additional VOCs so far this year.
To read a copy of the letter, click here.
Tom Pelton, Director of Communications, Environmental Integrity Project, (443) 510-2574