Texas Hit With 68 Million Pounds of Pollution in 2015 Thanks to Plant Breakdowns, Maintenance

Thanks to one of the many quirks of Texas law, facilities across Texas industry aren't heavily penalized for otherwise illegal pollution when that pollution happens because of anything classified as an accident or maintenance. In 2015, that meant 68 million pounds of air pollution, stemming from 3,421 breakdown and maintenance incidents, went largely unpunished by the state, according to new research from the Environmental Integrity Project and Environment Texas.

"Companies across the board and across the state are releasing huge amounts of unauthorized and unpermitted air pollution in usually short but intense bursts when facilities are breaking down, which they call malfunction, or when they're undergoing maintenance doing repairs and things like that. They're releasing huge bursts of air pollution that are way above the limits they're allowed to emit in their permits," says Ilan Levin with the Environmental Integrity Project. "There's kind of a loophole in the law and it's one that a lot of groups and the Environmental Protection Agency are grappling with."

The emissions occur statewide, according to the report, but are heavily centered in West Texas. One facility — Keystone Gas Plant  — had a malfunction that it said lasted for six months in 2015. Keystone, located in Winkler County on the Texas-New Mexico border, is permitted to emit 1.6 million pounds of sulfur dioxide each year. Because of its malfunction, it put almost 11 million pounds of sulfur dioxide, which contributes to smog and the acidification of water, that it did not have a permit for into the environment.

In Dallas, one of the state's regions least affected by the extra pollution, there were still 31 malfunction or maintenance incidents that led to more than 91,000 pounds of pollution entering the North Texas air that hadn't been previously accounted for. Targa Midstream Services Chico Gas Plant discharged 35,700 pounds of pollution on a single day in September. 

“By their own admission, polluters in Texas are routinely and egregiously violating the law and endangering public health with unauthorized emissions. And too often regulators look the other way when polluters break the law. This lawlessness must come to an end,” Luke Metzger, director of Environment Texas, said in a written statement.

Although some of the malfunction emissions stem from things that aren't avoidable, like lightning strikes, Levin says that many — which come from operator error, poor plant design and equipment that hasn't properly been maintained — can be taken care of by the plants doing the polluting if they care enough to clean up their acts.

The federal government, through the EPA, is currently conducting a national review of the way states handle pollution being created during malfunctions, maintenance and plant shut downs and start ups. Pending action from the feds, the report issued today urges stronger enforcement of Texas' existing plant  regulations to stem the tide of unpermitted pollution.

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Stephen Young has written about Dallas news for the Observer since 2014. He's a Dallas native and a graduate of the University of North Texas.
Contact: Stephen Young