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Environmental group says Texas fails to hold repeat polluters accountable for unexpected emissions

By Julia Forrest, The Texas Tribune

Environmental group says Texas fails to hold repeat polluters accountable for unexpected emissions” was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

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More than 21,000 unexpected pollution releases by Texas companies have released over 400,000 tons of air pollution in Texas from 2016 to 2022, and companies in less than 1% of these cases have been forced by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality to find the root cause and take preventive action, according to a new report.

The report by the Environmental Integrity Project, dubbed the “The Polluter’s Playbook — How Loopholes and Lax Enforcement Harm Air Quality in Texas,” claims that the TCEQ has not been doing enough to hold companies accountable for unexpected pollution releases.

The study focused on pollution that is unexpectedly released during an accident, a facility shutdown or startup or during maintenance. Such emissions are separate from what companies are allowed to release under their TCEQ permits.

The report found that only 119 out of 21,769 unplanned emissions events were designated “excessive” by the TCEQ. Tagging an event as “excessive” means that companies are required to analyze and pinpoint the root causes of the event and submit a plan outlining how they will prevent similar releases in the future.

But the report’s authors found that there are more unexpected events that should have been titled “excessive.” The report found that 1,634 of the unexpected emissions lasted longer than a week, which far surpasses the limit that the TCEQ considers “excessive.”

Gabriel Clark-Leach, senior attorney for the Environmental Integrity Project and the report’s lead author, told The Texas Tribune that the current system in Texas “provides polluters certainty” that if an accident causes a release of pollution, they will not be fined. This gives companies little incentive to prevent future releases, he said.

“The system that TCEQ implements, it isn’t designed to protect the people,” Clark-Leach said. “It isn’t designed to protect air quality. …Vigorous enforcement of pollution control requirements isn’t going to destroy the economy. It’s going to be good for the public.”

TCEQ did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

According to a 2019 study by the EIP and Environment Texas, unexpected emissions events in Texas caused about 42 deaths per year for those ages 65 and older in addition to creating $250 million in damages every year.

“I don’t think it’s appreciated just how big the public safety threat is,” Clark-Leach said. “You have a situation where these operators don’t really have a strong financial incentive from the regulatory side of things to maintain their equipment and operate it properly … It really puts the public in harm’s way.”

The report also stated that TCEQ has not designated any company as a repeat or “chronic” offender due to numerous unexpected emissions since 2017. Yet 29 Texas facilities have reported at least 100 emission events and 20 have reported at least 120 in that period. A chronic offender designation allows the state to impose heftier fines on the companies and would make it harder for companies to get state authorization for projects in the future.

The report also found that almost half of the “excessive” emissions events happened in Harris County and came from just five facilities.

The report’s authors called for more companies to be labeled chronic polluters and for more events be dubbed “excessive.” They also said Texas should not allow polluters to escape harsher penalties by claiming the pollution releases were out of their control and reported to TCEQ.

“The agency that is supposed to be protecting our environment and public health and the state is failing to do that,” said Luke Metzger, the executive director of Environment Texas. “We need far greater changes from the Legislature to force TCEQ to properly hold polluters accountable and protect regular Texans from this deadly pollution.”

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