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Report: Texas Rarely Penalizes Unauthorized Pollution Releases

via flickr.com/photos/mikham/ (CC BY-SA 2.0)

A new reportout from environmental groups shows that over the last 5 years, Texas has rarely issued penalties against industrial polluters.

According to the report, from 2011 to 2016 there were more than 24,000 self-reported instances of companies releasing unauthorized pollutants in the air during site malfunctions, or breakdowns. During this time the report says the state only issued penalties on 588 of the cases, or 3 percent of the time.

The report, based on analysis from the non-profit Environmental Integrity Group and Environment Texas, shows the state levied a total of $13.5 million worth of fines throughout the 5-year span.

“The truth is, many of these industrial ‘accidents’ can be avoided – as long as industry feels a financial incentive to improve," said Environmental Integrity Project attorney Gabriel Clark-Leach in a statement.

The Texas Commission on Environment Quality - the state agency that oversees fining these operators - says it's reviewing the assertions made in the report and that it follows all state and federal requirements.

"As we have stated many times previously, Texas does not allow industries to release excess amounts of air pollution when equipment breaks down and when facilities undergo maintenance work," a TCEQ spokesperson said in a statement.

According to the Texas Commission on Environment Quality's penalty policy, when evaluating fines the group takes in several factors including culpability and whether or not operators made a good faith effort to reduce emissions.

More often than not, says EIP associate director Ilan Levin, these industrial groups don't face penalties thanks to a Texas rule that gives some flexibility to companies that self-report unauthorized pollution releases due to maintenance issues or accidents.

Earlier this year, a federal judge ordered Exxon Mobile to pay approximately $20 million for unauthorized pollution releases. Over the course of 8 years, the company released 10 million pounds of pollution at its Baytown location. The company disagrees with the ruling and says it has spent $1 billion to address pollution at the location.


Permian Polluters
Throughout 2016, the report also found there were more than 50 million pounds of unauthorized pollutants released, of which the Permian Basin region accounted for nearly 70 percent of.

“In the Permian basin it’s sort of death by a thousand cuts," Levin says. "While there are some big sources of air pollution, it’s mainly a lot of really small facilities.”

One of the top pollutants released during this time is Hydrogen Sulfide, a chemical the report says is known for the "rotten egg" smell associated with oil and gas operations.

"At low levels, this acid gas irritates the eyes, nose and throat, and causes breathing difficulties," the report reads. "Long term exposure can lead to miscarriages, poor memory and dizziness, while exposure to very high concentrations cause breathing problems, coma and even death."

In the groups' analysis of unauthorized pollution releases in 2016, the report found that nine out of the top 10 emissions of Hydrogen Sulfide were based in the Permian Basin. The Houston refinery was the only industrial operation last year that lead in Hydrogen Sulfide releases that wasn't located in far West Texas.

Carlos Morales is Marfa Public Radio's News Director.