Groups push EPA to pursue violations

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Letter sent to Cynthia Giles on October 6, 2015 

On August 25, 2014, EPA revised its enforcement policy defining the “High Priority Violations”of the Clean Air Act that are “most likely to be significant for human health and the environment.”  As the term implies, these criteria determine which violations get the most attention from EPA and state enforcement programs.

Under the revised version, illegal emissions of hazardous chemicals and other pollutants will no longer be considered a “high priority” unless the violations persist for at least seven days. We are writing to respectfully request that the policy be amended to include short term violations that, due to the amount or toxicity of the specific pollutants released, deserve equal attention from federal and state enforcement programs.

This issue is particularly important to communities downwind from refineries, chemical plants, and oil and gas drilling and processing sites. These and other industrial operations frequently release large quantities of benzene, butadiene, hydrogen sulfide, sulfur dioxide, particulates, and other noxious pollutants in short but intense bursts, rather than in steady and predictable amounts over longer periods of time. The following examples, compiled from online reports of unauthorized “emission events” submitted to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) in 2015, illustrate our concerns:

 On August 9, 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, 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 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 17.3 another 90 tons of particulates. 

 Between August 12 and 14, the Ascend Performance Materials Chocolate Bayou plant 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 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.  Huntsman had earlier released 3,695 pounds of ethylene oxide, when a transformer outage on March 1 shut down several pumps and a compressor.

 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. Dow reports that its flares smoked intermittently during most of these events, releasing unknown amounts of oily soot and black carbon.

 Between February 23 and 24, the Formosa Point Comfort plant in Calhoun County released 10,333 pounds of 1,3-butadiene and more than 20 tons of VOCs after its propylene and ethylene compressors malfunctioned. That was not the first big upset at the Point Comfort plant. On January 20, a failed startup released 3,672 pounds of 1,3-butadiene, while another process upset between September 9 and 10 in 2015 released 4,394 pounds of benzene and butadiene (combined) and 17 tons of other VOCs.

 Blanchard Refining in Galveston Bay released more than 108 tons of catalyst fines (as particulate matter) over a 23 hour period starting on January 13. According to the company’s report, the upset was triggered by a malfunctioning slide valve on a Fluid Catalytic Cracking Unit.

 Short term events can result in substantial pollution over the course of a year. For example, the James Lake Gas plant in Ector County has already released more than 550 tons of sulfur dioxide from its acid gas flare from February 5th through the end of August, due to compressor malfunctions or repairs. Since none of these upsets lasted more than three days and at least a week elapsed between the start of each event, they do not appear to qualify as “high priority violations,” even though emissions in the first eight months of 2015 are already twice the plant’s annual limit of 246 tons. 

 Similarly, the permit for the Amerada Hess Gas plant in Gaines County authorizes no more than 94 pounds of sulfur dioxide an hour, or 420 tons per year. Yet just 17 different emission events, ranging from less than two hours to no more than five days each, have already released nearly 700 tons of sulfur dioxide so far in 2015. The flares releasing this pollution smoke intermittently, releasing an unknown amount of oily soot.

Attachment 1 includes the Facility Identification Number (RN) for each facility and the report number for each event. Each report can be obtained online through the Texas Air Emission Event Report Database at Attachment 2 summarizes the health effects of the specific pollutants released during these upsets.

The online reports filed by each of these companies indicate that these upset releases exceed permit limits, but further investigation may be required to make a final determination. The reports may significantly understate releases of these pollutants. EPA recently revised the “AP-42” factors used to estimate emissions from flares after finding that even well operated flares release about four times more volatile organic chemical pollutants than the Agency had previously assumed.

We understand that EPA and states retain the discretion to classify any of the emission events described above as high priority violations. That does not address our concerns. The policy is clearly intended to create a presumption that violations that do not persist for at least seven days (either continuously or intermittently) are less serious because they are unlikely to pose a significant risk to public health or the environment. We respectfully disagree with these assumptions. The short term emission events can overwhelm communities with high volumes of pollution, include significant amounts of carcinogens and other toxins that are dangerous in small concentrations, and may contribute more to annual emissions than so-called “normal operations.” 

The communities most affected by these episodes are typically working class neighborhoods, where a majority of the residents are Latino or African American. They may also include large numbers of children and elderly residents, who are more sensitive to the respiratory ailments triggered by air pollution. 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.

We ask that the policy reclassify as a high priority any short term violation (lasting less than seven days) caused by emission events that either: 

1. Release an unusually large volume of criteria pollutants like sulfur dioxide or particulates, or small but significant amounts of acrylonitrile, benzene, butadiene, ethylene oxide, hydrogen fluoride, and other toxins that are hazardous in minute concentrations;

2. Occur frequently enough to cause emissions to exceed annual limits or (where applicable) major source thresholds.

Agencies would have some discretion in applying these criteria, as they do under the current policy in deciding whether a violation of monitoring or testing requirements is “substantial” enough to be a high priority. We do ask that the criteria be based upon the volume, toxicity and frequency of actual emissions, and not depend on agency judgments about the extent of exposure in affected communities. Agency resources are scarce and ambient monitoring (especially of air toxins) is limited, making it unlikely that EPA’s risk assessment would accurately assess the full range of health risks that result from exposure to these pollutants.

We would welcome the opportunity to meet with you to discuss our concerns and recommendations, and provide further examples of emission events that ought to qualify as high priority violations. In the meantime, thank you for considering our views.


Eric Schaeffer

Executive Director

Environmental Integrity Project

1000 Vermont Avenue NW, Suite 1100

Washington, DC 20005

(202) 263-4440



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