From: Anton Caputo, San Antonio Express-News
Published August 4, 2005 12:00 AM

Air Texans Breathe Being Polluted by 'Accident'

Texas is turning a blind eye as state refineries and industrial plants spew millions of pounds of "accidental" pollution each year, a new report charges.

The pollution is hitting the communities of Corpus Christi and Port Arthur particularly hard, where refineries operated by San Antonio-based Valero Energy Corp., Flint Hills Resources, Motiva Enterprises, BASF Corp. and TOTAL Petrochemicals were cited as being among the biggest offenders, according to the report by the Washington-based Public Citizen advocacy group.

At issue are events called "upset pollution" -- theoretically unavoidable incidents where facilities have to burn off chemicals, typically during start-up, shutdown, maintenance or mechanical malfunction.

Such events aren't included in documents filed by the companies estimating how much pollution they'll churn out in a year. But Public Citizen found that some refineries produce more pollution during upset events than during normal operation.

There were 7,533 upset events last year, but the state issued fines on less than 1 percent.


"There is no deterrent against future violations," said Beth O'Brien, who authored the report.

For example, during a six-day event in December 2003, the Valero West refinery in Corpus Christi released 121,000 pounds of sulfur dioxide, according to the report. That is almost one-third the sulfur dioxide the refinery emitted during normal operation for all of 2003.

Valero officials didn't respond to calls requesting comment.

During a September 2004 event, Flint Hill's West refinery in Corpus discharged 133,900 pounds of carbon monoxide during an upset event. That is roughly equal to the carbon monoxide produced in a year by 232 cars.

The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality is considering closing some of the loopholes, but Denny Larson of the Refinery Reform Campaign said the proposed changes don't close the largest.

Among them, he said the state does not require companies to include scheduled start-ups and shut downs in their permits, and then only requires corrective action plans for pollution events included in permits.

"The public is being sold a bill of goods," he said. "TCEQ is addressing only those loopholes that don't really matter. They continue to let these companies say, 'It was an accident, we tried the best we could to avoid it.'"

TCEQ spokesman Terry Clawson defended the agency.

"The TCEQ has made major efforts in the past few years to reduce emissions from emission events, and we have achieved some major results," he said, pointing out that the overall pollution from such events in Houston, Beaumont and Corpus Christi has declined from 2003 to 2004.

The state will hold a public hearing on the issue Friday in Corpus Christi.

Public Citizen focused on Corpus Christi in Nueces County and Port Arthur in Jefferson County because of the prevalence of the petrochemical industry in those areas.

By crunching numbers in the Environmental Protections Agency's 2002 Toxics Release Inventory, the environmental group concluded that those two counties account for 15 percent of the carcinogens and 16 percent of the neurotoxins released into the state's' air.

The report also documented an increase in the absentee rates at schools near Corpus Christi's Valero East refinery after large upset events.

"While these figures do not prove direct causation between the events and the subsequent decreases in attendance rates at the schools near the Valero East refinery, they do show there is a statistical correlation that warrants further study," the report said.

Corpus Christi resident Susie Canales, chairwoman of Citizens for Environmental Justice, said she plans to present the findings to local school officials.

"All of these are red flags that need to be heeded," she said. "Something needs to be done."

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Source: Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News

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