The way one lawyer working for the Harris County government sees it, his office is enforcing pollution laws because the state of Texas isn’t.
“Sadly, the history of the State of Texas in protecting people, especially people here on the Gulf Coast from environmental contamination, is pitiful,” said Terry O’Rourke, First Assistant Harris County Attorney. “It is a history of neglect.”
O’Rourke said the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, or TCEQ, should be taking the lead on regulation, but hasn’t.
“The people in Austin are compliance agencies and they look at the polluters as their clients or their customers. They even call them customers. It is so offensive to us whose job is protecting people.”
O’Rourke was commenting on reporting by NPR and the Center for Public Integrity that highlighted industrial polluters that have repeatedly violated federal clean air standards. Some of the plants have been in violation for years. In the Houston area alone, 19 are listed with violations that have gone unaddressed, some for more than eight years.
“Sometimes you get a strong odor from something. You don’t know if it’s bad to be breathing it in, or our kid to be breathing it, playing outside in it,” said Shelley Myers, mother of a 6-year-old boy. They live in Pasadena, where her son goes to Kruse Elementary. The stacks of petrochemical plants less than a mile away can be seen peaking above the roof of the school.
Myers said at home, she calls her son inside when she hears alarms that go off to warn residents of large releases of chemical vapors. “If there’s an alarm, shut the windows, and shut the doors, he has to come in,” she said.
One of the nearby plants is Pasadena Refining System Inc. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s most updated list shows the refinery had been a “high priority violator” for five years. In 2009, the refinery sent nearly half a million pounds of chemicals into the air, more than in any of the previous eight years according to an EPA report.
The plant is capable of refining thousands of barrels of crude oil a day. It’s operated by Petrobras USA, a Brazilian company whose U.S. division is based in Houston. A spokesperson said they were requesting information from the EPA and couldn’t respond to questions at the time.
Petrobras also said it couldn’t comment on what the Harris County Attorney’s Office told StateImpact it plans to do — sue Pasadena Refining System, Inc.
“What they’re releasing are things like benzene and butadiene and strong, powerful chemicals that have a negative impact on human health and the environment,” said Rock Owens, a lawyer who handles environmental cases at the Office of the Harris County Attorney. Owens said the County is having to take action because the TCEQ has failed to make the refinery “address emission events.” Owens said the county’s suit will also allege that the refinery failed to report some air emissions to the county.
Asked about the criticism from Harris County, TCEQ spokesperson Terry Clawson told StateImpact in an email that in the past year, the state agency and the Texas attorney general had issued nearly $18 million in fines and penalties to polluters statewide. What’s more, Clawson pointed out that earlier this month, the state reached what Attorney General Greg Abbott said was a record settlement with BP Products North America. BP agreed to pay Texas $50 million for air emissions from its refinery in Texas City, pollution that came during and after a 2005 explosion that killed 15 workers.
As for Pasadena Refining System, the company Harris County said it plans to take to court, the TCEQ said it had investigated the facility many times, cited it for violations, assessed penalties of more than $300,000 over the past five years, and gotten it to make improvements. The TCEQ’s Clawson said levels of benzene measured in the air in neighborhoods near the plant exceeded state standards as recently as 2007. But now, Clawson said levels have dropped 46 percent and in 2010 were within allowed concentrations. He said levels of butadiene were below levels the state considers a health threat.