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Illegal air pollution in Texas fell 54 percent in 2020

Written by: Leonard Parker | Houston Business News | 08th November

There were in reality some positive effects resulting from the economic downturn caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

One positive was a 54 percent decrease in illegal air pollution in Texas compared to 2019, according to a report issued by the Environmental Integrity Project and the Environment Texas Research and Policy Center. Data analyzed by the two entities found 46 million pounds of illegal air pollution was released due to industrial accidents, shutdowns and other "upset" events, compared to the 72 million pounds averaged annually over the previous five years.

But officials with the two entities predict the decline will be short-lived.

“I’m confident it will be a short-term ray of light,” Gabriel Clark-Leach, attorney with the Environmental Integrity Project, told the Reporter-Telegram in a telephone interview. He predicted rates would increase as economic activity rebounds.

What will help is for state regulators to get more stringent as activity increases, Clark-Leach said. The Texas Commission Environmental Quality has made some changes to enforcement, but he remains skeptical unless emissions trend lower over a long period. “The proof is in the pudding.”

The TCEQ declined to respond to the report.

The report found the Midland region reported the largest amount of unauthorized emissions at 30.7 million pounds – nearly six times the next highest region, Houston with 5.5 million pounds. Four of the top five polluters in the state’s database of reported emission incidents last year were in West Texas, led by the Sand Hills Gas Plant in Crane County, which reported releasing 2.3 million pounds of total pollutants.

The Big Spring Carbon Black Plant in Howard County was in the top 10 in particulate pollution while EnLink’s Lobo Gas Plant in Loving County and Targa Resources’ Wildcat Gas Plant in Winkler County were among the top-10 benzene polluters, the report said.

“Overall, we do not believe the report to be accurate and it is not a representation of EnLink’s Lobo plant performance today,” Jill McMillan, vice president of strategic relations and public affairs, told the Reporter-Telegram by email. “We have proactively addressed prior thermal oxidizer repairs and added a secondary control to the plant, which has eliminated benzene releases from occurring at Lobo.”

Neither Tokai Carbon, owner of the Big Spring Carbon Black Plant, nor Targa Resources responded to requests for comment.

Clark-Leach said the Environmental Protection Agency is doing a good job monitoring the Permian Basin, performing flyovers seeking unlit flares and leaks, issuing stiffer fines and requiring third party audits. 

Eliminating illegal air pollution needs the participation of all stakeholders, from industry to regulators. 

“We need industry to do its part and not wait for crippling fines,” he said. Improvements in one area can be used elsewhere, he said.

“A lot of emergency situations could be avoided if companies planned better and plants were better maintained and better monitored,” he said.

Clark-Leach acknowledged that ‘upset’ events will never be completely avoided – processing facilities are complicated and parts do break down.

But, he said, to issue enforcement orders for less than 3 percent of illegal air pollution events over the last nine years “is not a good sign.”