Texas grants Houston-area refinery permit to release potentially toxic fumes

Low-income communities face brunt of toxic pollution.

Exxon Mobil’s Baytown oil refinery near Houston was damaged by Harvey, and the company said chemicals may have been released into the air. CREDIT: AP Photo/Pat Sullivan
Exxon Mobil’s Baytown oil refinery near Houston was damaged by Harvey, and the company said chemicals may have been released into the air. CREDIT: AP Photo/Pat Sullivan

A large number of refineries, petrochemical facilities, and pipelines remained shut down in southeast Texas on Tuesday as the region struggled to handle the ongoing flooding and damage caused by Hurricane Harvey’s heavy rains.

Environmental advocates had issued warnings about the growing potential for major damage and loss of life from a storm of Harvey’s strength striking Houston, the fourth-largest city in the United States. Houston was a “catastrophe waiting to happen,” given the city’s lack of zoning and lax regulations, Robert Bullard, a professor at Texas Southern University and a long-time activist known as the “father of environmental justice,” said in an interview with Democracy Now! Tuesday.

The huge industrial footprint in Houston has “created lots of problems when it comes to greenhouse gases and other industrial pollution,” Bullard added.

As the floodwaters continue to rise, the region’s extensive petrochemical infrastructure is vulnerable, posing a public health risk to residents. ExxonMobil’s Baytown oil refinery near Houston was damaged by Harvey — the company said a roof at the facility “partially sank” and chemicals may have been released into the air, CNN reported.

The facility underwent a planned controlled shutdown on Sunday after which Exxon filed two excess emissions reports with the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ). The agency then authorized the excess emissions from the facility during that process. The TCEQ said its permit was based in part on engineering knowledge, analyzer data, and historical data, the commission said.

“The TCEQ was notified on Aug. 27, 2017 of a planned controlled shutdown of the ExxonMobil Baytown refinery due to the storm,” the agency said in a statement Tuesday. “Later that day, a floating roof partially sank during the excess rain event from Hurricane Harvey. The TCEQ was notified Aug. 28, 2017 that product is being offloaded to another tank.”

At Exxon’s Beaumont petrochemical refinery, Harvey damaged a sulfur thermal oxidizer, a piece of equipment that captures and burns sulfur dioxide. As a result, the plant released 1,312.84 pounds of sulfur dioxide, well in excess of the amounts allowed by the company’s permits, the Washington Post reported.

Meanwhile, TCEQ has shut off its air quality monitors to protect them from storm-related damage. As a result, petrochemical companies are expected to report emissions of pollutants to the nearby communities, which are largely minority and low-income. The temporary self-reporting may leave these residents uninformed about potentially dangerous pollutants in their air.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is the lead agency for cleaning up oil and chemical spills in the wake of Harvey. But the agency’s regional office, Region 6, currently does not have a permanent director.

Royal Dutch Shell PLC said it was dealing with a similar problem at its Deer Park refinery and chemical facility in the Houston area, when a storage tank roof was damaged by heavy rainfall. Shell discovered the problem Monday morning and placed foam on the roof to lower emissions while it transferred the material to another tank, MarketWatch reported.

As of Tuesday morning, all six refineries in the Corpus Christi area and five refineries in the Houston and Galveston area were shut down. These refineries have a combined refining capacity equal to 24.4 percent of total Gulf Coast refining capacity and 12.8 percent of total U.S. refining capacity, according to an update from the U.S. Department of Energy. In addition, four refineries in the Houston and Galveston region area, one refinery in the Beaumont and Port Arthur area, and two refineries in the Lake Charles area were operating at reduced rates.

Late Monday afternoon, a chemical leak prompted orders for residents of La Porte, east of Houston, to take cover and turn off air-conditioning and heating systems. The chemical anhydrous hydrogen chloride, which can cause eye, throat, and nasal irritation, had reportedly leaked from a pipeline.

By Monday night, local police had lifted the shelter-in-place order. The La Porte police did not identify the pipeline’s owner but said “the company responsible for the line and the cause of the leak is being investigated and will be determined at a later date,” the Houston Chronicle reported.

The storm has also caused interruptions to the Colonial Pipeline at several locations in the Houston area. The interruptions reportedly are expected to continue until Colonial can further assess damage from the storm. The pipeline delivers gasoline and other petroleum products from the Houston area to customers across the South and eastern United States.

Less than two weeks before Harvey made landfall, Trump signed an executive order rolling back safety standards for flood protection, noted 350.org Executive Director May Boeve. The administration “has prioritized fossil fuel projects, slashed environmental reviews, and rolled back critical climate protections,” she said in statement Tuesday.

“The flooding is expected to get worse, more people are in need of shelter and services, damaged oil refineries are spewing toxic fumes into communities, and public health is at risk,” Boeve added.

At the Baytown refinery, the second-largest in the United States, Exxon expects air emissions associated with the damage to end by Friday. Exxon shut down the refining and chemical complex and said it was taking action to “minimize emissions.” The complex is located 23 miles from Houston. It has a large oil refinery and two major petrochemical plants covering 3,400 acres.

In April, a federal judge ruled that Exxon must pay nearly $20 million in civil penalties for “serious” violations at the Baytown refinery that caused the release of about 10 million pounds of pollutants into the atmosphere. The judge ruled that Exxon violated the Clean Air Act 16,386 times between October 2005 and September 2013. Exxon said at the time that it disagreed with the finding.

The court ruling came after the Sierra Club sued Exxon due to “the enormous volume of air emissions, including toxic substances like benzene, spewing” from the facility 365 days a year, according to the environmental group. “After all, ExxonMobil’s Baytown plants, when treated as one complex, have often ranked #1 in Houston and Harris County in total industrial air pollution,” the Sierra Club said.

Harvey and its devastating impact on the region was “very predictable,” Bullard said. “Those communities that historically have borne the burden of environmental pollution and contamination from these many industries at the same time are the very communities that are bearing disproportionately the burden of this flooding.”