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Exclusive report – Illegal air pollution in Texas rises 155% in 5 years

According to a recent report, unauthorised emissions from industrial facilities in Texas have tripled since 2015 as the EPA continues to roll back protective measures.

At the beginning of the week, Thred Media and Global Citizen were given early access to a report sounding the alarm on rising rates of illegal industrial pollution in the state of Texas. According to the study conducted by Environment Texas and Frontier Group, industrial facilities in the state released over 174 million pounds, or around 79 million kgs, of unauthorised air pollution in 2019 – an increase of 155% from 2015.

Most of these emissions, which were largely comprised of benzene, hydrogen sulphide, particulate matter, and CO2, were recorded by industrial plants as unplanned. The report found that facilities typically list millions of kilograms of pollution a year which exceed their permits as ‘upsets’ or ‘emissions events’ – the big corporate shoulder shrug. In 2019, companies reported 4,086 of these mishaps, resulting in record amounts of pollutants released into Texan communities.

Whilst chemical pollution of all types has long been an issue in Texas, which as the report states is ‘home to an abundance of oil, gas, and petrochemical operations’, regulatory bodies allegedly keep the area liveable by issuing environmental permits to industrial facilities. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) are the main organisations responsible for issuing these permits and  capping harmful secretion levels.

However, EPA enforcement has been on a rapid decline in Texas since 2013 when a chemical plant exploded, and is at a record low nationally. Of the more than 4,000 ‘violations’ of clean air space state-wide last year, only 11 punitive levies were taken by the EPA. The average number of annual clean air enforcement actions taken between 2017 and 2019 was 15, down from 24 in the period between 2014 and 2016.

The fact that the ebbs and flow of regulation seem to only have been punctuated in the past decade by catastrophic events is a dangerous precedent.

white and blue concrete building near body of water during daytime

The study was sent to me in the wake of a recent deep-dive I’d conducted into the hazards of air pollution as a subsidiary and close companion of climate change. According to the WHO, air pollution contributes to the deaths of an estimated seven million people worldwide each year, with particulate matter able to infiltrate almost every organ in the human body, becoming the most exacerbating environmental factor in noncommunicable diseases such as cancer and lung disease. This report shows in no uncertain terms why illumination of this issue is needed.

A 2013 MIT study cited by the researchers found that more than 14,000 Texans die each year due to air pollution: specifically, 3,583 residents will lose their lives prematurely due to particulate matter released by industrial emissions. Findings by scientists at Harvard and the Environmental Defense Fund were even more dire, calculating that 5,213 Texans died prematurely in 2015 due to particular pollution at an estimated cost of $49 billion to the economy in healthcare.

One shudders to think what an increase of 155% in illegal emissions since will yield in the years to come.

It’s hard to assign blame for this precipitous rise in emissions violations with much accuracy beyond a vague gesture to the techno-globalist hyper-capitalism that keeps industry running in the USA. Texas has oil, which is needed to frack and refine natural gas; natural gas and oil are needed to manufacture plastic, power cars, bolster defence systems, and generally run a modern, western economy.

However, there have been a few events since 2016 which stand out as creating the conditions for a tripartite increase in pollutants. In 2015, the EPA directed 36 states, including Texas, to remove the ‘affirmative defense’ provision from their State Implementation Plan (SIPs), which seeks to coordinate national air quality standards.

This loophole in the EPA’s literature allows facilities that had exceeded their emissions cap to write off unauthorised pollution as legitimate provided certain criteria are fulfilled, including the vague stipulation that an emissions event ‘could not have been avoided’.

Affirmative defense completely hamstrung the EPA’s movement in these facilities as its application was normally assessed by employee accounts and interviews rather than on-site investigations by unaffiliated bodies.

In 2019, companies that exceeded their permits claimed an affirmative defense 97% of the time according to the study. As a result, TCEQ were only able to rule a paltry 10 unauthorised pollution events as ‘excessive’, in a year where an illegal emissions event was recorded at a Texan industrial facility at least once a day and, in November, an entire city had to be evacuated after a chemical plant exploded.

Industrial groups across the nation sought to block the EPA from eradicating affirmative defense, and, according to the report, in 2017 ‘the new Trump administration leadership at the EPA asked the DC Circuit of Appeals to delay oral argument over the SIP so it could “reconsider all or part” of the rule.’ In 2020, the EPA ratified legislation that allowed Texas to retain affirmative defense.

Since 2017 the EPA has repealed or significantly weakened more than 12 air quality and chemical safeguards for industrial facilities, including ‘weakening air pollution monitoring requirements for refineries and rolling back safety standards’. The report also found that the TCEQ was woefully underfunded for orchestrating proper on-site inspections and training independent inspectors, aiding consistent abuse of affirmative defense.

One of the most ironic moments of the report is its documentation of the EPA’s COVID-19 policy, which outlines environmental vandalism obfuscated by red tape and legal jargon where the harm equations are, in fact, absurdly blatant. The agency announced in March 2020 that it would dramatically scale back core enforcement of the Clean Air Act and Clear Water Act due presumably to reduced personnel. The policy, which expired on 31st August, removed requirements for facilities to report and monitor their pollution despite available research that exposure to particulate matter resulted in an 8% increase in fatality for COVID-19 patients.

A chemical plant exploded in this Texas town. Some residents want to 'show grace.'

In sum, this report shows that acute ecological anxieties in common parlance are not being translated into corporate policy. And, materially, it is extremely troubling for Texans whose health is being eroded on a daily basis.

The most frustrating element of this state-funded carelessness is that it’s easily rectifiable. Unauthorised air pollution events are largely avoidable through the successful implementation of gas recovery systems, increased staffing and preventative maintenance, and improved back-up systems for when catastrophic failures do occur.

More broadly, a sliding scale of reparations with mandatory minimums is required as a mainstay of industry throughout the US and the wider world. As the report recommends, organisations like the EPA must hold state-run environmental bodies to account instead of actively falling behind them in punitive measures.

My gravest concern is that whilst environment hawks, young activists, and journalists like myself continue to wax lyrical about the importance of curbing the climate crisis, we’ll be satisfyingly mitigated by government and industry who join our cause in name only whilst behind the scenes, harmful policies are agreed upon and churned out with the same pervasiveness as industrial particulates. To avoid falling into step with such policies in the long tunnel to nowhere, it’s vital to look at the numbers.

No matter what sustainability promises the Biden or Trump administrations are making voters in 2020, the fact remains that a 155% increase is an unacceptable figure, and one that must plummet dramatically if Texans are ever to breathe easy again.