Race to the courthouse: Why Harris County and the state are rushing to sue after chemical fires

Smoke from the ITC chemical tank farm fire rises over Jim Kethan Field on the second day of the inferno, postponing high school games, cancelling JV games and worst of all, cancelling the city’s youth baseball and softball parade this past Saturday. Photo: Robert Avery

Emergency crews were still containing a massive chemical fire in Deer Park last spring when the state of Texas filed a lawsuit against the company for environmental violations.

Five days later, Harris County officials brought their own lawsuit against Intercontinental Terminals Co., the owner of the chemical storage farm.

When fires broke out weeks later at plants at KMCO in Crosby and then Exxon Mobil in Baytown, the state and county each raced to file suit, even as the blaze continued to burn in one case.

As chemical plant explosions and fires have disrupted lives and raised air-quality concerns in the Houston area this year, the state and its most populous county have been jockeying to take the lead in penalizing polluters.

The state’s more active role has aroused suspicions among some local officials and environmentalists, who believe state leaders with a record of pro-business actions may be trying to take control to soften the blow of any court rulings against major corporations.

“It’s obvious there’s been an attempt to limit Harris County legal office from pursuing these cases,” said Neil Carman, a former air inspector with the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality who now works with the Sierra Club’s Lone Star chapter.

But state officials maintain its legal strategy hasn’t changed.

The legal maneuvering reflects growing public concern about environmental disasters in the Houston area and the ongoing tug of war between the Republican-led state government and officials in major metro areas over the setting of policy.

Who sues first dictates not only where the case will be heard, but also where the money will go if there are civil penalties. If Harris County leads with the state being a party to its lawsuit, the money is split between both parties. But if the state sues without the local government’s involvement, it goes back to the state’s general revenue

County officials say they have to sue to have a role in the process and to make sure companies are held accountable for the damage they cause. State lawmakers say that such suits are redundant and that there needs to be a statewide approach; the Legislature has passed bills restricting local governments in such cases.

“It’s not efficient, and it’s not a good way to function,” said Rock Owens, special assistant Harris County attorney for environmental matters. “If you have an emergency that requires immediate attention, that’s a reason to move quickly. But I just have to move quickly to make sure Harris County keeps a seat at the table, and that’s an unnecessary use of resources.”

In the end, he added, “everybody loses.”

Continue reading at the Houston Chronicle.

Sierra Club intervenes in public records dispute regarding cancer-causing chemical

Arkema, 9502 Bayport Blvd., is shown Thursday, Aug. 29, 2019, in Pasadena. There are 60 facilities in Texas that emit ethylene oxide in 26 cities, the most of any state, and 38 are in the Houston area, according to EPA data. Photo: Melissa Phillip, Houston Chronicle / Staff photographer

The Sierra Club is suing the state’s environmental agency for records it says might show bias in favor of industry.

Last summer, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality announced a proposal to raise the acceptable threshold for long-term exposure to ethylene oxide, a carcinogen, from 1 part per billion to 4 parts per billion.

It is significantly weaker than the Environmental Protections Agency’s cancer risk factor for the toxic chemical, but what Texas does could have national implications.

Earthjustice, on behalf of the Sierra Club, filed a request in July for the information that TCEQ used to arrive at its conclusion. While the agency partially responded, it withheld certain documents, including draft assessments and email correspondence between the agency and a Texas A&M researcher it had contracted to do a supplemental analysis.

On Oct. 4, the TCEQ sued the state attorney general’s office after it sided with the Sierra Club and said the environmental agency “must release the remaining information.”

On Wednesday, the Sierra Club filed what is called an intervening lawsuit, directly getting involved in the case between the attorney general and the TCEQ, to compel the environmental agency to immediately turn over the documents, said Neil Carman, clean air director for the Lone Star Chapter of the Sierra Club.

“It’s quite concerning the TCEQ is trying to do this because ethylene oxide is a carcinogen,” Carman said. “They need to be fully transparent. What is the TCEQ hiding?”

Continue reading at the Houston Chronicle.

Environmental coalition sues Trump administration over chemical disaster rule rollback

This aerial photo shows the remains of a fertilizer plant destroyed by an explosion in West, Texas, Thursday, April 18, 2013. A massive explosion at the West Fertilizer Co. killed as many as 15 people and injured more than 160, officials said overnight. Photo: Tony Gutierrez, STF / AP

A Houston environmental organization is among 13 groups suing the Trump administration to stop the rollback of a series of chemical safety regulations put in place following the deadly 2013 explosion in West, Texas.

“The EPA’s rollback of life-saving components of the Chemical Disaster Rule is not just unlawful, it is irresponsible,” said Emma Cheuse, an attorney with Earthjustice, the group suing on behalf of the coalition.

The group said it had “no choice” but to go to court after it said the Trump administration decided to “gut these protections, and put chemical companies’ preferences over the safety of children in danger zones.”

Last month, the Trump administration announced the reversal of a series of chemical safety regulations, citing potential security risks in disclosing chemical plant inventories and facility locations to the public, the economic cost for companies to follow the rules, and the need to reduce “unnecessary regulations.”

“Accident prevention is a top priority of the EPA and this rule promotes improved coordination between chemical facilities and emergency responders, reduces unnecessary regulatory burdens, and addresses security risks” arising from past changes to risk management rules, EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler said then.

Continue reading at the Houston Chronicle.

Unauthorized air emissions in Texas more than doubled in 2018, environmental group says

Aerial photos show the November, 2019 explosion at the TPC Group chemical plant in Port Neches. A new report by Environment Texas found industrial companies released more than 135 million pounds of unauthorized emissions in 2018. The Beaumont region topped the list with nearly 64 million pounds of excess pollution. Photo: Kim Brent / The Enterprise

Texas companies last year spewed more than 135 million pounds of toxic pollutants beyond what is permitted, a doubling of emissions over 2017, according to a new analysis by an environmental nonprofit.

Much of the spike in 2018 came from a single event at the Beaumont Gas to Gasoline Plant in Jefferson County, when an equipment startup at the plant on Aug. 29, 2018 lasted for more than five days and emitted more than 53 million pounds of carbon dioxide — a primary driver of climate change.

Still, even without this event, unauthorized emissions statewide jumped by more than 30 percent, from 63 million pounds in 2017 to 82 million pounds in 2018, according to Environment Texas, a nonprofit that produces the annual report.

Companies file emissions reports to state regulators each time a plant has an unauthorized release of pollutants due to a malfunction or planned activity, such as equipment maintenance, start-up or shutdown.

Using the self-reported filings, Environment Texas found in its analysis of the five most harmful pollutants — benzene, particulate matter, nitrogen dioxide, hydrogen sulfide and sulfur dioxide — that hundreds of Texas companies reported more than 4,590 unauthorized pollution incidents in 2018, 523 more incidents than the previous year.

Continue reading at the Houston Chronicle.

Public not fully informed about air quality risks after Harvey, EPA’s watchdog finds

In this Sept. 1, 2017, file photo, smoke rises from the Arkema Inc.-owned chemical plant in Crosby, near Houston, Texas. An internal EPA watchdog reviewed whether federal and state officials kept the public appropriately informed last year about potential air-quality threats after Hurricane Harvey ravaged southeastern Texas. Photo: Associated Press

As Hurricane Harvey slammed into the Texas Gulf Coast and brought catastrophic flooding to the Houston area, the shutdown of the region’s petrochemical plants and refineries filled the air with toxic chemicals. But government officials had no way of knowing exactly what was in the air because the monitoring network had been shut down to protect it ahead of the storm.

In a span of five days, the region’s plants and refineries released an additional 340 tons of air toxics, according to emissions reports voluntarily submitted to state officials. Half of that was released while most air monitors were down, according to a report released Monday by the Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Inspector General, or OIG.

The report has raised questions about whether officials fully understood air-quality risks after Harvey and communicated that information with residents of the most heavily affected communities.

“After landfall, the EPA and state and local agencies conducted mobile monitoring to assess air quality conditions following the storm — but it was too late to assess the total impact of emissions,” Julie Narimatsu, a program analyst who worked on the audit said, said during a podcast interview by the independent watchdog office.

The OIG recommended that the EPA develop guidance for emergency air monitoring in heavily industrialized areas and methods to provide public access to data, as well as put together a plan to communicate how it is resolving the concerns of the public.

Continue reading at the Houston Chronicle.