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NatGas Facilities Big 'Non-Routine' Emitters, Says Report

From 2009 to 2011 nearly 100,000 tons of pollution were released from Texas oil and gas facilities, refineries and petrochemical plants due to accidents and other non-routine events, according to the Environmental Integrity Project (EIP). Natural gas operations were blamed for the majority of sulfur dioxide (SO2) and volatile organic compound (VOC) releases.

During the three-year period, the non-routine emission events at chemical plants, refineries and natural gas operations released more than 42,000 tons of SO2 and just over 50,000 tons of smog-forming VOCs, EIP said. "These so-called 'emission event' pollutants are in addition to the emissions released year-round during so-called 'normal operations' and are usually not included in the data the government uses to establish regulations or evaluate public health impacts," EIP said.

Natural gas operations -- which include wellheads, pipelines, compressors, boosters and storage systems -- accounted for more than 85% of total SO2 releases and nearly 80% of the VOCs released during these episodes, according to the EIP analysis.

"Too many of these ‘accidents' are the norm at some natural gas and chemical plants. These upsets can dump a lot of pollution in a few short hours, and some of them continue releasing benzene and other toxins for weeks," said EIP Director Eric Schaeffer. "Many of these breakdowns -- and the pollution that comes with them -- could be prevented by upgrading pollution controls, improving maintenance and recapturing and reusing gas instead of releasing it to the environment as pollution."

EIP's report on Texas pollution events was based on Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) data.

Schaeffer along with officials representing Air Alliance Houston; Communities In-Power and Development of Port Arthur, TX; and Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services of Houston all called on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to more strictly regulate accidental emissions.

"The Clean Air Act makes polluters strictly liable for their mistakes, but loopholes in regulations either excuse violations that result from malfunctions altogether, or allow polluters to escape penalties by claiming that such mishaps are beyond the control of plant operators," EIP said. "As a result, federal or state agencies rarely even investigate these events, much less take enforcement action. EPA's current standards are so relaxed that even the most serious violations are excused, inviting plant operators to defer improvements that could make plants safer -- and sometimes even turn a profit."

There is no love lost between Texas regulators, particularly the Railroad Commission of Texas and TCEQ, and the EPA. State regulators have frequently criticized the federal agency for overstepping its jurisdiction and clamping down unreasonably hard on Texas industry, usurping state authorities in the process.

EIP also has a beef with EPA, but it's the opposite of complaints in Texas. The environmental group maintains EPA is not doing enough to protect citizen health and the environment. On Tuesday it said it would file suit on behalf of Air Alliance Houston, Communities In-Power and Development, the Louisiana Bucket Brigade, and Texas Environmental Advocacy Services under the Clean Air Act unless the agency revises methods used to estimate refinery emissions.

Texas facilities have been required to submit online reports estimating emissions caused by upsets, maintenance, startup and shutdown activities since 2003, along with an explanation of what caused the events. The data in the EIP non-routine emissions report was obtained from TCEQ's emissions event database.

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