In Texas, Chemical Leaks Lack Consequences


On July 26, black clouds rose from flares at a Chevron Phillips chemical plant in Baytown, Texas, after an influence outage hit the plant and the encircling space.

The firm estimated in a preliminary report back to the state that it launched 1000’s of kilos of chemical substances in the course of the hours-long incident, together with 17,500 kilos of carbon monoxide and 980 kilos and 280 kilos, respectively, of the carcinogens benzene and 1,3-butadiene. 

It was one in every of 108 unplanned chemical releases, often called emissions occasions, the power has reported since September 2015, information present. But solely 11 of these leaks have been deemed unlawful and resulted in penalties from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, or TCEQ.


This article was initially printed by Public Health Watch, a nonprofit investigative information group. Find out extra at publichealthwatch.org


Put one other means, about 90% of the plant’s unintentional releases have gone unpunished. Chevron Phillips, it appears, has gotten off straightforward. But it’s not that straightforward.

Releases like Chevron Phillips’ could also be smelly, unpleasant and even terrifying, however not all exceed permitted limits and are unlawful. It’s laborious to know for certain as a result of TCEQ knowledge might be tough to navigate. And in Texas, even polluters that break the foundations typically get the good thing about the doubt.

The TCEQ’s most up-to-date enforcement report exhibits that Texas had 3,032 emissions occasions that unleashed a collective 39.4 million kilos of chemical substances in fiscal 12 months 2021, which ran from September 2020 via August 2021. TCEQ Executive Director Toby Baker concluded that solely 23 of these releases had been “excessive” and worthy of enforcement. (Fiscal 12 months 2021 noticed a comparatively low variety of occasions because of the pandemic-related financial slowdown; the 12 months earlier than there have been 4,257.)

It was one in every of 108 unplanned chemical releases, often called emissions occasions, the power has reported since September 2015, information present.

The TCEQ determines if an occasion is extreme primarily based on the trigger, the frequency of unplanned releases at a facility, the potential impacts on public well being and different elements. 

Nikos Zirogiannis, a professor of environmental economics at Indiana University, has studied and written about emissions occasions in Texas for years. In a paper final 12 months, he estimated that unpermitted releases trigger a median of 35 deaths per 12 months amongst aged Texans.

Zirogiannis has discovered that, on common, 3,605 emissions occasions every year exceed permitted limits and are unlawful. And but the TCEQ issued solely 462 penalties for unlawful releases from September 2015 to June 2022, based on a Public Health Watch evaluation of company enforcement information. That means solely a small fraction of the occasions Zirogiannis believes to be unlawful lead to fines. It’s laborious to provide you with a exact quantity due to the lag time — generally years — related to penalties.

Another complicating issue: The so-called affirmative protection, put in place by the TCEQ in 2003. The rule permits the company to waive penalties for emissions occasions which can be “unplanned, unavoidable and properly reported,” the Texas Sunset Advisory Commission reported in May, and is meant to be “a narrowly defined and tailored tool that incentivizes voluntary, proactive compliance.” In reality, it’s been overused: During the final 5 years, the fee discovered, TCEQ investigators determined the protection was legitimate for greater than 85% of unauthorized emissions occasions.

A spokesperson for the TCEQ mentioned the affirmative protection “only applies to a narrow subset of events” and is utilized by the company to “more efficiently direct its investigation and enforcement resources.”

A spokesperson for the TCEQ mentioned the affirmative protection “only applies to a narrow subset of events” and is utilized by the company to “more efficiently direct its investigation and enforcement resources.” 

“The agency is taking steps to promote consistency in the review of emissions events, including updating the emissions event investigator guidance, conducting outreach directly to companies through industry groups and events, and implementing more standard processes,” the spokesperson wrote in an electronic mail. 

Harris County, which incorporates a part of Baytown, had 225 emissions occasions in 2018. As of June 2022, the TCEQ had issued fines for under 27 — or 12% — of these occasions. Last 12 months, the county had 204 unplanned releases; it’s too quickly to know what number of will lead to penalties.

LaToya Washington, who lives in Baytown and teaches environmental science in close by Galena Park, mentioned the partitions of her house generally shake from accidents at services 5 miles away. 

“You kind of have this panic, like, ‘Oh, God, what’s what’s going on? Is it serious?’” she mentioned. “Then you’re like, ‘OK, well, I hope there’s not going to be a shelter-in-place,’ or, ‘Do I need to turn my AC off?’”

A Chevron Phillips spokesperson mentioned the corporate’s launch in July prompted no accidents, and air monitoring by Harris County Pollution Control Services confirmed the encircling group was not affected. 

“The safety of our personnel and neighboring communities is a core value of our company, and we remain committed to responsible environmental management,” the spokesperson wrote in an electronic mail.


Not the entire emissions occasions within the TCEQ’s database are unlawful. Facilities should report chemical leaks to the TCEQ inside 24 hours of an incident, however the last report, due two weeks later, could present the plant by no means discharged greater than its air allow permits. It’s a recipe for confusion: To decide if a launch could advantage a fantastic, one first has to search for the quantity of a specific chemical a plant is legally allowed to launch on an hourly foundation. If any of those limits was exceeded in the course of the occasion, there was a violation.

The sheer amount of occasions at a plant additionally might not be significant. “The fact that some facility has a large number of events doesn’t necessarily mean those are events of substantial magnitude,” Zirogiannis mentioned

Zirogiannis mentioned the TCEQ has essentially the most complete air-pollution knowledge of any state, however it’s not straightforward to make use of or perceive.

“Not everybody has the time to go into the air emissions events website of the TCEQ and look what happened in a given day,” he mentioned.

“The fact that some facility has a large number of events doesn’t necessarily mean those are events of substantial magnitude,” Nikos Zirogiannis, a professor of environmental economics at Indiana University, mentioned.

Zirogiannis mentioned he worries that TCEQ’s penalties aren’t stiff sufficient to discourage polluters. Public Health Watch discovered that the median TCEQ fantastic for an air-pollution violation between September 2015 and June 2022 was $7,500. After reductions for complying with the phrases of the enforcement settlement, the median quantity corporations really paid was $6,000.

“The question I always ask myself is, ‘Is the number big enough to make a dent?’ It is not clear to me that this is the case,” Zirogiannis mentioned.

He pointed to a latest examine that helps put TCEQ enforcement insurance policies in context.

In a 2020 paper, two researchers from the University of California, Berkeley, famous that corporations within the Houston space generally purchase “offset credits” to extend emissions. Such credit might be bought by lower-emitting services to new or increasing vegetation. The researchers discovered that credit for nitrogen oxides or risky natural compounds, together with benzene and 1,3-butadiene, fluctuated between $5,000 and $25,000 per ton.

“If the median penalty is below that, that might suggest that polluters might have a preference for paying the [fine] rather than purchasing offset credits,” Zirogiannis mentioned. 

In brief, it may be cheaper for an organization to pollute illegally than to extend emissions legally. 

“If there are no consequences, no real consequences, then … it doesn’t doesn’t hurt them to keep doing it, to keep releasing,” Washington mentioned.


This story used Pinpoint, a Google instrument designed for looking paperwork, to investigate TCEQ enforcement experiences from September 2015 to June 2022. View the paperwork right here. Find all of Public Health Watch’s searchable information right here

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