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Archive for the ‘Air Quality’ Category

The state of Texas allows industrial facilities to repeatedly spew unauthorized air pollution — with few consequences

For more than two decades, Dennis Gallagher was a proud Shell employee.

During his 22 years working at the energy juggernaut’s sprawling, 80-year-old complex in this Refinery Row suburb of Houston, he learned to oversee different parts of the massive chemical plant and refinery. The facilities manufacture not only oil but a variety of hazardous chemicals that — if mishandled — could easily explode and level the 2,300-acre compound, located less than a mile from residential neighborhoods.

Until two years ago, the Michigan native’s only truly bad day at work was in 1997, when a gas compressor exploded and he was “picked up like a leaf” and blown back 25 feet. Then came what should have been a quiet Sunday in August 2015, when everything went wrong.

A critical pump failed. A small tank overfilled. Then more than 300,000 pounds of 1,3-butadiene — a highly explosive chemical and known human carcinogen used to manufacture rubber — escaped into the atmosphere.

It was the largest malfunction-related air pollution event in the Houston area that year — in less than an hour, the plant spewed 258 times more butadiene into the atmosphere than allowed by state law — and air pollution watchdogs say it was one of the most dangerous they’ve seen.

An internal investigation later noted that the amount of hydrocarbons released that day was more than eight times higher than the amount released during the 2005 fire and explosion at BP’s Texas City refinery that killed 15 people and injured 180 others.

There was no explosion that day. But Gallagher says the incident cost him his job and maybe his health. He struggled with chest pains and balance issues afterward — the latter is a known side effect of butadiene exposure — and had to take a year off. When he came back, Gallagher said he was put on probation for the incident and, after a minor screw-up during a routine re-training, promptly fired.

And yet it cost Shell Chemical, a subsidiary of the fifth-largest company in the world, next to nothing.

State records show the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ), the state’s environmental regulatory agency, fined the company just $25,000 — the maximum allowed for an air permit violation under state law — and required it to execute a “corrective action plan,” which called for mostly refresher training.

It’s a scenario that plays out again and again in Texas when industrial polluters spew noxious chemicals into the air during malfunctions and other unplanned incidents, exceeding the emission limits of their state-issued air permits.

A Texas Tribune analysis of self-reported industry data shows that thousands of such rogue releases occur at Texas industrial sites each year. They are known generically as “emissions events”— a term that refers to both malfunctions or “upsets” and unplanned “maintenance, start-up or shutdown” activities.

Whether they are truly unavoidable is a point of dispute.

Read the full article by the Tribune here.

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Map of air monitoring sites in Austin. Light blue sites monitor for ozone.

On June 12, Governor Greg Abbott signed a $217 billion budget for Texas into law. Abbott also exercised line-item vetoes to eliminate $120 million from the budget. Among those cuts were $87 million for the Low-Income Vehicle Repair Assistance Program, a voluntary program that helps low-income Texans replace their old, polluting vehicles with newer ones.

Continuing the assault on clean air, Abbott also cut $6 million for air quality planning in certain areas of the state (see pdf p. 5). The governor’s comment on this funding cut is worth quoting in full, beginning with the item vetoed and then the comment in italics:

  1. Air Quality Planning. Amounts appropriated above include $6,000,500 for the biennium out of the Clean Air Account No. 151 in Strategy A.1.1, Air Quality Assessment and Planning, for air quality planning activities to reduce ozone in areas not designated as nonattainment areas during the 2016 17 biennium and as approved by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ). These areas may include Waco, El Paso, Beaumont, Austin, Corpus Christi, Granbury, Killeen Temple, Longview Tyler Marshall, San Antonio, and Victoria. These activities may be carried out through interlocal agreements and may include: identifying, inventorying, and monitoring of pollution levels; modeling pollution levels; and the identification, quantification, implementation of appropriate locally enforceable pollution reduction controls; and the submission of work plans to be submitted to the TCEQ. The TCEQ shall allocate $350,000 to each area and the remaining funds to each area based on population in excess of 350,000. The grant recipients shall channel the funds to those projects most useful for the State Implementation Plan (SIP).

This program funds, among other items, bicycle use programs, carpooling awareness, environmental awareness campaigns, and locally enforceable pollution reduction programs in near non-attainment areas, which can be funded at the local government level. Resources in the Clean Air Account should be prioritized to directly address problems in our non-attainment areas of the state so that we are better positioned to combat the business-stifling regulations imposed on these areas by the Environmental Protection Agency. I therefore object to and disapprove of this appropriation.

This is an unfortunate description of air quality planning activities and of the purpose of the Clean Air Account itself. So what are “air quality planning activities to reduce ozone in areas not designated as nonattainment areas”?

Ozone is a harmful pollutant that is linked to everything from asthma attacks and difficulty breathing to heart attacks, stroke, and premature death. Ozone is formed in the atmosphere through the mixing of other pollutants that are emitted by vehicles and industrial sources such as refineries. There are two areas of the state—Houston, and Dallas—that do not meet the federal air pollution standards for ozone. These are our “nonattainment” areas. There are many other areas in the state—including San Antonio and Austin—that do meet the federal ozone standard but still have numerous bad ozone days throughout the year. These areas, especially San Antonio, risk worsening air quality and an eventual “nonattainment designation” by the Environmental Protection Agency. Such a designation would subject the area to decades of regulation and costs that could reach the billions.

All of us have seen the ozone action day announcements.  Those alert at-risk citizens (like children, the elderly and those who have certain health risks) to curtail their outside exposure to mitigate the negative health impacts.  Local air quality monitors are what alert us to those dangers.

In order to keep the “near-nonattainment” areas clean and healthy (and to avoid the federal designation), Texas appropriates several million dollars for air quality planning activities. This money enables these areas to participate in programs like the ozone Early Action Compact. So far, these programs have been successful, though San Antonio may inevitably face a nonattainment designation as it grows.

Surely Governor Abbott understands the importance and success of these air quality planning activities. Describing the program as consisting of “bicycle use programs, carpooling awareness, environmental awareness campaigns, and locally enforceable pollution reduction programs” is an obvious straw man. Bicycle and carpooling programs—while important in their own right—are not all that goes into air quality planning.

Air quality planners in Houston demonstrate how that city’s air monitors operate.

In Austin, for example, the city maintains eight ozone monitors in addition to the two maintained by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ). These additional monitors help with air quality forecasting. They also help us to better understand large-scale impacts on air quality to our region by sources such as the Fayette power plant to the southeast, or Dallas to the north.

San Antonio just announced that it will shut down six ozone air monitors and lay off four staff members in response to the governor’s cuts. This is truly unfortunate for the people affected and for air quality monitoring and pollution prevention. If data is never collected, the ability to paint long-term pictures and identify trends in air pollution is lost for that time period. San Antonio may one day refund its program, but its former employees will have moved on, and the data will have been lost forever.

On the same day, San Antonio made this announcement, the Central Texas Clean Air Coalition in Austin held an emergency meeting to discuss how it would respond to the proposed funding cuts. The Capital Area Council of Governments (CAPCOG) has asked its member counties and cities to consider an additional financial contribution to support ongoing air quality planning activities in Austin. CAPCOG proposed tiered levels of funding that would alternatively fund more or less the region’s activities.

At the meeting, CAPCOG members seemed to understand the importance of a funding level that would keep all staff in place and all air monitors active. Cuts will definitely have to be made (to, for example, the regular maintenance schedule for those monitors) but if CAPCOG’s members do approve the appropriate tier of funding, then air quality planning programs in Austin will remain largely intact.

We hope that Austin is able to continue its important work by keeping Austinites safe from dangerous ozone pollution. Governor Greg Abbott may not recognize the importance of this work right now, but we hope that he does some day and that these shortsighted cuts do not continue.

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AUSTIN, Texas — The 85th Legislature gave all Texans a surprising bit of good news when they extended the programs for the Texas Emissions Reduction Program (TERP), which was set to expire in 2019.

TERP is the second largest air pollution reduction program in Texas, and since its inception in 2001 it has become the most cost-effective way to reduce air pollution in the state.

Only hours before the final deadline to pass a “Conference Committee Report,” the Texas Legislature approved SB 1731, which included an amendment to reform and expand TERP. In response, the Lone Star Chapter of the Sierra Club, Public Citizen and Environmental Defense Fund — who have supported and worked with legislators and the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality since 2001 on TERP implementation — praised lawmakers for their efforts, but issued a warning: the Legislature must actually appropriate the money now.

“We salute the Texas Legislature for extending and expanding TERP programs so that Texas actually complies with EPA’s health-based standards for ozone pollution in our major cities,” noted Cyrus Reed, Conservation Director of the Sierra Club’s Lone Star Chapter. “However, the Legislature failed to extend the fees that pay for the program, and the budget bill actually cut appropriations for TERP by some $80 million over two years, subject to a possible adjustment by the Legislative Budget Board. This will need to be fixed for the program to work as it should.”

Recent polling has found that TERP has strong support in Houston, where air pollution is a constant problem. “We’re glad that the Legislature responded to the concerns of Houstonians,” said Adrian Shelley, director of the Public Citizen Texas office. “One of the major improvements for TERP under SB 1731 is the provision to allow more money to be spent in rail yards and port yards, where we have the greatest air pollution concentrations,” he added.

“We’re pleased that TERP has been extended and now includes modifications that will allow more cost-effective projects at ports,” said Christina Wolfe, Manager, Air Quality, Port and Freight Facilities at the Texas office of the Environmental Defense Fund. “There is plenty of work ahead of us to ensure that all Texans breathe healthy air, so we appreciate the Texas Legislature taking this first step in recognizing the importance of TERP. Now we need them to ensure the programs are funded.”

The bill to extend and expand the program had a somewhat tortured history. After passing the Senate early in the session, SB 26 by Craig Estes (R- Wichita Falls) was then referred to the House Committee on Environmental Regulation. There, clean air advocates — which included environmental groups like EDF, Sierra Club and Public Citizen, and industry groups like the Texas Chemical Council, the Texas Association of Business and electric utilities — worked with Chairman Joe Pickett (D – El Paso), Rep. Brooks Landgraf (R-Odessa), Rep. Ron Reynolds (D-Houston) and Rep. Tony Dale (R- Round Rock) to craft a revised version of SB 26, which put more emphasis on the most cost-effective programs, including the revised Seaport and Rail Yards program to clean up pollution from equipment at our ports and rail yards.

However, the House version of SB 26 was put late on the calendar and the House of Representatives did not get to the bill when the deadline of midnight occurred on May 23rd. Then, versions of SB 26 were added to three other bills as amendments, though two of them were not taken up. Finally, on May 29th, at approximately 9:30 PM, both houses passed the TERP bill as part of SB 1731 by Sen. Brian Birdwell (R-Granbury) and Rep. Morgan Meyer (R-Dallas).

While the groups behind the TERP legislation were happy with the passage SB 1731, some last-minute confusion on the budget made it unclear how much TERP is actually funded for the next two years. During last-minute budget negotiations, TERP funding was cut from approximately $118 million per year to $78 million per year, and a contingency rider that was supposed to restore funding if a TERP bill passed was not in the final version of the budget.

In addition, separate legislation to extend the six fees that actually fund TERP did not pass, meaning the Legislature will need to come back in 2019 to extend them if the programs are to continue.

“We call on Governor Abbot to not only sign SB 1731 into law, but call back the Legislative Budget Board to adjust the budget to reflect its passage and return the nearly $40 million a year that was cut to fund these new programs,” added Reed. “Ultimately, the Legislature is going to have to decide how important it is to get the dirty air in our cities cleaned up and extend the fees — and spend the revenues — to help our children, the elderly and those with asthma to be able to breathe clean air.”

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Public Citizen along with the Alliance for Clean Texas are supporting the following amendments to the bill to significantly improve the
Texas Railroad Commission. These issues were brought up in the public process, but not included in the bill:

  • TABLED – but several stand alone bills exist – CHANGE THE NAME (Alonzo) to one that is more reflective of the agency’s functions and one the public can recognize such as the Texas Oil and Gas Commission.
  • TABLED –  see HB 464 which is scheduled for a hearing this Thursday, March 30th, in the General Investigation and Ethics Committee – LIMIT POLITICAL CONTRIBUTIONS (Anchia). Limit the amount and timing of political contributions made to Commissioners – statewide elected officials – strictly to election season and also preventing a Commissioner from knowingly accepting contributions from a party with a contested case hearing before the RRC.
  • TABLED – see also HB 247 by AnchiaPUT ENFORCEMENT DATA ONLINE (Walle). While the bill does require the posting of an annual strategic plan, the RRC should also be required to put enforcement, inspection, and complaint data online now in an easy, searchable format with frequent updates.
  • TABLED –  – RAISE MAXIMUM PENALTIES TO $25,000 (Howard). Current penalties for violations (not related to pipeline safety) should be raised from a maximum of $10,000 to $25,000 per violation per day. This increase would put the agency in line with the $25,000 penalty cap of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) and the Attorney General’s office. The RRC should also be required to design new penalty guidelines that take into account the economic benefit of non-compliance, the seriousness of the violation and any hazard to public safety.
  • WITHDRAWN – see SB 1803 by Miles –  INCREASE BONDING REQUIREMENTS (Canales). Increased and expanded tiers of bonding requirements for oil and gas wells will help ensure abandoned wells get plugged.  Currently over 9,000 abandoned uncapped wells in Texas.

And Last but Not Least:

  • TABLED – REAUTHORIZE THE AGENCY FOR 6 NOT 12 YEARS (E. Rodriguez). Due to the lack of agency performance measures and accountability not incorporated into this bill, it makes sense for the Railroad Commission to be reviewed within a shorter timeframe.

Watch for updates on which amendments are adopted by the Texas House.

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Knowing whether to run or hide is a fundamental survival mechanism that Texans living near chemical plants and refineries know too well.

But it can be impossible to make the right decision without accurate and timely information. Is it safe to go outside? Is it safe to “shelter in place” in the nearest building? Is evacuation the only safe option?

The Legislature is holding a public hearing in the House Environmental Regulation Committee on a proposed law to help Texans get the critical information they need when toxic chemicals are released into our air and water.  The hearing is in the Texas Capitol Extension Room, E1.026 on Tuesday, March 28th at 8:00 AM

Urge the Legislature to move forward on the Toxic Chemical Emergency Alert System.

Ask the House Environmental Regulation Committee to support HB 1927.

The legislation, HB 1927, would establish a system to alert neighboring communities when a facility releases toxic chemicals.

People in the affected area would get notices on their phones about the chemicals released, what direction they are moving and how to stay safe.

The Toxic Alert Bill directs the State Emergency Response Commission to develop a statewide system to inform the public of chemical emergencies in a timely manner using a multi-media
approach, including traditional media, social media, and wireless emergency alerts.

This statewide system will eliminate patchwork local approaches and relieve local governments of the burden of developing and maintaining their own systems. Residents will be directed to a hyperlink, which will provide:

  • The geographic area impacted by the release
  • Information on symptoms that could require emergency medical treatment,
  • Directionality of plume movement,
  • The chemicals involved in and toxicity of the release,
    and
  • Instructions for protection from exposure to the release.

Just like the Amber Alerts for missing persons and emergency weather alerts available on our phones, the Toxic Chemical Emergency Alert System should be available to keep our communities safe.

A recent poll of Houston area residents shows that most people are concerned about air pollution and its impact on vulnerable populations. Furthermore, 92% support the creation of a public notification system similar to Amber alerts for leaks of hazardous chemicals. These alerts would warn residents via cellular phone of incidents and let them know what action to take to keep safe.
According to an investigative report published by the Houston Chronicle in 2016, an incident involving hazardous materials in the Houston area occurs about every six weeks.  Nationally, there have been more than 93 incidents involving hazardous chemicals since late 2015, killing 7 and injuring 573 people.

As you can see from the list and map below, the folks in the Houston area are more aware of the issue because of the frequency of such events, but you can see that other parts of the state also experience these types of toxic emergencies.

  • Oct. 2011:   Massive chemical fire at Magnablend facility, Waxahachie. Schoolchildren and neighbors evacuated.
  • Nov. 2012: Massive explosion & chemical fire at Nexeo chemical plant, Garland. Local area evacuated.
  • Apr. 2013: Chemical fire at East Texas Ag Supply, Athens. Hundreds of people evacuated.
  • May. 2014: Massive explosion & chemical fire at West Fertilizer, Co., West. Fifteen people dead and 160 injured.
  • Jan. 2015: Chlorine Spill at Magnablend facility, Waxahachie. Employees and neighbors evacuated.
  • Apr. 2015: Train derailment carrying flammable chemicals, Longview. Neighbors evacuated.
  • Aug. 2015: Massive fire at Century Industrial Coatings, Jacksonville. A neighboring business evacuated.
  • Jan. 2016: Explosion and fire at water treatment plant, Midland. One person dead, local residents evacuated.
  • Jan. 2016: Explosion at PeroxyChem, Pasadena. One person dead, three others injured.
  • Mar. 2016: Explosion at Pasadena Refining Systems, Inc., Pasadena. One person burned.
  • Apr. 2016: Explosion at LyondellBasell, SE Houston. Shelter in-place in SE Houston, including Chavez H.S., Deady Middle School, and Rucker Elementary School.
  • May 2016: Fire and chemical release in Spring Branch. Shelter-in-place. Fish, turtles, snakes, and frogs die from chemical spill.
  • Jun. 2016: Chemical leak & fire, Mont Belvieu. Dozens of people evacuated from their homes.
  • Jul. 2016: Asphalt fire, Century Asphalt Plant, Burnet. Dozens of residents evacuated.
  • Jul. 2016: Propylene leak, ExxonMobil Pipeline, Baytown. Local evacuation and shelter-in-place for nearby community.
  • Jul. 2016: Chemical Release at Pasadena Refining Systems, Inc., Pasadena. Heavy black smoke and sulfur dioxide release, shelter-in-place for Galena Park residents.
  • Aug. 2016: Explosion at Voluntary Purchasing Group, Bonham, woke up neighbors. A second explosion one month later injured 2 workers.
  • Aug. 2016: Fire at Hexion in Deer Park, shelter-in-place for neighborhoods in Deer Park.
  • Sept 2016: Chemical spill in Willow Marsh Bayou, Beaumont. Local shelter-in-place, killed over 1,400 fish, snakes, turtles, racoons, and birds.
  • Dec. 2016: A chemical leak contaminated the drinking water supply for Corpus Christi. A water ban was in effect for nearly 4 days, 7 unconfirmed illnesses associated with the drinking water.
  • Jan. 2017: Naphtha overfill at tank at Valero Texas City Refinery. Residents issues. No shelter in place alert was sent because “the incident happened in the middle of the night.”
  • Jan. 2017: Chemical fire and spill, El Paso. Residents complain to TCEQ amidst concerns of respiratory issues.
  • Mar 2017: Sodium hydrosulfide spill, Brownsville. One injured, evacuation downtown.

In 2014, Iowa implement the Alert Iowa System. Counties that did not already have a system like this in place could opt-in to the statewide system to ensure that Iowans are protected from severe weather, chemical spill, and other potential disasters. The statewide system in Iowa costs about $300,000 per year.

Texas already has a system in place that can send out these type of alerts. The system proposed here is designed to work with OEMs to support them based on their needs. The intention is not for the statewide system to override functional systems already in place.

If such a system saved lives or reduced job and school absenteeism as a result of exposure to toxic chemicals, it would be well worth the cost of extending our existing technology to put in place a toxic chemical emergency system.  Urge your Legislator to move forward on the Toxic Chemical Emergency Alert System.

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Public Citizen Honors Tom “Smitty” Smith

 

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After more than three decades of extraordinary work running Public Citizen’s Texas office, “Smitty,” formally known as Thomas Smith, is hanging up his spurs. Smitty is a Texas institution and a national treasure, and on February 1st, we celebrated him right.

Over 200 people attended a retirement dinner for Smitty at the Barr Mansion in Austin, TX on Wednesday evening.  Friends and colleagues from around the state who had work with Smitty on issues over his career that included clean energy, ethics reform, pollution mitigation, nuclear waste disposal, etc came to pay homage to a man who had dedicated his life to fighting for a healthier and more equitable world by making government work for the people and by defending democracy from corporate greed.

Mayor Adler and Council members Leslie Pool and Ann Kitchens

Travis County Commissioner Brigid Shea and Smitty

Dallas County Commissioner Dr. Theresa Daniel and Smitty

During the evening, Austin Mayor – Steve Adler, Travis County Commissioner – Brigid Shea, and Dallas County Commissioner – Dr. Theresa Daniel presented Smitty with resolutions passed by the City of Austin, Travis County Commissioners Court and Dallas County Commissioners Court all of which acknowledge Smitty’s contributions to their communities and the state of Texas.

 

 

 

Adrian Shelley (front left) and Rob Weissman (front right) at Tom “Smitty” Smith’s retirement event.

Public Citizen’s President, Robert Weissman, thanked Smitty for his service to Public Citizen for the past 31 years and introduced the new director for the Texas office, Adrian Shelley, the current Executive Director of Air Alliance Houston.

Smitty’ impending departure fromPublic Citizen will leave a big hole in advocacy for progressive issues here in Texas, but both Smitty and Robert Weissman expressed confidence that Adrian would lead the Texas office forward into a new era of progressive advocacy.  Adrian is a native Texan from the City of Houston. He has served as the Executive Director of Air Alliance Houston since 2013. He first worked with Air Alliance Houston as a legal fellow in 2010, then as a Community Outreach Coordinator in 2012. In that time, Public Citizen has worked closely with Air Alliance Houston through the Healthy Port Communities Coalition (HPCC), a coalition of nonprofits and community groups which advocates policies to improve public health and safety while encouraging economic growth.

So be assured that Adrian and the Texas staff of Public Citizen are committed to carrying on the battle for justice, for democracy, for air clean and  energy and for clean politics. We can and will protect our children and the generations to come. For this, we can still use your help.  You can make a tax deductible donation to the Texas office of Public Citizen to help us continue his vital work on climate, transportation, civil justice, consumer protection, ethics, campaign finance reform and more

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UPDATE: Happening now in Houston, until 8pm CT.  Go on Facebook to TEJAS’s page to watch.

https://www.facebook.com/TejasBarrios/videos/

Date:           Thursday, 11/17/2016
Location:  Hartman Community Center, 9311 East Ave. P. Houston, TX 77012
Time:          2:00 pm – 8:00 pm.

Join HPCC public health advocates at an EPA hearing about toxic air pollution from petroleum refineries!

(En español, mira aquí: http://airalliancehouston.org/wp-content/uploads/Spanish-EPA-Hearing-Flier.pdf)

The Environmental Protection Agency will hold a public hearing on the reconsideration of the Refinery Sector Rule for which EPA did not provide adequate opportunity for notice and comment. This rulemaking is the result of a lawsuit filed by Air Alliance Houston, Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services, Community In-Power and Development Association, and the Louisiana Bucket Brigade, who are collectively represented by Earthjustice.

This is is our only chance to tell EPA we are concerned about pollution from oil refineries and its impact on our health. This is the only public hearing EPA will hold anywhere in the country, and public comment will be taken for six hours, from 2-8 pm. We’d like EPA to hear from us and our allies in refinery communities throughout the entire hearing, so please sign up to speak today.

Join us in telling EPA:

  • Our health suffers from pollution from oil refineries.
  • Our children are particularly at risk from the health effects of air pollution.
  • Air pollution affects our lives where we live, work, and play.

Together we can demand a stronger rule to protect communities from air pollution. The refining industry must cut pollution by:

  • Reducing emissions from flares and pressure relief devices.
  • Eliminate pollution exemptions for malfunction and force majeure events.
  • Require fenceline monitoring at all times.

Air Alliance Houston will have fact sheets and talking points available at the hearing.
If you would like to present oral testimony at the hearing, please complete this form or notify Ms. Virginia Hunt no later than November 15, 2016, by email: [email protected] (preferred); or by telephone: (919) 541-0832.
Space will also be available that day if time slots are not all filled, on a first-come, first-serve basis.

Basic background on key issues from EPA:
https://www.epa.gov/stationary-sources-air-pollution/petroleum-refinery-sector-reconsideration-october-2016
Sign the Earthjustice petition: http://earthjustice.org/news/press/2016/community-and-environmental-groups-sue-the-epa-and-call-on-the-agency-to-remove-free-pass-to-pollute-from

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UPDATE: By 10 am this morning, the Sunset Commission had already voted on the recommendations they were going to adopt for the report to the legislature. 

All the STAFF good enforcement recommendations were adopted, and the recommendation (proposed by the Public Member on the Commisson, Allen West) on induced seismicity was adopted.

The name change recommendation was dropped as we heard it would be, as were the transfer of contested cases to the State Office of Administrative Hearings (SOAH).  The new issue proposed by Rep. Raymond, calling for bonding for cleaning up abandoned wells at the last hearing fell by the wayside. Raymond did not even bring up his proposals.

The things we do support on enforcement will be in the bill when it’s introduced during the 85th Legislative session, but we expect that it may be a fight to keep them in.

Thursday, November 10th, the Texas Sunset Commission will meet to vote on recommendations to the 85th Legislature regarding the future of the Texas Railroad Commission.  Three times the Legislature has failed to pass a bill reauthorizing and making changes to this agency. 

We are asking that you contact the Sunset Commissioners and tell them to support staff recommendations plus Raymond and West’s new issues as outlined below.  For Sunset Commissioners’ contact information, click here. or contact your state rep and state senator to urge the Sunset Commission to support these recommendations. Find out who represents you here.

A coalition of environmental groups, including Public Citizen, have been following the Sunset review of the Railroad Commission and they are in agreement about supporting staff recommendations and new issues raised by Texas Sunset Commission Members – Representatives Dan Flynn,  Richard Peña Raymond, and public member LTC (Ret.) Allen B. West – to increase transparency, improve safeguards and protect the public.  It is time for more than a name change on failed agency! 

For a full version of the recommendations click here.

Issue 1 – Continue the Railroad Commission of Texas for 12 Years with a Name That Reflects the Agency’s Important Functions. (Page 11)

Change in Statute

Rec. 1.1 (Page 17) Change the name of the Railroad Commission of Texas to the Texas Energy Resources Commission and continue the agency for 12 years.

We support this change. On the eve of another election where most voters had no idea what the Railroad Commission does, and where industry supplied some 70 percent of the funding to those running, changing the name is a needed first step. We also believe that the Commission should only be continued for 6 years.

Issue 2 – Contested Hearings and Gas Utility Oversight Are Not Core Commission Functions and Should Be Transferred to Other Agencies to Promote Efficiency, Effectiveness, Transparency, and Fairness. (Page 19)

Representative Raymond Proposed Modification

Under this modification to Recommendations 2.1, 2.2, and 2.3, the Commission would contract with the State Office of Administrative Hearings (SOAH) to conduct the Commission’s hearings for contested permit and enforcement cases and Gas Utility Oversight would be transferred to the Public Utility Commission (PUC), with potential to contest the rates at SOAH. In conducting hearings, the PUC and SOAH would consider the Commission’s applicable substantive rules and policies.

We are in full support of Issue 2 and the transfer of these functions from RRC to SOAH and PUC, but do agree that the applicable rules and policies related to these issues should be considered in that transfer, as recommended by Representative Raymond.

Issue 3 – Oil and Gas Monitoring and Enforcement Need Improvements to Effectively Ensure Public Safety and Environmental Protection.

Rep. Flynn Modification: Also direct the agency to provide oil and gas production information on its website in a format that is easier for royalty owners to use and understand.

We Support these Sunset Staff recommendations on Enforcement, as well as Rep. Flynn’s proposed modification.

Issue 4 – Insufficient and Inequitable Statutory Bonding Requirements Contribute to the Large Backlog of Abandoned Wells. (Page 43)

We support this change to assure that oil and gas wells pay their fair share in upfront bonding costs.

Issue 5 – Improved Oversight of Texas’ Pipeline Infrastructure Would Help Further Ensure Public Safety. (Page 51)

We support these proposed statutory and appropriations modifications.

Issue 6 – The Railroad Commission’s Contracting Procedures Are Improving, but Continued Attention Is Needed. (Page 55)

We support these proposed management actions.

Issue 7 – The Railroad Commission’s Statute Does Not Reflect Standard Elements of Sunset Reviews. (Page 59)

We support these proposed changes.

Proposed New Issues

Vice Chair Taylor Proposed New Issue 1

Direct the Railroad Commission to study, develop, and implement ways to clean up and revive old oil fields for secondary and tertiary recovery using either the unitization method or other legal means which the Commission may develop or recommend. As part of this recommendation, the Railroad Commission shall consult with the Bureau of Economic Geology. (Management action — nonstatutory)

We have not taken a position on this recommendation.

Colonel West Proposed New Issue 2

Direct the Railroad Commission to incorporate findings from the TexNet Seismic Monitoring Program at UT’s Bureau of Economic Geology as they become available into its oil and gas disposal well rules or guidance, as applicable. The rules should seek to prevent any induced seismicity caused by disposal wells. (Management action — nonstatutory)

We are in full support. Utilizing the information that is being collected to develop more protective rules and procedures makes sense.

Representative Raymond Proposed New Issue 3

Amend RRC’s statute to require the agency to publish comprehensive oil and gas enforcement data (complaints, inspections, violations, enforcement actions taken, and penalties levied/collected) online, in a publicly accessible, searchable, trackable format. Make data available by operator and on a well-by-well basis and by bulk download.

We are in full support of this recommendation. We would note this could also be accomplished as a management action by direction of the Director to publish this information on-line.

Representative Raymond Proposed New Issue 4

Management recommendation to direct RRC to: review all relevant rules on spill reporting and response, and make changes to increase environmental protection and cleanup during flooding, such as specifying time frames for responding to spills; clarify its rules, so that both oil and gas spills and other spills like brine, produced water, or fracking fluid are also reported, tracked, and cleaned up; and report these spills and the results of any cleanup effort in an accessible way, either directly on its website or by sharing the information with TCEQ as part of its joint work on spills. (Management action — nonstatutory)

We are in full support. This is considerable confusion about reporting and clean-up requirements, particularly in the event of floods.

Representative Raymond Proposed New Issue 5

Amend Chapter 26 of the Texas Water Code to require operators that treat “domestic wastewater” or “mobile drinking water treatment system wastewater” at oil and gas well drill sites to obtain a permit from TCEQ instead of RRC.

We are in support. TCEQ is the appropriate agency to assure water is cleaned up to the appropriate level.

Representative Raymond Proposed New Issue 6

Improve inspection, regulation, and reporting of injection wells by: either removing the specific permit fee amount in Chapter 27, allowing the Commission to set a more reasonable amount, or raising it to $1,000 (Change in statute); requiring RRC to require monthly reporting of liquid injection in all disposal wells and make the information publicly accessible (Change in statute); and directing RRC to conduct a comprehensive review of its rules and programs regarding oil and gas disposal wells, and consider changes related to casing and cementing, aquifer exemptions, notice and public participation, seismic activity, and wastewater reporting and tracking. (Management action — nonstatutory)

We are in support of both the management and statutory changes. Permit fees for disposal wells are too low and the rules should be reexamined to assure proper notice, and proper safeguards.

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IMG_1653Around 10:10 AM on Sunday July 17th, a pipeline leaked propylene in the community of Baytown, TX, near the ExxonMobil Baytown refinery. Propylene is a dense, colorless gas that is considered non-toxic but flammable. The pipeline leak highlights some of the challenges associated with emergency response along within the Houston region.

At 10:30 AM, according to the Houston Chronicle, three houses were evacuated and all others within the vicinity of the leak were told to shelter in place. The emergency response was mixed. Residents who signed up for city notifications through Baytown Alert were apparently notified by phone and by email around 10:30 AM about the order to shelter-in-place. Yet some confusion remained – who exactly did the shelter-in-place include? What had happened, and what kind of chemical was released – something flammable or something toxic? Should residents downwind be concerned?

The CAER line, which is supported by the East Harris County Manufacturers Association, provides a hotline for Harris County residents to call to obtain more information regarding emergency situations. During the incident on Sunday, several people known to us called CAER to hear the messages it posted regarding the situation. It is unclear how quickly the first message regarding the incident was posted to CAER; a Baytown resident stated that it took about an hour following the incident before CAER posted a message. On Sunday at 1:05 PM, there were no current messages, even though the shelter-in-place had not yet been lifted. At 2:30 PM, CAER’s message stated that a propylene leaked resulted in the shelter-in-place warning. The City of Baytown reported via twitter that the shelter-in-place had been lifted at 2:38 PM. At 3:30 PM, CAER’s message line mentioned the leak without any mention of a shelter-in-place. Around 4:20 PM there were no current messages on the CAER line.

Although the City of Baytown notified residents of the shelter-in-place, the residents we spoke with never received the all clear and were not informed when the shelter-in-place had been lifted either via siren or via email and phone. In fact, it is unclear if sirens were used to communicate the shelter-in-place, which is an important way to inform people who may be visiting the area or who may not have access to other technology. Many questions remain unanswered and the Healthy Ports Community Coalition (HPCC) is actively researching to fully understand the emergency response.

The HPCC is also proposing a system like an amber alert system to make use of our modern technology so that residents can be informed immediately when emergency evacuations or a shelter-in-place is called for, notified when it is all clear to return to normal, and they can be instructed specifically on what steps to take to keep themselves and their families safe and healthy. In this case, Baytown residents were lucky that the chemical leaked was not deemed toxic and that no one suffered any known health impacts from the leak. HPCC is working to keep residents safe and informed for when the next incident happens.

hpcc

 

The Healthy Port Communities Coalition is growing a strong base of well-informed and active local residents who engage public and private stakeholders directly on priority issues including jobs, pollution, health, neighborhood safety, and economic opportunities.

 

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No Idling Sign photo from SetonBexar County has joined the other 44 communities in the state of Texas limiting idling by heavy vehicles. The primary reasoning for the ordinance to try to avoid ground level ozone levels that warrant non-attainment status for the county by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Nitrogen oxides (NOx) emissions from vehicles combine with volatile organic compounds (VOC) in the air to create ground level ozone, which can cause or worsen respiratory diseases, such as asthma.

Non-attainment status refers to “any area that does not meet (or that contributes to ambient air quality in a nearby area that does not meet) the national primary or secondary ambient air quality standard for the pollutant.” The county’s decision to limit emissions via prohibiting idling is logical because the decision limits emissions from those passing through the county rather than limiting emissions by its residents. Non-attainment status is established by the Clean Air Act and has multiple consequences that act as incentive to reduce ozone levels that affect the health of a county’s citizens. Consequences include loss of federal highway funding and EPA oversight over air pollution permits. While this measure is not expected to keep Bexar County in compliance once the new ground level ozone standard goes into effect, it will help.

Trucks idling -Idling limits for heavy vehicles are also important because most of them are diesel fueled and produce particulate mater that is harmful to health. The very small particles in diesel exhaust are composed of elemental carbon, which absorbs other compounds and caries them deep into your lungs. Diesel particulate matter is linked to respiratory and cardiovascular diseases and is potential human carcinogen.

The Bexar County decision follows after Houston, the state’s largest city, approved a similar ordinance that limits vehicles weighing more than 14,000 pounds to five minutes of idling. Heavy vehicles include semi-trailer trucks and school buses. Idling school buses are of particular concern because children are especially vulnerable to the impacts from diesel exhaust.  The Bexar County court order allows buses to idle for up to 30 minutes though. The order also includes many other exemptions and should be revisited in the future to better protect public health.

Idling limitations are protected by the Locally Enforced Vehicle Idling Limitations Rule, established by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. The rule limits the idling of heavy vehicles of jurisdictions that have signed a Memorandum of Agreement with the TECQ for the local enforcement of idling restrictions. The Locally Enforced Vehicle Idling Limitations Rule was established in 2005 and with the addition of Bexar County, 45 communities have adopted idling limitations. The city of San Antonio is also set approve a similar measure later this month.

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Today, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released a final rule to reduce methane emissions from the oil and gas sector.

Today’s announcement of a regulation designed to monitor and capture methane emissions from not-yet-built oil and gas operations is an important step for the U.S. to combat climate change in the decades to come. But under this rule, methane emissions from existing oil and gas operations will remain unmonitored and uncontrolled.

The EPA’s March announcement of an Information Collection Request to poll the industry as to the feasibility of monitoring and controlling emissions from existing operations will take years, and it could be years before a final rule that applies to existing operations is developed. The climate simply can’t wait that long. The EPA can and should start working on a rule to cover existing methane emissions now.

Research into one of America’s two major oil fracking sites found that the Bakken Shale is leaking 275,000 tons of methane annually. As a greenhouse gas, methane is 87 times more harmful than carbon dioxide. The oil and gas industry has a responsibility to begin monitoring and reducing emissions from existing sources immediately – and the public has the right to expect the EPA to do as much.

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Today, Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts rejected a plea to stay or enjoin further operation of the Mercury and Air Toxics rule.  This is a big victory for the Obama administration, the EPA and environmentalists.

Roberts’s order came despite his court’s 5-4 decision last year ruling that the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) regulation, known as the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards, is illegal, and he acted swiftly, waiting less than a day after the EPA’s response brief to side with the Obama administration. Furthermore, Roberts acted unilaterally, electing to reject the request himself rather than take it to the full court, which may have led to a 4-4 split following Justice Antonin Scalia’s death.

The mercury pollution standards, made final in 2012, are a separate regulation from the more controversial and costly carbon dioxide limits for power plants that are also being litigated in court.

The Supreme Court put an unprecedented halt to the carbon rule, known as the Clean Power Plan, last month by a 5-4 vote, when Roberts chose to let the full court vote on the matter. Thursday’s action by Roberts is completely separate from that case and the EPA says it plans to finalize a fix to the rule to retroactively apply its cost-benefit analysis in the way the Supreme Court said was necessary by next month which should move the rule forward toward protecting public health.

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Republicans have been waging a war against public health regulations in the United States for longer than I’ve been alive. One of the latest worrisome developments in this trend is the push-back from many conservative states, Texas among them, against the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) new standards regarding ground-level ozone, otherwise known as smog.

When the last revision of ozone standards was completed in 2008, the standard, at 75 parts per billion (ppb), was set to allow much higher levels of pollution than many environmental and public safety groups felt was necessary to protect the public well-being. The panel in charge of advising the EPA on the new standard, the Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee (CASAC), unanimously recommended a standard between 60 and 70 ppb. However, the Administrator of the EPA at the time was appointed by President Bush, served conservative interests, and chose to adopt 75 ppb instead.

Now, thankfully, under the new regulations finalized in October of 2015, states will have to meet a standard of 70 ppb after the CASAC again recommended a standard between 60 and 70 ppb. With the difficult political climate right now, it’s clear the EPA believed that adopting the least aggressive option while still improving public health would meet with the least resistance. However, it has met considerable resistance from the current Congress, as 10 bills have been introduced attempting to delay the implementation of these standards, with some bills even attempting to prohibit funding the EPA.

The estimated cost of implementing the new 70 ppb standard is $1.4 billion, whereas choosing a standard of 65 ppb would have raised the cost of implementation to $16 billion. States have until 2020 to reach 70 ppb, with the most polluted areas allowed as long until 2037 to reach attainment. This should be a win for Republicans, so it’s difficult to understand the current rhetoric being thrown around by those who are objecting to the new standard. Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton claimed in a press release “The EPA’s new ozone rule is not supported by scientific data” and then went on to complain that it will require “costly new regulations that will harm our economy and kill jobs.”

These are ridiculous assertions. Here’s why:

Firstly, a brief outline of the process for reviewing Ozone NAAQS (standards) should be enough to refute the claim that there is no science behind the rule: Federal EPA scientists reviewed 2,300 scientific studies to complete the preliminary Integrated Science Assessment. After the EPA prepared a Risk and Exposure Assessment to identify at-risk populations and health impacts, a Policy Assessment summarized the information in the previous two documents and provide the EPA Administrator with policy options.

Then, as required under the Clean Air Act, an independent scientific advisory panel, the CASAC, was formed to review the entire process. The panel members are generally from academia and private research institutions. Leading experts on health and environmental effects of specific pollutants are then regularly called in to supplement the panel’s considerable scientific knowledge.
Secondly, the health benefits were estimated between $2.9 billion and $5.9 billion, clearly outweighing the $1.4 billion cost. The projected health benefits come in the form of less heart and lung diseases and a reduction in premature deaths. Most notably, 320 to 660 premature deaths could be avoided with adoption of these new regulations, which account for 94 to 98 percent of the EPA’s total monetized benefits of the new standards.

child_inhalerUnder the new standards we can prevent:
• 11,000 cases of upper and lower respiratory symptoms
• 230,000 cases of exacerbated asthma
• 188,000 days when people miss school or work from illness related to smog
• 340 cases of acute bronchitis
• 960 hospital admissions and emergency room visits

To say that these costly regulations will not be worth the benefits is to say that one does not care about or value human life or quality of human life.

Republicans have been fighting for the right to disregard human life, environmental health and EPA regulations for a long time. Most recently, the 112th Congress attempted to pass legislation that would have required the EPA to take costs into consideration when setting standards. As it is now, the EPA is supposed to place public and environmental health above economic costs. The current Congress has again introduced legislation requiring the EPA to take costs into account when setting future standards.

In their 2015 brief on the new Ozone NAAQs, the Congressional Research Service highlights eight of the ten plus bills that have been introduced by the current Congress that attempt to delay or prevent implementation of the new standards. Texas is spearheading the effort to subvert the EPA, with four of the highlighted bills coming from Texas Representatives. All the eight bills are backed by Republicans. North Texas Representative Sam Johnson, introduced legislation that would “provide no funds made available under any act may be used by EPA to implement any ozone standard.” On top of that, Texas is suing the EPA, in an attempt to overturn the new ozone standards.  It is clear that this lawsuit and these many legislative attacks are acts of Republican disbelief in science and disregard for public health.

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From Gasland: The Movie - http://www.gaslandthemovie.com/whats-fracking/faq/methane-levels

From Gasland: The Movie – http://www.gaslandthemovie.com/whats-fracking/faq/methane-levels

On Monday, February 1, 2016 from 11:00 am – 6:00 pm EST, EPA’s Science Advisory Board (SAB)’s Hydraulic Fracturing Research Advisory Panel will hold a public teleconference to review and discuss the Panel’s first draft of the peer review report regarding SAB’s review of EPA’s Hydraulic Fracturing Drinking Water Assessment.

EPA will use the comments from the SAB, along with the comments from members of the public, to evaluate how to augment and revise the draft assessment. The final assessment will also reflect relevant literature published since the release of the draft assessment.

To participate in the meeting and view meeting materials, visit SAB’s website.

 

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Happy Holidays to All

Texas director, Tom "Smitty" Smith accepting a proclamation from City of Austin Mayor, Steve Adler.

Texas director, Tom “Smitty” Smith accepting a proclamation from City of Austin Mayor, Steve Adler.

Last Friday, the Texas office of Public Citizen celebrated the holidays, 30 years of its work in Texas and had an open house at our new offices located at 309 E 11th Street, in Austin, TX.  The event was attended by several hundred people.  Mayor Adler, Jim Hightower and Representative Elliott Naishtat all spoke about the good work Public Citizen has done in Texas.  Mayor Adler’s proclamation says it all.  Click here to see the proclamation.

If you wish to make a donation toward the work of the Texas office, click here.

 

 

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