Background: What the controversy is all about
On May 25, 2010, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) barred the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) from issuing a permit to a refinery in Corpus Christi. EPA said that the process used to justify that permit violated the Clean Air Act. EPA’s Region 6 Administrator, Al Armendariz, also stated that the EPA would block future permits and force polluters to comply with EPA standards if the TCEQ did not change its rules. On June 14th, EPA announced it was taking over the process for two additional air-quality permits
At issue are two types of air permits used in Texas – one known as a “flex permit” and one known as a “plant-wide applicability limit.” In both cases, instead of issuing permits that limit pollution from each individual point-source (e.g. a smokestack), TCEQ limits pollution for entire facilities, allowing operators to emit more pollution from one stack if another stack was emitting less. Studies indicate that there would be greater emission reductions if limits were done on a stack-by-stack basis.
These permits make enforcement extremely difficult at vast petrochemical and refining facilities. They also fail to protect people from emission clouds that can occur as a result of letting one stack emit more than would be allowed under the Clean Air Act.
Suppressed reports add fuel to the fire
The flex permit controversy had been brewing for some time as EPA and TCEQ battled behind closed doors, secretly playing a game of chicken with air pollution regulations. Meanwhile, another controversy was broiling beneath the surface in Fort Worth. Elected officials from the area felt they were getting the run-around from TCEQ when they asked whether natural gas drilling and processing on the Barnett Shale was putting residents’ health at risk.
On June 1st, TCEQ admitted they had failed to divulge (i.e. suppressed) reports showing elevated benzene levels in the area. In a statement, Mark Vickery said TCEQ “missed an opportunity” to “bolster their confidence in the quality of the air.” In reality, TCEQ knowingly presented inaccurate air-quality information to leaders and decision makers for months. Soon after, TCEQ admitted that 3 additional air-quality reports had not been made public. (more…)