Last week, the citizens of Pasadena joined with environmental and public health advocates in a public hearing on Pasadena Refining. The hearing was a huge success, with two-dozen commenters unanimously voicing their concern about the refinery and supporting of our efforts to clean it up. (More about the hearing here, here, and here.) If the EPA and TCEQ will act on our recommendations, we can protect the people of Pasadena from pollution.
The public hearing included a statement from the company, a Q&A with representatives from both the company and TCEQ, and a formal public comment opportunity. During the Q&A, several common themes and concerns emerged.
Pasadena Refining allowed its permit to expire.
It is very uncommon for a refinery to allow a federal operating (Title V) permit to expire. Without a Title V, Pasadena Refining is actually operating illegally. Several commenters asked how the company could be so careless as to allow its permit to lapse.
Pasadena Refining representatives explained that they did not realize that their permit was due until the day before it expired. The company attempted to track its many permits using “a big piece of paper” that served as a calendar of permit deadlines. This method proved ineffective. The TCEQ eventually mailed Pasadena Refining a notice that its permit was due.
Ilan Levin, attorney for the Environmental Integrity Project (who worked with Air Alliance Houston to file comments on the permit and request the public hearing), pointed out that the proposed Title V permit was far too cumbersome and confusing. Mr. Levin said that the purpose of a Title V permit was to consolidate permit terms and pollution limits in one place. If an experienced environmental attorney such as Mr. Levin cannot read the permit to determine the limits, then the permit is not working. This is a compelling argument, strengthened by the fact that Pasadena Refining itself wasn’t able to keep up with its many permits.
Pasadena Refining has not proposed adequate monitoring.
Pasadena Refining has a long history of violations of pollution standards for soot (particulate matter), sulfur compounds, and volatile organic compounds. Particular emissions points such as the fluidized catalytic cracking unit and the sulfur recovery unit are habitual violators. Questioners asked how the company would monitor these and other units to ensure that Pasadena Refining no longer violate the law.
Company representatives answered that the facility has dozens of “continuous emissions monitoring systems” (CEMS) in operation. But the facility has thousands of emissions points, and not all of them are continuously monitored. Perhaps the most telling evidence of the company’s inability to monitor for pollution limits is its habitual violation of pollution standards. At the public hearing, commenters were not convinced that the permit was adequate to monitor for future violations. In fact, the company was experiencing an illegal pollution event during the public hearing.
The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality has not held Pasadena Refining accountable.
Comments and questions directed at representatives from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) ask whether and how the state regulatory agency was holding this habitual violator accountable. Several commenters questioned the TECQ’s “compliance history” rating system, which classifies Pasadena Refining as “satisfactory.” Questioners asked how effective this compliance history rating could be if it categorized a notorious polluter as “satisfactory.” TCEQ officials responded that the compliance history rating system was a simple formula applied to all polluters. The formula dictated the rating and TCEQ had no discretion to change it. Many commenters questioned the usefulness of this rating system. (Indeed, Air Alliance Houston and others have long been critical of the compliance history system, which classifies fully 80% of polluters in Texas as “satisfactory.”)
Further, commenters alleged that the TCEQ favored Pasadena Refining throughout the hearing. Our friends at t.e.j.a.s. pointed out that TCEQ seemed to have ready answers for any question about the company or the facility, but was not able to answer questions about the public participation and permitting processes.
The people of Pasadena will be heard.
Many with experience in this field commented that a large crowd at a Title V permit hearing was very unusual. Even a Title V hearing itself is quite rare. A TCEQ official I spoke with told me that in eighteen years on the job he had attended perhaps only three Title V hearings in his career.
At this hearing, there was a full house. Half of the commenters were neighbors of the facility who did not speak English and spoke through an interpreter. We knew that we would see large local turnout for the hearing, so we called TCEQ weeks in advance to request translation services. Through our efforts, many people attended who would have otherwise been unable to participate.
This is a serious and recurring issue in environmental justice communities. Many people in low-income communities of color live in so-called “linguistic isolation,” meaning that do not speak English at home. This isolation is a major barrier to participation in civic life.
In a future post, we’ll talk more about how we worked with our partners in Pasadena to make local voices heard. As you can see, the issues that were raised cast serious doubt on whether this permit will hold Pasadena Refining accountable.