Shut down the shutdowns: What the frequency of excess emissions means for our health

Oil refineries and petrochemical plants released millions of pounds of harmful chemicals into the air in the days after Hurricane Harvey began charging toward Texas.

The primary reason for the extra pollution? The shutdowns and startups of dozens of industrial facilities in the storm’s path.

While these unauthorized releases are particularly striking during times of natural disasters like Harvey, they occur regularly during the routine operation of many industrial facilities, Indiana University researchers concluded in the journal Environmental Science & Technology.

Here are three takeaways from the study:

Startups and shutdowns are big pollution events

The study examines industry’s reports of unauthorized pollution to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, or TCEQ, from 2002 to 2016. These releases occur when pollution controls, such as scrubbers and flares, do not fully operate during startups, shutdowns and malfunctions. Even if unintended or unavoidable, the extra pollution is in violation of federal law.

In a dramatic case, the Total refinery in Port Arthur released nearly 3 million pounds of sulfur dioxide within 56 hours in 2003 because of a power outage caused by a lightning strike. That was almost twice the amount of sulfur dioxide that the refinery emitted from routine operations that year, the researchers found.

The health damages are significant

The types of extra pollutants depend on the industrial facility, but they include cancer-causing benzene and nitrogen oxides that contribute to the formation of lung-damaging ozone, or smog.

The researchers estimate that health damages attributable to unauthorized pollution in Texas averaged $150 million between 2004 and 2015. Yet they acknowledge that the estimates are conservative because they only consider premature deaths linked to airborne particulate matter. They do not account for damages from other pollutants or from nonfatal problems, such as asthma attacks.

We can do better

In 2017, our partners Environmental Integrity Project and Environment Texas found that TCEQ penalized industry for less than 3 percent of unauthorized pollution releases over the previous five years. The commission’s unwillingness to hold industry accountable for these episodes essentially gives plant operators a pass to pollute, putting human health at risk.

We want strict and consistent enforcement of pollution limits. We also want the state to stagger startups and shutdowns in response to storms in order to minimize the cumulative impacts of pollution on the public. If you agree, please sign our letter to Gov. Abbott that demands stronger protections.

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This post originally appeared on the One Breath Partnership blog.

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