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A group of Texas environmental groups say the federal Environmental Protection Agency looked the other way when Texas didn’t require tough-enough rules on air pollution for several refineries, gas plants and chemical plants.
The Environmental Integrity Project, along with other Texas environmental groups, filed a lawsuit against EPA administrator Andrew Wheeler on Monday after he did not respond to a petition by the groups to correct what they say is a violation of federal law in Texas.
“For too long, EPA has turned a blind eye as Texas has routinely violated the federal Clean Air Act by rubber-stamping weak permits for the state’s biggest polluters,” said Gabriel Clark-Leach, senior attorney for the Environmental Integrity Project, which filed the action.
A spokesperson for the EPA, Angela Hackel, declined to comment on the lawsuit.
Environmental groups are concerned about eight air pollution permits issued to facilities in Texas including, for example, a Phillips 66 refinery in north Texas. Phillips 66 did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Environmental groups say the permits issued by the state to curb smog pollution from the facilities are not as strong as the Clean Air Act requires, potentially hurting the health of those who live nearby — including one plaintiff in the lawsuit, Neta Rhyne, who lives in West Texas' Reeves County.
"This is a problem that’s getting worse, not better and, as a lung cancer survivor, I fear for my health and well-being every time I walk outside and breathe the polluted air," Rhyne said in a statement on the lawsuit.
Neighborhoods near industrial facilities are often majority Black and Latino in Texas due to the legacy of government-imposed segregation and wealth inequality, which in turn has resulted in disproportionate health impacts from air pollution for Black and Latino residents. One study by University of Washington and University of Minnesota researchers found that Black and Hispanic populations experience more than 50 percent more pollution than they generate, while white populations experience 17 percent less pollution than they generate.
The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality issues permits for air pollution from equipment at large industrial facilities, such as refineries and chemical plants, that should adhere to the Clean Air Act. But Clark-Leach said the permits Texas issues to limit major equipment pollution are unclear about what the pollution limits are and lack necessary monitoring requirements to ensure compliance. That makes it impossible for the public to know whether facilities near them are following the rules, he said.
The groups petitioned the EPA to step in and require the TCEQ to strengthen its permits, a legal process to force states into compliance with federal regulations. The EPA allegedly did not respond to the petitions within the required time, prompting the lawsuit.
The TCEQ, the state’s environmental agency, said it could not comment on the lawsuit at this time because it has only had a day to review it.
The Environmental Integrity Project filed a similar suit over Texas permits in 2017 — Clark-Leach said the problem is “pervasive” throughout Texas. The group was successful at that time in getting the EPA to negotiate the permits with the state, but as long as Texas keeps issuing what the groups say are weak permits, Clark-Leach said the EPA will need to step in.
“Texas’ process is flawed and doesn’t ensure compliance,” Clark-Leach said. “We were able to get some good decisions on those issues under Trump, and we are hopeful the Biden Administration will squarely take on the problem.”