EPA crackdown on Texas air quality process leaves Crossroads up in the air
June 21, 2010 at 1:21 a.m.
The Environmental Protection Agency stopped last month a Texas agency from giving an operating permit to a Corpus Christi oil refinery.
It was the first action the agency took to get Texas plants and oil refineries to meet federal air quality requirements, said Dave Bary, a spokesman for the federal agency.
So just how will this affect Texas and the Crossroads? The answer is still up in the air, experts say.
Environmentalists and federal officials say they hope that by cracking down on some of the largest sources of harmful emissions, air quality in Texas will improve.
Business leaders, meanwhile, worry stricter regulations could increase operating costs and thus reduce jobs.
"It's premature to even guess where this may lead," Bary said. "What we're hoping ... is to sit down with the state, continue our discussions and come to an agreement that will allow the state to continue to issue permits, but fully in compliance with the requirements of the Clean Air Act."
The question is whether the state's flexible permits, which set a plant-wide cap rather than source-specific limits, meets minimum requirements of the Clean Air Act. The Environmental Protection Agency says it does not.
It's a lax permitting system put in place by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality that air quality expert and environmentalist Neil Carman says contributes to the public health hazard that is ozone pollution.
OZONE STANDARD TIGHTENED
In 2006, the Environmental Protection Agency enlisted the help of a panel of ozone experts to review the agency's research.
In a 2007 letter, the panel recommended the agency reduce the ozone standard, which was 80 parts per billion then, to somewhere in the range of 60 to 70 parts per billion. The next year, a new standard was announced: 75 parts per billion.
The panel wrote the outgoing environmental agency administrator of the Bush administration again in 2008:
"It is the committee's consensus scientific opinion that your decision to set the primary ozone standard above this range fails to satisfy the explicit stipulations of the Clean Air Act that you ensure an adequate margin of safety for all individuals, including sensitive populations."
In January, the EPA, under new administrator Lisa Jackson, announced the new federal standard would be reduced to the recommended range. The official standard will be announced Aug. 31.
Carman said the panel's recommendations have set off more action on ozone. Before 2008's reduction, the ozone standard had not been lowered since 1997.
But if Texas's permitting system remained in place, it would allow plants to circumvent these federal requirements, Carman, who works with the Texas chapter of the Sierra Club, said.
"Major areas of the TCEQ's air permitting program have some flaws in them," Carman said.
Carman said the environmental group sought changes to the state's air permitting program since 1995.
Air pollution became an even greater cause for concern when new scientific research emerged pointing to more severe health effects from ozone, Carman said.
"There's new scientific medical research showing that ozone damages sensitive lungs, like asthmatics and children, at 75 parts per billion," Carman said.
Texas Gov. Rick Perry chided the federal agency for killing Texas energy jobs and a state air permitting program that he said has helped clean Texas air for 16 years.
Last Tuesday, the federal agency asked more facilities to bypass the state permitting program and apply for a federal permit.
The state responded by filing a lawsuit against the agency.
Dale Fowler, president of the Victoria Economic Development Corp., said more stringent standards could force refineries and plants to buy more expensive equipment used to abate and monitor emissions.
Further, facilities could face the prospect of halting operations if they fall out of regulatory standards and have to resubmit federal permits. The effect on area jobs could be significant.
The government also limits industrial expansion in areas that fall out of attainment for the ozone standard. Local businesses, such as gas stations, could also face government sanctions. Victoria is one of several areas at risk of becoming a non-attainment area when a reduced ozone standard is announced in August.
"We currently use it as an advantage for this area that we are in an attainment area," Fowler said. "However, even in non-attainment areas industry can grow."
The possible federalization of the permitting program could also create problems for the plants and refineries applying for new permits.
"We'd have to start from scratch again," Steve Rice, a Formosa spokesman, said. "And that's a lot of time and effort to prepare and re-submit brand new applications for something that we have already done."
He added, "You just don't fill these out in an afternoon. These are weeks and weeks of people's efforts."
Rice hopes the issue between the state and federal governments is resolved soon, so the plant can begin re-submitting its applications, he said.
Mike Fields, a spokesman for Coleto Creek Power, said coal plants are less exposed to federal changes than are chemical plants and oil refineries, which are typically larger and have more sources of emissions.
Flexible permits allow plants to cover all their emissions sources under one plant-wide cap, Fields said.
So where flexible permits set a cap for the entire facility, standard air permits, such as the one the Coleto Creek power plant holds, set source-specific emissions caps, measuring emissions at boilers, fire pumps and other units in the plant.
While adhering to conditions set in flexible permits is "easier," Fields said, the plant takes the precaution of applying for the standard permits.
"We don't want to have any issues come up when you go through the permitting process," he said.
But for smaller plants like Coleto Creek Power, being under a standard permit is a little bit more practical than it is for oil refineries and chemical plants.
"It certainly can be done," he said regarding what it would take for larger plants to meet federal air permit requirements. "It would take a lot of work."
While many hope the outcome of stricter regulation of Texas plants is cleaner air, the effect on air quality is still unclear, said Jerry James, Victoria's environmental services director.
For 15 years, Victoria has been near non-attainment for ozone levels.
Victoria is at risk of falling out of acceptable levels mostly because of pollution imported from other areas, a University of Texas researcher said at an air quality meeting in April.
Calls made to the University of Texas office of Cyril Durrenberger, who is contracted by the city to measure ozone emissions, were not returned.
According to the researchers' modeling studies, 91 percent of Victoria's ozone emanates from outside Victoria County.
Most of Victoria's ozone problems come from the northeast, ranging from the industrial areas of Houston and Galveston, to Louisiana and the Ohio River Valley.
Area chemical plants are not significant contributors to the ozone problem, according to the studies.
Last year, ozone levels in Victoria were at 66 parts per billion.
Because transport is a big part of Victoria's ozone problem, it's unknown whether hunkering down on Texas plants will clean the Crossroads' air.
"Until it works its way a little bit further along, I'm not sure whether it will have a positive or negative impact on our local air quality," Jerry James said. "But we'll certainly be watching that."