Texas Regulators Turn a Blind Eye to Air Polluters, According to New Report

Emissions billow out of a smokestack. - VIA FLICKR USER RIBARNICA
Via Flickr user ribarnica
Emissions billow out of a smokestack.
San Antonio-area industrial plants spewed nearly 133,000 pounds of pollution into the air in 2017 without regulatory approval, according to a new research report by Environment Texas.

The Austin-based watchdog group this week issued a 43-page report on Texas' air quality, urging the Legislature to crack down on violators and close a loophole that lets the state's top environmental regulator give polluters what, in many cases, amounts to a free pass on unauthorized emissions.

“Air pollution is making people sick, especially children, senior citizens and people with respiratory problems,” said Emma Pabst, clean energy associate with Environment Texas. “The data show that polluters routinely violate the law, but [the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality] too often lets them off the hook. We need to crack down on illegal pollution and make our air safe to breathe.”

In 2017, human error, equipment failures and other gaffes at Texas industrial facilities released 64 million pounds of pollutants into the air. San Antonio's output accounted for only a fraction of that total, and despite the city's size, it only ranked as the state's 12th-worst region for such discharges.

Even so, Environment Texas warned that the emissions make it harder for the San Antonio to edge back from its violation of federal clean air rules. Last year, the feds ruled the area is in "non-attainment," meaning it now faces restrictions on new highway construction and factory expansions.

In the report, Environment Texas called on the Legislature to close a loophole known as an “affirmative defense” that lets polluters escape fines for unauthorized emissions by filing paperwork. The Environmental Protection Agency has directed Texas to stop allowing the defense, an order the state's now fighting in court.

During the past seven years, TCEQ filed enforcement orders on fewer than 3 percent of the total number of emissions events it recorded around the state, according to the report. The frequency of its enforcement actions has also been on a downward trend.

What's more, the violators often face laughably small penalties for their violations, the report states. For example, oil giant Chevron Phillips — a company with $9 billion in sales — was only assessed a $9,000 fine last year for releasing nearly 19,000 pounds of hazardous pollutants.

Stay on top of San Antonio news and views. Sign up for our Weekly Headlines Newsletter.
Scroll to read more San Antonio News articles
Join the San Antonio Current Press Club

Local journalism is information. Information is power. And we believe everyone deserves access to accurate independent coverage of their community and state.
Help us keep this coverage going with a one-time donation or an ongoing membership pledge.


Join SA Current Newsletters

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.