Upset About Upset Emissions

A recent Houston Chronicle article mentions that though our state environmental agency issued 1,756 penalties last year against illegally polluting companies, the fines averaged just $8,300. Many of these companies produce billions of dollars in revenue, suggesting that what many have claimed for years is indeed true: It’s cheaper for companies to pay penalties than prevent pollution.

When public campaigns, official regulations, negligible fines and poor enforcement don’t work, clean air advocates resort to the courts for help. Filing lawsuits sometimes seems to be the only way to get the attention necessary for improving Texas air quality.

Likewise, you might have recently read about Sierra Club and Environment Texas seeking millions in penalties from a lawsuit they filed against the Exxon Baytown facility. Two similar suits, one against Shell and another against Chevron Phillips, settled in the past year or so yielding unprecedented emission reductions from facility “upset” violations, signifying that legal action can be an effective tool.

“Upset” emissions are industrial facility events – equipment malfunctions and breakdowns, unplanned or unscheduled maintenance, startup, or shutdown activities – that result in unauthorized emissions of air contaminants from one or more points. Literally thousands of upset events occur every year along the Houston Ship Channel and each event varies with regard to cause and amount of release.

After reviewing recent data submitted to the Environmental Protection Agency from Houston facilities emitting the largest amounts of the toxic chemicals benzene and 1,3-butadiene emissions, I found that it wasn’t unusual for upset emissions to account for the majority of those emissions released by the facility over the year.

Company Name
Fugitives as % of total benzene emissions (2009)
Equistar Chemicals
Shell Chemical Co
Exxonmobil Chemical Co Baytown Olefins Plant
Equistar Chemicals Lp
Nisseki Chemical Texas Inc Bayport Plant
Targa Midstream Services LP – Galena Park Marine Terminal
Exxonmobil Refining & Supply Baytown Refinery
Shell Oil Co Deer Park Refining Lp
Houston Refining Lp
Lyondell Chemical Co
Georgia Gulf Chemicals & Vinyl S Llc – Pasadena
Exxonmobil Baytown Chemical Plant
Pasadena Refining System, Inc
Valero Refining – Texas L.P. Houston Refinery
Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. Bayport Chemical Plant
Ineos Nova Llc
Company Name
Fugitives as % of total
butadiene emissions
Equistar Chemicals
Shell Chemical Co
Texas Petrochemicals Lp
Chevron Phillips Chemical Co – Pasadena Plastics
Exxonmobil Chemical Co Baytown Olefins Plant48%
Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co58%
Kaneka Texas Corp20%
Lcy Elastomers Lp76%
Nisseki Chemical Texas Inc Bayport Plant96%
Targa Midstream Services LP – Galena Park Marine Terminal53%
Dixie Chemical Co Inc.61%
Exxonmobil Refining & Supply Baytown Refinery1%
Exxonmobil Baytown Chemical Plant31%
Pasadena Refining System,Inc25%
Valero Refining – Texas L.P. Houston Refinery1%

This upset data should upset us all. And while the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) is the state agency responsible for enforcing the law with respect to these upset emission events, it seems evident that the agency lacks the resources or ability to get the job done. Even in the most recent recommendations to the agency, the Sunset Committee established to review the agency this year has indicated such.

The meager penalties TCEQ have issued have not been enough to sway improvement in facility operations at some of these facilities, and as mentioned previously, lawsuits have become the final line of defense in protecting the public from the hazards of these toxic releases. [Note: Penalties received from these lawsuits are used to fund environmental, public health, and educational projects, not to line the pockets of rich attorneys or fill the coffers of environmental groups filing the suits.]

It’s hard to understand how Texas facilities likes those around the Houston Ship Channel can’t do better, especially when Shell and Chevron both eventually agreed to reduce their upset emissions by 80 and 85 percent respectively over the next three years. It begs the question, why hadn’t the facilities taken these steps before legal action to protect the health of those who live around the facility?

The time has come to be more diligent in our work and more thoughtful in our actions regarding the quality of the air we breathe – if not for ourselves, then for our children and future generations.

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