The Texas Attorney General office is suing Valero Energy for ongoing air pollution at its Port Arthur refinery in another court challenge for the San Antonio refiner already facing mounting legal and regulatory actions over its air emissions.
The Attorney General’s office alleged in the lawsuit filed Friday that the Port Arthur refinery has engaged in pattern of air emissions violations since 2014.
“For several years, the refinery has been plagued with continuing problems associated with operator errors and equipment malfunctions resulting in emissions events that emit unauthorized air contaminants into the environment,” the Attorney Generals office said in the civil complaint. The suit was filed in the Travis County District Court in Austin on behalf of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.
The same refinery — located about 100 miles from Houston — has also been subject to action from the federal Environmental Protection Agency. It’s at the center of another proposed lawsuit being brought in U.S. District Court in Beaumont by a trio of environmental groups.
The Attorney General’s suit comes more than a year after TCEQ first asked the AG’s office to take enforcement action against the refinery run by Valero’s subsidiary Premcor Refining Group.
1 million pounds
In 2017, a fire at the refinery spurred the release of nearly 1 million pounds of pollutants into the air, including carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, particulate matter and volatile organic compounds, Valero estimated at the time. TCEQ investigated the tank fire among other incidents and referred the case to the Attorney General’s office in June 2018.
The AG’s suit alleges that refinery since 2014 has had at least 38 unauthorized emissions events that released pollution above the refinery’s permit limits. Those violations included releases of benzene, particulate matter, sulfur dioxide, volatile organic compounds and hydrogen sulfide, court documents said. TCEQ has issued 13 administrative orders against the refinery for emission violations events between 2014 and 2017.
“Despite the enforcement taken by the TCEQ and EPA against defendants for past emissions events, defendants’ poor operational, maintenance, and design practices continue to cause emissions events and unauthorized emissions of air contaminants from the Refinery into the environment,” the AG’s lawyers wrote.
Valero Energy spokeswoman Lillian Riojas said the San Antonio refiner is working to address the state’s concerns.
“ Valero is committed to working cooperatively with the TCEQ and Attorney General to resolve the State of Texas’ enforcement concerns, Rojas said. “Valero takes compliance seriously and has made substantial strides in reducing emissions from the Port Arthur Refinery.
“While Valero has experienced occasional flaring events like all refineries, overall emissions from the refinery have gone down 72 percent since 2002. We would also note that unauthorized emissions have been reduced 96 percent during that same time period.”
The suit doesn’t name how big of a penalty the state will seek and the AG’s office declined to comment on the case. State law would allow it to seek up to $25,000 for every day of emissions violations. The lawsuit cited at least 18 days of Valero exceeding pollution limits.
The Attorney General’s lawsuit also doesn’t estimate how much air pollution the refinery emitted. Environmental groups, however, said that compliance records filed by Valero with the state show the Port Arthur facility has released 1.8 million pounds of pollutants from 600 air emissions violations over five years. Valero has released over 850,000 pounds of sulfur dioxide without authorization over the past five years, according the environmental groups’ analysis of state records.
Clean Air Act
Exposure to sulfur dioxide can cause respiratory illness and worsen the effects of asthma and chronic pulmonary disease, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
Separately, environmental groups are taking their own legal actions against the Port Arthur refinery. On May 22, Environment Texas of Austin, Port Arthur Community Action Network and the national advocacy group Sierra Club, said they notified Valero that they would file a lawsuit against the refinery under the Clean Air Act. The federal law allows citizens to file suits seeking enforcement of Clean Air provisions, but they must first provide the companies 60-days notice. The groups could seek up to $60 million in penalties, according to Environment Texas.
Valero is also facing a lawsuit for air emissions at its Manchester refinery from the Harris County Attorney’s office.