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EPA cracks down further

Here it comes.

The Environmental Protection Agency has formally denounced the state’s air-pollution permitting system for some of its biggest industrial plants — and reactions are pouring in.

Texas’s system, the EPA said in its release, “allows companies to avoid certain federal clean air requirements.” The decision, which the EPA had signaled last September, affects 122 plants, whose permitting systems will now be recalibrated in yet-to-be-determined ways. It’s not yet clear what action the federal government will take to force a revamping of the state system.

Here’s more from the Trib, and more from the Chron.

EPA Regional Administrator Al Armendariz invalidated all 122 flexible air quality permits issued by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality since the 1990s, leaving the facilities to apply for new permits. Most were issued to oil and chemical refineries.

“We’re going to transition these facilities from these flexible permits to standard permits and, by doing so, lower emissions and improve public health,” he said.

[...]

Armendariz said the greenhouse gas regulations will not affect most of the flexible permit holders because the rules are being phased in, with the first facilities covered being new facilities or those with major modifications.

“We started taking this action back in 2007, long before there were any greenhouse gas rules,” Armendariz said, adding his action “has absolutely no connection to the federal efforts to reduce emission of greenhouse gases.”

Armendariz said some of the Texas facilities could be covered by the greenhouse gas rules if it is learned that they used the flexible permitting program to circumvent Clean Air Act requirements.

“If we come across a facility that should have installed new technology in the past and failed to do so, we will engage in discussions with those facilities about upgrading technology,” he said. “That discussion could include new technology, including greenhouse gas technology.”

The flex permits issue has led the EPA to deny one operating permit so far. The state’s Republican leaders can whine and wail and gnash their teeth all they want about this, but the failure is still theirs. If the TCEQ had been doing the right thing all along, we would not be in this position now. And with the TCEQ, it’s never just one thing to worry about.

Even as EPA formally killed Texas’ “flexible” permitting program today, the Perry-appointed commissioners voted 3-0 to allow the developers of a huge pet-coke plant in Corpus Christi another chance to fix their mistakes. As I wondered out loud yesterday, would the embattled TCEQ stick its neck out yet again for a big polluter or would they move in a new direction? Now we know the answer.

Two judges had looked at Las Brisas Energy Center LLC’s air permit and decided it was deeply flawed. In March, they recommended that the TCEQ commissioners either remand the permit or reject it outright. Today, environmentalists and citizens from Corpus Christi pleaded with the three commissioners to at least require the company to start the permitting process over. Instead, Messieurs Shaw, Garcia and Rubinstein unanimously decided, essentially, to give Las Brisas four more months (even though the company’s attorney said they were fine with six months) to resolve the deficiencies in the application. This was about as good as Las Brisas could get considering how scathing the judges’ ruling had been.

Does anyone really think that at the end of that expedited process Las Brisas won’t get its permit? With all seriousness: Why do we even bother with the dog and pony show of contested case hearings? The judges and the protestants have only marginal influence on the ultimate outcome, because the commissioners already have their minds made up. That’s evident from the Perry-era TCEQ’s perfect track record of greenlighting coal and petcoke plants.

It’s just business as usual. And there’s only one way to change it.

UPDATE: Forgot that I had a statement from State Sen. Rodney Ellis about this in my inbox: “I urge the TCEQ to work with affected businesses—especially those in Houston’s vital petrochemical industry—to ensure their air permits are in compliance with the federal Clean Air Act. Environmental regulations like the federal Clean Air Act are designed to protect the public health from major pollutants shown to cause serious illnesses like asthma and cancer. Texas families deserve and expect clean air, and businesses deserve and expect a state air permitting program that complies with federal law.”

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