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Injunction ordered in Skull Creek lawsuit

Hope this helps.

Three months after the waters of Skull Creek first turned black, a Travis County state district judge issued a temporary injunction Tuesday against Inland Environmental and Remediation and David Polston, its president, requiring the company to stop accepting waste and halt any further polluting of the creek.

The injunction prevents Polston from storing or processing any waste at the company’s site near Altair, just south of Columbus, in a manner that “causes, suffers, or allows discharge into or adjacent to waters” in the state. The agreement – reached between the Texas attorney general’s office, the Lower Colorado River Authority and Polston’s lawyers – also requires the defendants to “abate and contain all spills and discharges at the site” and start removing and properly disposing of waste.

Inland processes oil and gas drilling waste and turns it manufactured products like road base, according to its website. Its site is adjacent to Skull Creek, which flows for more than 10 miles before emptying into the Colorado River, which ultimately flows into Matagorda Bay, a popular fishing and boating spot on Texas’ Gulf Coast.

Under the injunction, every Monday Polston is required to submit progress reports to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, the LCRA and the attorney general’s office detailing the actions Inland has taken to comply with the injunction’s stipulations. They include assessing the extent of the contamination, removing road base material along the creek and creating a detailed inventory and a map of all waste at the site.

“I hope I have not left any doubt in your mind as to how serious I am taking this – the court is taking it,” Judge Dustin Howell told lawyers on Tuesday. “Certainly, having heard the day of evidence that I heard yesterday, it’s obvious that there is something that needs to be addressed here.”

See here for the background. This is just an injunction pending the outcome of the lawsuit, for which the court set a January 2020 date to proceed. Be sure to check out the Colorado County Citizen for ongoing coverage of this issue.

What’s going on in Skull Creek?

Here’s a story from a couple of weeks ago that you may have missed. I know I missed it until it was pointed out to me.

For more than two months, the waters of Skull Creek have flowed black, its surface covered in an iridescent sheen. Yellowed fish skeletons line the pebbled banks of the Colorado River tributary, and a dizzying chemical odor hangs in the air.

The odor is so strong that Julie Schmidt says she can smell it inside her house.

She and her husband bought 10 acres along the creek in December with visions of an idyllic country upbringing for their children, ages 10 and 2. Now, she isn’t sure they should play outside.

“Last summer, you could go into the creek behind the house and it was crystal clear. You could play in it, you could fish,” said Schmidt, who moved from nearby Garwood and has lived in Colorado County her entire life. “Now you don’t want to touch it. You pick up a rock, turn it upside down, and it’s completely black.”

Locals and elected officials in this small southeast Texas community near the intersection of Interstate 10 and Texas 71 say the source of the problem is obvious: an oil and gas waste recycling facility near the creek that is owned by Columbus-based Inland Environmental and Remediation. Although Inland has denied wrongdoing, the Texas attorney general sued the company Friday — 10 weeks after citizens first began complaining — alleging the company illegally discharged industrial waste into the creek and stored that waste without a permit.

On Friday, a state district court in Travis County granted a temporary restraining order against the company and its president, David Polston, saying he must “cease and prevent all discharges of waste” from the site into state waters.

The state’s lawsuit seeks monetary damages of up to $1 million.

The Texas Railroad Commission ordered the facility to stop storing oil and gas waste in 2017 as a result of a bankruptcy court reorganization. (The permit was held by Boundary Ventures, a company at the same location that lists Polston as its president and director.)

Records obtained by The Texas Tribune show that the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality dispatched inspectors to the facility Feb. 10 — the same day that Colorado County Judge Ty Prause says he made a formal complaint — and hand delivered a letter two days later demanding that Polston take immediate action to halt the discharge of waste into the creek. The letter described conditions at the facility as an “imminent threat and substantial endangerment to human health and/or the environment.”

But Prause, the county’s chief executive, said the agency left him and other officials in the dark for weeks about the origins of the pungent substance and what guidance he should give to his constituents to protect themselves.

“It’s hard to imagine that the state agencies in charge of protecting our environment and natural resources in Texas would not act quicker to tell people that live on this creek whether there’s a threat to their health or their livestock,” said Prause, who oversees emergency response for the county.

I encourage you to read the rest. Most of the coverage of this story has come from the Colorado County Citizen, with reporting by my friend and former blogging colleague Vince Leibowitz, who was the one to alert me to all this. Their first story, about the appearance of the black water and dead fish, is here, datelined February 15. The litigation referred to in the Trib story is ongoing, and I hope it will help uncover the truth about what happened, and hold the parties responsible for it to account. As Leibowitz wrote in an editorial, the “alphabet soup” of state agencies that have authority here have not been doing a good job, with the exception for the most part of the Railroad Commission. I don’t know what it’s going to take to figure out and clean up a big toxic waste spill like this, but we sure need to get on it.

Explode, rinse, repeat

Here we go again.

A massive explosion at a chemical plant in northeast Harris County on Tuesday killed one person and sent two others to the hospital in critical condition, sparking a blaze that sent yet another plume of dark smoke into the sky and forcing residents to temporarily shelter in place.

The fire, ignited by a flammable gas called isobutylene at the KMCO chemical processing plant in Crosby, marked the third time in 17 days that a smoggy cloud of smoke emanated from a Houston-area chemical facility.

It is the first chemical fatality at a Houston-area plant since 2016, when a worker died in an incident at PeroxyChem in Pasadena. In 2014, four workers died at a DuPont plant in La Porte.

Responders extinguished the KMCO fire late Tuesday afternoon, while on-scene investigators with the Harris County Fire Marshal’s Office began conducting interviews to determine where the fire started and what caused the gas to ignite.

“There’s a lot of hot metal in there,” said Rachel Moreno, a fire marshal spokeswoman. “Until it’s safe for our guys to go in, they’ll continue doing interviews of everybody that was at work.”

The response will stretch Harris County’s resources, Moreno said, as the fire marshal’s office begins its second major investigation in less than three weeks. The site of an even larger conflagration at Intercontinental Terminals Co. in Deer Park less than 15 miles away on March 17 remains too unsafe for investigators to visit.

[…]

KMCO, a subsidiary of an Austin private investment firm, produces coolant and brake fluid products for the automotive industry, as well as chemicals for the oil field industry. Its facility, which has a history of environmental and workplace safety issues, sits about 13 miles away from the ITC plant, where Harris County officials continued to detect carcinogenic benzene this week.

The KMCO plant is less than three miles from the Arkema facility where a series of explosions spewed chemicals and sickened residents after Hurricane Harvey in 2017.

Let’s talk about that history, shall we?

“As long as I’ve been doing environmental work for Harris County, I’ve been involved in case with this company, either with the previous owner or the current owner,” said Rock Owens, managing attorney for the Harris County Attorney’s environmental section. “And I’ve been doing this for close to 30 years. This company has been around forever causing trouble.”

[…]

On Christmas Eve 2010, a runaway reaction sent three employees at the plant to the hospital. Workers there couldn’t lower the pressure in a reactor and, as they tried to fix a clogged line, they accidentally mixed a caustic solution with maleic anhydride, a normally stable chemical. The result was an explosion and fire. An explosion in 2011 sent two more workers to a hospital.

[…]

Since 2009, KMCO has paid out more than $4 million in fines or criminal penalties to local and federal regulators.

In 2017, the company pleaded guilty to criminal violations of the Clean Air Act filed by the Environmental Protection Agency and was ordered to pay $3.5 million. The violations were in connection to an explosion at its Port Arthur facility and air emissions at the Crosby plant.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration has issued dozens of violations to KMCO since 2010 and fined the company about $250,000.

The facility is currently not compliant with the federal Clean Water Act. KMCO was in violation of the act for seven of the last 12 quarters, records show. It violated the Clean Air Act three times in the last 12 quarters. EPA data shows the facility also violated the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act in February 2018. That law regulates how facilities handle hazardous and non-hazardous solid waste.

[…]

Harris County first sued KMCO in 1987. The company was ordered to pay $49,750 for violations of the Texas Water Code.

The county sued the KMCO plant in 2008 for spills and fumes that gave neighbors headaches. The lawsuit ended in 2009 with a permanent injunction requiring KMCO to pay $100,000 in civil penalties and to give investigators easy access to the facility and prompt notification of releases.

The county sued again in 2013; that case is still ongoing. Owens said the county attorney’s office is still deciding whether to add Tuesday’s incident to the existing case or bring a separate case against the company.

“While there’s been actions before, it hasn’t been sufficient,” said Luke Metzger, executive director of Environment Texas, an environmental advocacy group. “We should, in the 21st century, be able to prevent these kinds of things from happening.”

A Houston Chronicle report from 2016 found that there’s a major chemical incident every six weeks in the greater Houston area.

You’d really like to think that we could prevent this kind of thing from happening, wouldn’t you?

Sunday, this editorial board demanded that state officials hold polluters accountable — and not just after a disaster.

We didn’t expect to be repeating ourselves so soon.

But this is what happens in a state where environmental regulators are toothless tigers. Where the TCEQ trusts polluters to police themselves — in part out of necessity, since lawmakers don’t adequately fund the agency. Where violators avoid sanctions and routinely endanger Texans’ health without our knowledge. Where Gov. Greg Abbott and Attorney General Ken Paxton talk tough, maybe even file a lawsuit after an incident makes headlines, but look the other way when the smoke clears.

At this rate, the smoke will never really clear. There will be another fire. And another.

Another round of parents fearing for their children’s safety. Another community fearing the effects of chemicals and pollutants they can’t pronounce. Another black eye to Houston’s already bad reputation as a place where one shouldn’t breathe too deeply, a place where profits outweigh concern for public health.

As we’ve pointed out, Texas facilities in 2017 reported releasing more than 63 million pounds of unauthorized air pollution — including chemicals linked to cancer, heart attacks and respiratory problems, according to a report by Environment Texas. But, in the past seven years, TCEQ issued fines in less than 3 percent of such events.

“These repeated, disastrous fires and explosions can no longer be called isolated incidents,” Luke Metzger, director of Environment Texas, told the editorial board Tuesday. “The Texas petrochemical industry has a serious, chronic problem, and Texas workers and citizens are paying the price. How many people have to die, get hurt, get cancer or suffer respiratory failure before the state takes this seriously and overhauls our broken system of oversight?”

Texans, these are questions for Abbott and our other state leaders. It’s up to us to demand the answers.

The only way to get the answers you need is to vote for those who will give them to you, and against those who won’t. If the choices aren’t clear by now, I don’t know what to tell you.

State sues over Deer Park fire

Too big to ignore.

Late Friday, the state of Texas sued Intercontinental Terminals — the Houston-based company whose petrochemical storage facility in the suburb of Deer Park caught fire last weekend and burned for days, sending a dramatic plume of black smoke over the nation’s fourth-largest city.

The lawsuit, filed in state district court on behalf of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, alleges that air pollution released during the fire is a violation of the Texas Clean Air Act.

It seeks a permanent injunction and civil penalties that “could exceed $100,000.”

“The state of Texas works hard to maintain good air quality and will hold ITC accountable for the damage it has done to our environment,” Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton said in a statement. “ITC has a history of environmental violations, and this latest incident is especially disturbing and frightening. No company can be allowed to disrupt lives and put public health and safety at risk.”

Were you able to read that statement with a straight face? Then read this.

The TCEQ, the agency responsible for protecting the state’s environment and public health, has been criticized for letting large corporate polluters off with a slap on the wrist. An analysis of its enforcement record by an environmental nonprofit found that the agency imposed penalties on violators in just 3 percent of cases. ITC appears to have benefitted from the lax enforcement. In 2016, for instance, the company released more than 1,500 pounds of benzene — a carcinogenic chemical — for over five days and failed to notify the state agency within the mandated 24-hour deadline. The fine: roughly $4,000.

I’m just saying. Maybe some day when there aren’t new fires breaking out every time an old fire gets put out, we can get to the bottom of what happened here. And then sue these assholes out of existence. More broadly, maybe we can demand that our state take enforcement of environmental regulations seriously. If they had done so before, maybe we wouldn’t be in this position now. The Chron has more.

What’s a little toxic waste among friends?

No big deal, right?

On the plus side…

The criteria Texas uses to determine how much — and whether — to clean up abandoned industrial facilities, waste dumps and other polluted sites are so lax that they may allow residential homes to be built in areas that neighboring states wouldn’t even consider safe for factories or oil refineries.

That’s according to a report by the Texas Campaign for the Environment Fund set to be released on Tuesday that compares benchmarks for more than 80 different pollutants that Texas, Arkansas, Louisiana, New Mexico, Mississippi and Oklahoma use to determine whether a site is contaminated enough to warrant cleanup and how much pollution should be removed from the soil or water there before it can be re-developed.

The overarching conclusion of the report: Texas’ formulas are “substantially weaker” than those used by almost every nearby state, in part because it tolerates a greater risk of cancer. That means that some polluted Texas sites that would be eligible for cleanup in other states may not be eligible here — and if the state does decide to clean them up, it may not remove as much pollution as its neighbors.

While some neighboring states — namely Arkansas and Oklahoma — rely on federal criteria, Texas uses its own benchmarks. Overall, they are so weak that Texas allows “pollution concentrations on land designated for residential uses that Louisiana, Arkansas, Oklahoma, and Mississippi wouldn’t even restrict to industrial uses,” the report found.

For example, Texas’ cleanup rules say that the ground at residential properties should contain no more than 69 milligrams of the carcinogenic petrochemical benzene for every 1 kilogram of soil; Louisiana, meanwhile, only allows 3.1 milligrams of benzene per kilogram of soil — and that’s for sites intended for industrial use.

The report comes a year after heavy rains from Hurricane Harvey flooded many polluted sites in the Houston area, sparking concerns about contaminants leaching into homes and waterways. And statewide, rapid urban revitalization and population growth means many contaminated sites are being remediated and redeveloped for both commercial and residential use.

You can see that report here. This right here is the reason why uniform federal standards are needed for some things. I don’t know about you, but I would not want to find out some day that the house I bought in some spiffy new development in, say, 2019, turned out to be in the 21st century version of Love Canal. Maybe if we insist on keeping the feds at bay we could elect some state leaders who cared about this sort of thing? Just a suggestion.

Everybody sues the EPA

The state of Texas and our pollution-loving Attorney General do it because they think the EPA does too much to protect us from harm. Some other groups do it because they think the EPA isn’t doing enough.

Houston Ship Channel, 1973

Houston Ship Channel, 1973

In the suit filed on Thursday, Air Alliance Houston and three other groups accuse the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency of using outdated and inaccurate formulas to estimate levels of air pollution.

The groups say studies show that actual smog-forming emissions can be 132 times greater than EPA estimates, which are based on data provided by the industry. The agency, as a result, does not possess reliable data to protect public health, according to the suit filed in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia.

“The EPA has a history of dragging its feet on this issue,” said Jennifer Duggan, an attorney for the Environmental Integrity Project, a legal group representing Air Alliance Houston and the other organizations in the case. “It has been aware of these inaccuracies for some time.”

[…]

The lawsuit comes five years after the city of Houston raised similar issues with the federal agency, which uses the emissions data to develop pollution controls, establish limits and guide enforcement.

In response, the agency acknowledged flaws in its formulas and promised to make changes.

See here for the background; this was a part of then-Mayor Bill White’s plan to reduce benzene emissions in Houston. You can see a copy of the lawsuit and the notice of intent to file suit that was sent by the plaintiffs to the EPA in 2012 here. I think we can safely assume that Greg Abbott will not be filing an amicus brief for the plaintiffs on this one.

“Don’t ask, don’t smell”

The Chron takes the TCEQ to task for it’s screw-the-public decision regarding the Lyondell permit.

“They’re proposing to put thousands of tons of a cancer-causing chemical into our air,” says former Mayor Bill White. “They say they’ll reduce the amount that they’re emitting. But the city can’t tell how much they’ll reduce the benzene emissions. We can’t tell how we can verify that they’ve been reduced. And we can’t tell whether there are technological changes that could further reduce the amount of benzene in our air.”

Other refineries, the city noted, manage to do similar jobs with less pollution. Why can’t LyondellBasell? Can’t we at least ask? And given that we know a lot more about benzene’s dangers than we did 10 years ago, when the refinery’s previous permit was approved, isn’t it time for a new round of questions?

The TCEQ, which like every other agency in this state is an extension of Rick Perry, is not interested in such things. It all makes sense once you realize that.

Why TCEQ is broken

Back in 2008, Mayor White and the city of Houston made a request of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) to hold a hearing before a judge on the latest permit application for Lyondell Chemical Co.’s refinery along the Houston Ship Channel. The TCEQ got around to ruling on that request this week, and they said No.

The Texas Clean Air Act says the three-member commission cannot grant a hearing on a renewal unless the firm is seeking an increase in permitted emissions, and LyondellBasell isn’t, TCEQ’s executive director, Mark Vickery, wrote in response to the city’s request.

But other provisions in state law allow the commissioners to order a hearing on their own authority if they determine that it’s in the public interest.

Vickery concluded that the city’s arguments for a hearing “are not based on any unique facts nor compelling issues that would support a decision to grant a hearing in the public interest.”

The commission’s Office of Public Interest Counsel, which represents the general public in permit disputes, supports Houston’s request, citing the refinery’s potential to adversely affect public health.

That’s an interesting view of what the public’s interest is, isn’t it? Imagine the squawking we’d hear if this had been a federal agency disregarding the wishes of state officials. As it turns out, that still might happen.

The refinery has what’s called a flexible permit, which caps overall emissions at a plant without regulating each emission source. The EPA has said that type of permit, which has been given to about 100 Texas industrial sites, violates the federal Clean Air Act in part because it denies the public an opportunity to review a plant’s operations.

[…]

If the EPA begins rejecting flexible permits, as it has threatened, then the refinery might be forced to seek a new permit, said Kelly Haragan, who heads the environmental law clinic at the University of Texas at Austin.

“It’s crazy that the TCEQ is still approving these flex permits,” she said. “They’re vulnerable.”

Just keep that in mind for when the EPA (hopefully) smacks down the TCEQ. The TCEQ can’t say they never saw it coming.