The rapid expansion of the plastics industry in the Houston area, fed by the shale gas boom, is prompting environmental and community groups to push for tougher enforcement of air pollution laws.
In a Sept. 5 report, "Plastics Pollution on the Rise," the Environmental Integrity Project and several other groups outlined what they said was lax enforcement of both federal air pollution regulations and disaster management planning.
EIP said that 57 of the 90 plastics factories in the Houston and Port Arthur region violated air pollution limits over the last five years, and 19 of the 90 were cited by the Environmental Protection Agency for not following federal disaster planning requirements.
The report said without tougher enforcement, the 45 new plastics-related projects planned in Houston will present major new risks to communities.
"The plastics industry boom in the Houston area needs to be accompanied by increased environmental enforcement so that the rapid expansion does not produce a dangerous amount of air pollution and fires and explosions that put local residents in harm's way," said Ilan Levin, Texas director for EIP. The organization lists headquarters in both Washington and Austin, Texas.
In a statement, the American Chemistry Council said its members have reduced both emissions and safety incidents, and the standards in its Responsible Care program are tougher than legal requirements.
"ACC members have reduced hazardous releases to the air, land and water by 84 percent from 1989 to 2016 and reduced the number of safety incidents by 60 percent since 1995," the Washington-based group said. "ACC members are committed to going beyond regulatory requirements to manage, monitor and report progress through Responsible Care, our health, safety, environment and security performance program."
The EIP report, however, said that the dramatic increase in plastics production planned for Houston, fueled by low-cost shale gas feedstocks, is a risk to local communities.
It said plastics factories emitted 22 percent of emissions from all industries in Houston, amounting to 55,700 tons of pollution in 2017, the most recent year figures are available.
It said it's not clear how much emissions would rise from the 45 new projects but said permits for 16 of them allow for an additional 14,200 tons of pollutants annually.
The report noted fires and explosions from petrochemical plants in Houston, including a July 31 explosion at an ExxonMobil Chemical Co. propylene and propane unit in Baytown that injured 37 people and released 14,100 pounds of benzene and 25,400 pounds of butadiene 1-3.
The report made a series of recommendations, including that EPA and the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality step up enforcement of disaster planning requirements, penalize violators for failing to properly maintain equipment, be more consistent in issuing penalties for pollution violations and beef up efforts to quickly test air after a disaster.
It also recommended the Houston region create zoning policies to avoid building large chemical plants near residential areas, although EIP officials acknowledged creating those regulations could be controversial.
"Too often residents in our region are forced to shelter in place or breathe toxic fumes and suffer the health consequences because of explosions, fires, and pollution releases," said Bakeyah Nelson, executive director of the Air Alliance Houston, in a news release from EIP.
Nelson said that poor federal and state regulatory responses mean that efforts must be expanded at the local level.