Gulf Coast residents are used to dealing with air quality issues. They don't necessarily like it, but the four major oil refineries in Southeast Texas mean thousands of jobs.
Now, thanks to the shale gas boom and rapid expansion of U.S. resin production, the plastics industry is becoming a bigger contributor to air quality issues in the region. And that recently prompted some environmental and community groups to sound the alarm.
The Sept. 5 report, "Plastics Pollution on the Rise," makes the case that regulators have been lax about enforcing federal air pollution and disaster management rules.
According to the Environmental Integrity Project, 57 of the 90 plastics factories in the Houston and Port Arthur region violated air pollution limits over the last five years. Many of these discharges were attributed to failures to properly test and maintain piping, pumps and controls.
According to the report, state regulators imposed penalties on violators for only 57 of 872 unpermitted emissions. The fines for all the violations, which produced about 11 million pounds of air pollution, totaled $665,000.
In addition, according to the report, 19 of the 90 plastics plants were cited by the Environmental Protection Agency for not following federal disaster planning requirements. That's literally a disaster waiting to happen. Remember the explosions and fires at Arkema SA's Crosby, Texas, plant in 2017 caused by flooding from Hurricane Harvey?
According to the report, the 90 plants that make plastics emitted 55,704 tons of air pollutants, such as nitrogen oxides, in 2017. The report notes that the plastics industry already generates 22 percent of the air pollution in the region.
And that's likely to get worse, since plastics are currently the fastest-growing segment of the petrochemical industry. Without tougher enforcement, the 45 new plastics-related projects currently planned in the region present major new risks.
"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.
In response to the report, the American Chemistry Council noted that its members have actually reduced both emissions and safety incidents and that 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," ACC said in a statement. "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 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.
Plastics processors have an interest in this issue. They need suppliers to clean up their act, since unnecessary air pollution generated during resin production gives plastics a black eye. On top of that, explosions, fires and pollution releases impact production and can disrupt the supply-demand balance in an instant.
In the big picture, the U.S. plastics industry is well served by having resin production on the Gulf Coast. The region has the feedstocks to make resin economically and the professional staff to make it safely.
For a sustainable future, suppliers need to boost resin production, but not at the expense of air quality.
Loepp is editor of Plastics News and author of the Plastics Blog. Follow him on Twitter @donloepp.