The Austin Chronicle

Naked City

Accidents Will Happen - Over and Over

By Wells Dunbar, August 27, 2004, News

Pablo Picasso said, "Accidents, try to change them – it's impossible. The accidental reveals man." And while not known for their artistic endeavors, Texas refineries, chemical and natural gas plants are proving that axiom true. The Environmental Integrity Project's new report, "Gaming the System: How Off-the-Books Industrial Upset Emissions Cheat the Public Out of Clear Air" examines plants' "upset emissions" of pollution and in doing so, paints an ugly picture.

Gaming defines upsets as "non-routine events, such as equipment breakdowns, startup, shutdown and maintenance, at industrial facilities that cause them to emit more pollution than allowed by their permits and applicable rules." During upsets, chemicals and carcinogens are either burnt in giant flares or released directly into the air. But what happens when the "non-routine" becomes routine? Designed to accommodate industry during such hoped-to-be-rare occurrences, loopholes exist that ignore upset emissions, letting them exceed limits in the Clean Air Act while government does nothing.

In Texas last year, there were 7,520 reported upset emissions, but a scant 30 enforcement notices; in many cases, plant upset emissions surpassed their entire output permitted for the year. "With an upset, there is no limit to the pounds, to the tons of emissions, [and] no limit to how long these events can last," said Neil J. Carman of the Sierra Club's Lone Star chapter at a Capitol press conference to highlight Gaming. Carman should know – he spent 12 years as an investigator at the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. "It is really abusing the permits system." While plants claim upsets to be accidental, Carman has seen enough to suspect otherwise. More disturbing is the inaction of groups like his former employer. With only "rare enforcement actions," Carman said, TCEQ "just filed the stuff away. ... [They] let these plants operate and turn the other way."

Ramon Alvarez, scientist at Environmental Defense, pointed to Austin's own problems meeting ozone standards as a consequence. "We are barely at attainment some days. Some days, we don't get there at all." This is partially due to, in Carman's words, the "Houston smog express" – H-town emissions that blow into Austin. As Alvarez said, "If Houston cannot come into compliance with air quality standards, that affects Austin." Not that Central Texas needs any outside help to achieve nonattainment. Said Travis Brown of Public Citizen, Alcoa Inc.'s controversial Rockdale smelter and power plant has a "tremendous problem" with upsets.

Improving such facilities is just one part of an overall strategy to reduce upset emissions, according to the day's speakers, along with eliminating the regulatory loopholes, enforcing clean-air standards, and studying upset emission health effects. "Gaming the System" is available at

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