Loopholes in Clean Air Act Are Letting a Texas Refinery Get Away With Pollution

Billionaire William Koch’s industrial plant in Port Arthur, Texas, is small compared to the three sprawling oil refineries that surround it — just 112 acres compared with the 10,000 acres occupied by Motiva, Valero and Total.

But Koch’s Oxbow facility towers over its neighbors in one respect.

It produces 10x as much lung-damaging SO2 as all three refineries combined. It does this legally because of a flaw in the 1970 Clean Air Act that allowed older facilities to delay compliance until they expanded or modernized.

As the refineries upgraded over the years, they installed sulfur scrubbers — large tanks that vacuum up most of the SO2. Their emissions fell by as much as 90%.

But the 86-year-old Oxbow plant, which manufactures something called calcined coke, hasn’t made any “major modifications” that would require it to fully comply with the federal act. Texas could establish its own standards and require the plant’s installation of scrubbers. But it hasn’t done that.

Today Oxbow releases as much SO2 — 22 million pounds a year — into Jefferson County as it did before the Clean Air Act was passed 51 years ago. That’s more than 80 percent of all the industrial SO2 emitted in a county that has one of the nation’s largest concentrations of petrochemical plants.

The facility is open-air and visible from the sky. It looks like a black spot on the landscape. A jumble of rusting silos boilers pipes kilns towers that have been cobbled together over time in a way that is as complex as a Jenga puzzle.

William Koch owns two other U.S. plants that make calcined coke – one in Enid, Oklahoma, and one in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Both are eligible for the Clean Air Act loophole. Like his Port Arthur plant, neither has been fitted to scrubbers.

Koch is the youngest brother of four. Two of them took over their late father’s company, Koch Industries Inc., and became famous for supporting conservative political causes. William, now aged 81, has built his own business empire. Forbes puts his net worthAt $2.1 Billion

Koch is well-known for his sailing exploits as well as his art and wine collection. He’s also known for blocking construction of a wind farm off Cape Cod, which would have impaired the view from one of his mansions. He spent millions of dollars against the clean-energy project. asking, “Why would you want to sail in a forest of windmills?”

Koch and Oxbow declined to comment through a representative for this story.

“You’re Just on Edge”

People who live near Koch’s Port Arthur plant look out on a vista of chemical plants and refineries, not the ocean.

Those most affected by Oxbow’s emissions live on the city’s west side, where Black residents were segregated in the early 20th century and built a thriving community. Today, the narrow streets are littered with empty lots and boarded up homes. A brown, hazy plume often trails through the neighborhood, bringing with them a foul-smelling stench.

The Oxbow plant is located within three miles for 2,600 residents. 98 per cent of these people are people of colour, while 62 per cent have incomes less than $53,000 for a family of four. according to an analysis by the Environmental Integrity Project.

The West-siders living closest to Oxbow are most at risk for respiratory illness. They have a 13.7 percent rate of asthma. according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Port Arthur’s average rate is 10.5 per cent. The national average is 8.

Children, older adults, and those with disabilities with asthma are more likely to be hospitalizedIf they inhale large amounts SO2, Long-term exposureThese can make people more prone to respiratory infections and damage their lungs. Children are particularly at risk

Dr. Albert Rizzo, chief physician for the American Lung Association, stated that inflammation can make even minor irritations, like coughing, chronic.

“Ultimately it kind of decreases the defenses against viral or bacterial infections as well, so that can lead to more recurrent infections,” he said.

Etta Hebert (63), who lives two miles north of Oxbow, often suffers from shortness of breath. Her husband, and 2-year old great-granddaughter, also have difficulty with breathing. In May, she posted disturbing photos of her family on Facebook.

“All three of us were taking our breathing treatments at the same time,” she said. Her great-granddaughter “was on a breathing machine. I was on a respirator. My husband was also on a breathing machine.

“This should not be a thing a family does.” ​

Proving Oxbow is the primary culprit in the illnesses that plague the west side isn’t easy because it’s almost impossible to link one person’s health problem to a specific smokestack. Port Arthur’s petrochemical plants spew many pollutants into the air, including benzene and 1,3-butadiene, which are both proven to cause cancer in humans. Although SO2 hasn’t been definitively linked to cancer, the World Health Organization classifies outdoor air pollutionIn general, as a carcinogen.

Hebert is also dealing with breathing difficulties. Hebert is also surrounded by cancer. She lost her brother, best friend, mother, and first husband to the disease. She’s on her second bout of cancer and her daughter is in remission. Her current husband, who appeared to have overcome cancer has been admitted to hospice. She wakes up at night, waiting for her husband’s snoring to soothe her.

“If I don’t hear him snore, I can’t sleep,” she said. “I have to just sit there and watch, you know?

“It feels overwhelming, so you block a lot of things. You’re not thinking. You’re just on edge.”

A Multibillion-Dollar Global Market

The Oxbow plant uses petroleum coke, or petcoke — a waste product from oil refineries — to produce calcined coke, a carbon substance used to make aluminum and other products. Raw petcoke is also used by China, India and other rapidly industrializing countries to run power plants, even though it’s a dirtier fuel than even coal.

Despite environmental and health concerns, petcoke’s multibillion-dollar global market continues to grow, because ever-more oil is being refined, creating ever-more petcoke as residue.

Koch’s company, West Palm Beach, Florida-based Oxbow Carbon LLC, is a leader in the growing petcoke market.

Ships transport raw coke from oil refining plants around the globe to the Oxbow facility on Port Arthur’s banks. The powdery black coke is transferred into kilns a few feet away, where it is calcined – or baked at super-high temperatures – to remove impurities.

The first American calcining plant to use rotary Kilns was opened in 1935. The cylindrical, long kilns are designed to look like cement mixers and dry-heat raw coke at 2200 degrees Fahrenheit. You can hear the churning of petcoke throughout the facility.

The plant burns some petcoke to maintain the extreme heat. This creates SO2. Smokestacks are used to expel the heat and SO2. The stacks also release particulate material, which can irritate your lungs, worsen asthma, and cause shortness or heart disease. These fine particles have been linked to heart disease and lung irritation if long-term exposure is sustained. linked to as many as 52,100 deaths in the U.S. each year.

Despite complaints, state and EPA renew permits

Residents have been trying — and failing — for years to get Oxbow’s SO2 emissions reduced. They have the best chance every five years when Oxbow must renew their federal air permit. First, the state’s environmental watchdog, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) vets the application. The U.S Environmental Protection Agency then approves the application.

The permit was up for renewal in 2019 at approximately 40 people showed up at a TCEQ public hearing.

Michael Holtham, Oxbow’s plant manager at the time, defended the company at the meeting.

“We’re proud of our operations in Port Arthur, and the positive economic impact that we have in our community,” Holtham said. “As you know, our operations are highly regulated, and we work hard to maintain compliance with our environmental permits and other applicable requirements.”

But west side residents wanted to know why the billionaire-owned company won’t install scrubbers for the sake of the community. There were many stories shared by relatives and friends who suffer from respiratory problems.

“Yes, we need jobs, but to what expense?” asked Hilton Kelley, a west-side resident who leads a local organization, Community In-Power and Development Association Inc. “We don’t need jobs so bad to where we’re willing to give up the lives of our children and our grandchildren, our mothers and fathers, and our grandparents and ourselves.”

According to the company’s information, Oxbow would spend $56 million to put in scrubbers and $10M per year to operate them. 2018 lawsuitEx-business partner. Forbes says Oxbow’s annual revenueAbout $2 billion

The company’s executive vice president, Roy Schorsch, was asked in court why Oxbow hadn’t made that investment. Doing so, he replied, “has no payback potential except environmental compliance.
“It just will not economically pencil out,” he said later in his testimony.

In September 2020, the TCEQ and the EPA renewed Oxbow’s permit until 2025.

In response to the public’s objections, the TCEQ said it acted “in accordance with the applicable law, policy, procedures and the Agency’s mission to protect the state’s public health and natural resources consistent with sustainable economic development.”

Four non-profit groups, including the Environmental Integrity Project (EIP) and Lone Star Legal Aid (Lone Star Legal Aid), are listed below. filed a petitionThe EPA protested the decision. They’re still waiting for a response more than a year later, even though the agency was legally obligated to respond within 60 days.

When asked about the petition, the EPA told Public Health Watch and the Investigative Reporting Workshop that it’s “currently in the process of responding to multiple petitions in Texas. One or more of the petitioners in the Oxbow Calcining title V petition are parties to the petitions we are currently in the process of addressing.”

Texas fails to close out-dated loophole

Half a century ago, the Clean Air Act was passed. The loophole that allows Oxbow and other industrial relics to avoid modern pollution controls seemed natural. ​​​​Congress didn’t want older plants to be crippled by the potentially devastating cost of immediately upgrading their pollution controls. They’d be allowed to comply gradually, as they expanded or modernized.

“The theory was that no [industrial pollution] source can just keep operating forever without modifying or upgrading, because it’ll come to the end of its useful life,” said Victor Flatt, a University of Houston law professor and an expert on the Clean Air Act.

Over the years, however, the EPA narrowed its definition of “major modification.” Ever-more and bigger modifications were treated as minor repairs and maintenance, Flatt said.

“EPA, unfortunately, created an incentive to try to get the camel through the eye of the needle and get as big and many upgrades as possible without triggering a new-source performance review.”

Oxbow’s plant in Oklahoma, for example, was “modernized and automated” in the 1990s, according to the company’s website. However, it seems that none of these upgrades was large enough to require scrubbers.

Oklahoma, Texas and other states could create regulations to override this loophole. State have the authority of exceeding federal air standards. California, for example has created additional SO2 regulations to specifically address calcining facilities.

Texas already has many regulatory tools that could force Oxbow to install scrubbers, said Neil Carman, a former air pollution investigator for the state who is now clean air program director for the Sierra Club’s Texas chapter. Carman said that enforcing these rules to this extent would likely trigger a lawsuit by Oxbow, something the TCEQ would prefer.

“The TCEQ has a history statewide of bending over backward for these older plants, letting them pollute the communities and not taking enforcement action,” Carman said.

John Beard spent 38 years working as a ExxonMobil processing technician and has watched this pattern develop for decades.

Beard grew up on Port Arthur’s west side and served nine years on the city council. After he retired in 2017, Beard founded the Port Arthur Community Action Network or PACAN. His goal isn’t to shut down Oxbow or any of the other industrial facilities that fuel the local economy – he says he just wants them to reduce their pollution wherever they can, within reason.

“It’s not necessary for them to pollute to the extent that they do,” he said. “It’s a matter of choice, of dollars and cents. It makes sense to me that they invest their dollars in their facilities to make sure they minimize pollution impacts on the communities that surround them.”

TCEQ spokesman Gary Rasp wrote in an email that the agency “performs investigations of regulated industrial facilities, regardless of the age of the facility, and enforces against facilities that are not in compliance with applicable rules and regulations.”

Asked why the agency hadn’t taken action that would require the plant to install scrubbers, Rasp wrote, “Oxbow has not submitted an application to modify the plant that would trigger a control technology review” under the Clean Air Act.

Beard insists that the TCEQ as well as the Texas Legislature must do more. Beard wrote an article in June. opinion piece for the Port Arthur News, urging state representatives to join him in Port Arthur for a “toxic tour” of pollution.

“They can meet with residents like Mrs. Hebert who suffer daily from environmental exposure, property damage and depreciation and health issues from these facilities. Our representatives owe it to them to hear their stories,” Beard wrote. So far, he hasn’t had any takers.

Paltry Fines, Lax Enforcement

Beard cited the 2017 Port Arthur industrial fire as an example of lax enforcement and paltry fines that could have been used to protect the community.

German Pellets, which manufactures wood pellets for fuel, set the fire in a storage unit. It burned for 102 consecutive days and caused a noxious plume to blanket nearby homes.

Kiah Fontenot Young, 29 was pregnant at the time. The smoke had gotten to her and her grandmother, and they were both taken to the hospital. Doctors moved up Fontenot-Young’s scheduled C-section because they worried the smoke might affect her unborn child.

Fontenot-Young’s son, now 4, was born with asthma, an acute sensitivity to allergens and behavioral and developmental issues, which she attributes to the smoke. Her 82 year-old grandmother is on three inhalers and a CPAP machine.

“She’s basically walking around suffocating,” Fontenot-Young said. “For the rest of her life, she’s slowly suffocating.”

The TCEQ fined German Pellets $12,000 for failing to prevent “nuisance odor conditions,” a penalty so small that Beard saw it as disrespectful to his community.

“There are some who believe if we put too much of an onus on them to clean up their act, then these companies will leave,” Beard said. “They’ve made billions of dollars all these years … These cities ought to be flush with cash. It’s far from the case. Port Arthur looks like Beirut, bombed out and depleted.”

Rasp, the TCEQ spokesman, said the agency considered the fire’s “impact to human health or the environment” when determining the fine.

More than 600 people are seeking up to $25 million in damages from German Pellets for illnesses they said they suffered from inhaling the fire’s smoke and chemicals, and for emotional distress and property damage. The trial is tentatively scheduled in December.

Texas House Takes Measure to Strengthen the Law

State Rep. Erin Zwiener (a Democrat from Austin suburbs) was elected to the Texas House of Representatives in February introduced legislation she hoped would make life better for Texans living in industrial neighborhoods such as Port Arthur’s west side.

HB 1820 would have raised the maximum penalty for polluters. It would have allowed the TCEQ additional penalties for companies that have a history of violating the law. Additionally, it would have eliminated loopholes which allow many violators not to pay fines.

Dade Phelan, a Beaumont Republican, was the speaker of Texas House. He allowed the bill’s death, despite the fact that his district had just suffered its own disaster a few years before.

A 2019 explosion at Port Neches, a petrochemical facility, left Beaumont, displaced 50,000 residents. Phelan was eager to see new regulations at the time. He urged the legislature “to ensure all plants and refineries are following the necessary procedures to ensure the safety of their workers and the citizens that live in the surrounding communities.”

Phelan didn’t respond to questions about why he didn’t support Zwiener’s bill.

TCEQ Infringes on Human Rights. Complaint Says

The west-side tried a new tactic in August to get Oxbow to reduce its pollution. They filed a civil right complaint with the EPA, thanks to the assistance of the organizations that have represented them for many years.

It accused the TCEQ of violating the civil rights of the residents of the mostly Black community “by allowing dangerous amounts of air pollution to pour from an industrial plant for years, without any modern pollution controls.”

Public Health Watch and the Investigative Reporting Workshop asked the TCEQ whether it had considered civil rights when issuing Oxbow’s latest permit.

Rasp, the TCEQ spokesman, replied that the agency “is fully committed to protecting the health of all the citizens of Texas and its environment, regardless of race or socioeconomic status.”

October the EPA announcedIt had received the complaint and was starting an investigation.

Meanwhile, a new wave of people is moving to the west side – people in search of homes they can afford.

“They don’t know the danger they’re moving into — but they call it cheap housing,” said Beard, whose organization, PACAN, joined the EPA complaint. “You know, some people are willing to put up with it. But why should you have the torment? Everyone has the right to clean air. Everybody has a right to be able to live and be healthy.”

This story was first published by the Investigative Reporting Workshop, American University’s newsroom is a non-profit newsroom.