Thursday, October 29, 2020

Environmental Groups File Federal Lawsuit Over Air Pollution From Industrial Flares At Petrochemical Plants, Landfills, Gas Processing & Compressor Stations

On October 29, a coalition of ten environmental organizations sued the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency over its failure to reduce toxic air pollution from industrial flares at petrochemical plants, gas processing facilities, municipal solid waste landfills, and other large industrial sites.

Across the country, thousands of industrial flares burn excess waste gases and release smog-forming volatile organic compounds (VOCs), hazardous pollutants (such as carcinogenic benzene), and other pollutants that threaten the health of people living downwind, which often include communities of color and lower-income neighborhoods.

EPA has not updated two sets of air pollution control standards for industrial flares in decades—34 years and 26 years, respectively—even though the federal Clean Air Act requires the agency to review them at least once every eight years to make sure they adequately protect the public and incorporate improvements in technology.

The industrial flares subject to the outdated standards that are the focus of the lawsuit include flares at petrochemical facilities, gasoline terminals, natural gas processing plants, compressor stations, solid waste landfills, and other large industrial sites.  

These do not include flares at petroleum refineries, for which EPA updated standards in 2015, or flares at oil and gas wells, which have unique standards.

The organizations that filed the lawsuit –– following notices of intent to sue EPA sent on June 11 and August 17, 2020 – are Environmental Integrity Project, Clean Air Council, Air Alliance Houston, Chesapeake Climate Action Network, Earthworks, Environment America, Environment Texas, Hoosier Environmental Council, PennEnvironment, and Texas Campaign for the Environment. 

“It’s been far too long since EPA updated these industrial flare standards, and EPA is well aware of the problem,” said Adam Kron, Senior Attorney for the Environmental Integrity Project (EIP).  “Time and time again over the past decade, EPA has admitted that flares operating under these outdated standards can release many times more toxic air pollutants into local communities than estimated.  This can cause serious harm to public health.”

Joseph Otis Minott, Esq., Executive Director and Chief Counsel of Clean Air Council, said: “There is no excuse for continuing to permit antiquated pollution-controlling technology in new industrial facilities. EPA has a responsibility to protect our air and our health, and it cannot do so while sleeping at the wheel."

"While many people may look back fondly and love the 80s, we'd all agree that technology and the things we know about air pollution have dramatically improved over the past three decades," said PennEnvironment Executive Director David Masur. "Health based standards from the 80s are in no way acceptable for protecting public health, our communities and our environment today." 

“The EPA has neglected to properly review the harmful effects of flaring on the health of nearby residents for decades,” said Aaron Mintzes, Senior Policy Counsel for Earthworks. “Optical gas images (OGI) documented in the field show improperly combusing flares and reveal the urgent need for the EPA review this litigation seeks.”

"For too long, fossil fuel companies have been allowed to emit dangerous levels of pollution at industrial facilities that are all too often located in minority communities," said Anne Havemann, General Counsel at the Chesapeake Climate Action Network. "Virtually unchecked industrial flaring at these facilities harms the climate, health, and justice, and the EPA must fix its illegally outdated rules as soon as possible."

Industrial facilities, like chemical manufacturers and natural gas processing plants, use flares as pollution control devices to burn and destroy dangerous organic compounds like benzene in waste gases. 

However, the flares are only effective as pollution control devices if they are operated correctly.  

In a recent rulemaking, EPA estimated that one industry sector’s flares were operating at 90.4 percent efficiency rather than the expected 98 percent, resulting in the flares releasing almost five times the pollution.

For example, operators inject steam into flares to keep them from smoking, which releases soot or fine particle pollution. But they often add far more steam than is needed.  

EPA and industry studies have shown that flares that are over-steamed do not burn well, releasing many times more toxic and smog-forming compounds that should have been destroyed during the combustion process.   

Additionally, the current standards let operators average their measurements over long, three-hour periods rather than a shorter time, allowing for spikes that depart from proper operation. 

Using outdated standards, industrial flares can release large amounts of air pollution at the local level. 

For example, in Texas’s Permian Basin, flares from a gas processing plant owned by Oxy USA LLC’s in Gaines County, reported emissions of 136 tons of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) in 2017, according to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. 

Click Here for a copy of the lawsuit.

[Posted: October 29, 2020]  PA Environment Digest

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