Companies should want to be better, pollute less
Companies that truly want to be good corporate neighbors don’t do the bare minimum that is required of them, legally or socially. They go above those standards, willingly, because that’s better for the people who live nearby or work there — and ultimately for the companies themselves. This approach is especially important if you’re a petrochemical plant that is frankly going to cause some level of pollution.
Officials with Oxbow Calcining in Port Arthur don’t seem to realize this distinction, as our story on Sunday revealed.
One problem is weak state and federal laws that need to be strengthened to accomplish their goals. Oxbow officials stress that they are in full compliance with emissions standards and want to “work proactively with the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality to operate within all applicable laws and permits.” That may be so, but here’s another fact: Oxbow released more than 11,000 tons of sulfur dioxide into the air in 2016, according to TCEQ estimates, making it one of the top 10 emitters of this chemical in the entire state. That amount is also 85 percent of the sulfur dioxide expelled in Jefferson County.
No amount of spin can gloss over those numbers. On top of everything, Oxbow could have invested in its plants to reduce those emissions, as other companies have. Three years ago, however, Oxbow officials decided not to install the scrubbers that would have reduced those emissions, at a cost of $27 million to $56 million.
Oxbow’s calcining plant uses petroleum coke, a byproduct from the oil refining process, to create calcined coke, which is then sold to make aluminum, titanium dioxide and other products. The process produces sulfur dioxide and heat. For years, the company partnered with Port Arthur Steam Energy to convert its exhaust heat into steam. Today, however, PASE is basically shut down and 15 workers are no longer drawing paychecks.
A major point of contention between the two companies was whether Oxbow could legally deprive PASE of the raw material it needs to operate. Either way, a company that once won an EPA Energy Star award for eliminating the equivalent of 27,000 cars’ worth of CO2 emissions annually is now mostly a memory, while Oxbow churns along.
Now-retired Judge Donald Floyd also ruled that Oxbow was using techniques to avoid detection of its sulfur dioxide emissions, saying he was “troubled” it was able to move “the same pollution to another location.”
It’s a complex story, but the bottom line for Southeast Texans is that their air quality didn’t get better. It still has too much sulfur dioxide, which contributes to acid rain and reacts with other compounds to form small particles that can penetrate into people’s lungs.
Clearly, some petrochemical plants are proactive about this threat, and some take what can charitably called a different approach to their social contract. They may be within their rights, but Southeast Texans have the right to say they don’t like it. They take their health seriously, and they need businesses that do, too.