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PORT ARTHUR Group threatens to sue Valero

May 23, 2019

About two months ago, Valero’s Port Arthur refinery released more than 100 tons of sulfur dioxide, among other emissions, in a 36-hour period.

That incident, reported by the refinery about two months ago, is among more than 600 violations of emissions standards prompting a group of Southeast Texas residents and climate activists to sue Valero Energy Corp. and the Premcor Refining Group Inc.

The group alleges that, on hundreds of occasions, the refinery released unauthorized amounts of sulfur dioxide, volatile organic compounds, hydrogen sulfide, nitrogen oxide, particulate matter and other emissions. There also are concerns about dozens of violations related to improper operation of the refinery’s industrial flares, information obtained through Valero’s own reporting required by law.

The events totaled more than 1.8 million pounds of unauthorized pollution.

“We need to be watchful,” John Beard, president of Port Arthur Community Action Network, said at a Wednesday news conference in the shadow of Valero’s smokestacks. “We need to be watching these refineries … to make sure they follow the law and protect us in the communities where we live.”

Valero’s spokeswoman could not be reached for comment Wednesday.

The group — comprising Environment Texas, the Sierra Club and the Port Arthur Community Action Network — filed its required “intent to sue” on May 16. Unless Valero expresses interest in negotiating with the group, members said, a lawsuit will be filed in federal court in mid-July.

If the suit is filed, it would be the fifth since 2008 from Environment Texas and Sierra Club to fight what the groups characterize as “illegal air emissions” from oil refineries in the area.

According to the group, Valero has released more than 850,000 pounds of sulfur dioxide alone over the past five years. Exposure to the chemical can cause respiratory illness and worsen the effects of asthma and cardiovascular disease.

Despite permits from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality that set limits on the amount of each pollutant that can be released in the air, this lawsuit is necessary because the agency is “missing in action” and failing to enforce these permits, said Neil Carman, a former TCEQ investigator who is now the director of the Clean Air Program for the Sierra Club’s Lone Star Chapter.

TCEQ spokesman Andrew Keese said the agency does not comment on pending litigation.

The Texas Department of State Health Services reports the risk of of cancer is “significantly higher” in Port Arthur. While not pinned specifically on Valero, several residents attended Wednesday’s meeting to discuss the impact they think area refineries have had on their health.

“We appreciate the opportunity to work (at the refineries),” said resident and cancer survivor Etta Hebert. “But if we can’t live, the work does us no good.”

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, about 36,000 people live in a three-mile radius of the refinery, an area that includes five schools, two community centers, four public parks and more than 20 churches.

“Children as well as adults suffer respiratory illnesses, severe allergies and related health issues that limit their activity and ability to enjoy an active, healthy lifestyle,” John Beard, President of Port Arthur Community Action Network, said in the news release. “Air is life, and everyone has a right to breathe clean air.”

The group hopes either negotiations or a formal lawsuit will cause Valero to increase emissions controls, which could include increased training, upgraded equipment or a more aggressive equipment maintenance schedule, and a promise to decrease emissions.

“When companies are forced to do it, they’ll find a way to follow the law,” said Environment Texas Executive Director Luke Metzger.

The Clean Air Act allows for private citizens affected by emissions violations to bring an enforcement suit in federal court after providing 60 days’ notice to the violator and state and federal environmental agencies.

kaitlin.bain@beaumontenterprise.com

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