Quantcast

Air Pollution From Industrial Shutdowns and Startups a Grave Danger to Public Health

Health + Wellness
Shutterstock

By Nikolaos Zirogiannis, Alex J. Hollingsworth and David Konisky

When Hurricane Harvey struck the Texas coast in August 2017, many industrial facilities had to shut down their operations before the storm arrived and restart once rainfall and flooding had subsided.

These shutdowns and startups, as well as accidents caused by the hurricane, led to a significant release of air pollutants. Over a period of about two weeks, data we compiled from the Texas' Air Emission Event Report Database indicates these sites released 2,000 tons of sulfur dioxide, carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides, volatile organic compounds and other pollutants.


These types of emissions that result from startups, shutdowns or malfunctions are often referred to as "excess" or "upset" emissions and are particularly pronounced during times of natural disasters, as was the case with Hurricane Harvey.

However, as we document in a newly published study in the journal Environmental Science & Technology, they also occur regularly during the routine operation of many industrial facilities, sometimes in large quantities. And, even if unintended or unavoidable, the pollutants released during these events are in violation of the U.S. Clean Air Act (CAA).

With the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency ( EPA) now revisiting the rules regarding these air toxics, our study shows how significant they are to public health—and how historically they have not been systematically tracked across the country or regulated comprehensively.

Excess Emissions in Texas

Our study examines the occurrence of excess emissions in industrial facilities in Texas over the period from 2002 to 2016. We focused on Texas because, unlike nearly all other states, it has established comprehensive reporting requirements. The state collects data on so-called hazardous air pollutants that cause harm to people exposed to them, such as benzene, as well as substances called criteria pollutants, such as nitrogen oxides that contribute to the formation of ozone.

As a general rule, states set limits to industrial air emissions based on provisions in their State Implementation Plan (SIP), which is their strategy for meeting CAA requirements. The EPA in turn is responsible for ensuring that each state's SIP is drafted in accordance with the CAA.

The CAA requires sources of air pollution to achieve continuous emissions reductions, which in essence means companies need to install and maintain equipment to limit the release of pollutants that happen during routine operations.

Excess emissions occur when pollution abatement systems—such as scrubbers, baghouses, or flares that curtail emissions before they are released—fail to fully operate as the result of an unexpected malfunction, startup or shutdown. That is, a facility fails to maintain continuous emissions reductions, thereby exceeding its permit limits.

Although one might assume that such occurrences are rare, we found that excess emissions in Texas are frequent, sometimes large, and likely result in significant health damages for individuals living in communities near where these emissions are released.

Specifically, there are four important takeaways from our study.

First, excess emissions represent a sizable share of permitted (or routine) emissions. In the case of the natural gas liquids industry, excess emissions amounted to 77,000 tons over the period 2004-2015, representing 58 percent of the industry's routine emissions for that pollutant. Refineries emitted 23,000 tons of excess emissions (10 percent of their routine emissions of SO2) while oil and gas fields released 11,000 tons (17 percent of their routine emissions of SO2).


Second, the distribution of excess emissions is highly skewed. While thousands of excess emissions events occur every year in Texas, the top 5 percent of events release more pollutants than all the other events combined. In extreme cases, excess emissions events can release vast amounts of pollutants in a very short period of time. In 2003, a Total oil refinery in Port Arthur emitted 1,296 tons of sulfur dioxide within 56 hours, due to a power outage caused by a lighting strike. That was almost twice the amount of the total sulfur dioxide that refinery emitted that year from its routine operations.

Third, several industrial sectors account for a disproportionate amount of excess emissions. Facilities in just five sectors—natural gas liquids, refineries, industrial organic chemicals, electric services and oil and natural gas fields—emit about 80 percent of all excess emissions from industrial facilities in Texas.

Estimated damages from air toxics from excess emissions by county. Reprinted with permission. Copyright (2018) American Chemical Society. Figure compiled by the authors using data from TCEQ, EASIUR, QGIS and Manson et al (2017)

Moreover, a few facilities within each sector are responsible for the vast majority of excess emissions. For example, the top six oil refineries are responsible for 70 percent and 77 percent of the excess emissions of sulfur dioxide and carbon monoxide, respectively, released from all 30 Texas refineries.

Finally, excess emissions have important health effects. Using a model that links pollution to mortality, we estimate that the health damages attributable to excess emissions in Texas between 2004-2015 averaged $150 million annually. These estimates are certainly not comprehensive as they only consider damages from premature mortality due to particulate matter (PM) emissions caused by the emission of sulfur dioxides and nitrogen oxides.

The model does not account for the direct damage from other pollutants or from nonfatal, acute health events such as asthma attacks. As such, our estimate can be considered a lower bound.

Beyond Texas

The data we analyzed in our study reveal the magnitude of the problem caused by excess emissions. Yet, it is important to remember that they only capture the situation in Texas. We know very little about excess emissions and their trends over time at the national level. That's because Texas is one of just a few states (the others being Louisiana and Oklahoma) that systematically track and make public information on these type of pollution releases.

The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) has gone as far as to implement a system that requires facilities to publicly report excess emissions events within 24 hours of their occurrence, information that the TCEQ then makes available on its website.

Although Texas is unique in its reporting requirements, excess emissions events are common elsewhere, as the watchdog group the Environmental Integrity Project has documented in a series of reports.

Excess Emissions Are Underregulated

The EPA, after decades of leaving excess emissions outside of its regulatory focus, made a concerted effort to update its approach during the final years of the Obama administration.

Prompted by a lawsuit brought by the Sierra Club, the EPA issued a State Implementation Plan (SIP) call in 2015, asking states to revisit the way they regulate excess emissions. The agency found that certain SIP provisions in 36 states were " substantially inadequate to meet Clean Air Act (CAA) requirements."

This means that industrial facilities may have been regularly surpassing the limit of their permitted pollution limits, in part because of these excess emissions. But because of state agency exemption provisions, it could be the case that these facilities would not always be penalized. In other words, the EPA determined that many states had, as a matter of policy, often failed to treat excess emissions as violations and potentially shielded offending companies from paying fines.

The EPA is now revisiting its policy as part of the Trump administration's broader efforts to scale back many EPA regulations and decisions during the Obama era. Given the frequency, magnitude, and important adverse effects for public health, the EPA's ultimate decision on how states should treat excess emissions is consequential.

In addition, much is still to be learned about the magnitude of the excess emissions problem across the country. If an effective regulatory framework is to be designed to reduce them, it is imperative that more states begin tracking excess emissions events in a detailed and systematic way, following the example set by Texas.

Reposted with permission from our media associate The Conversation.

EcoWatch Daily Newsletter


georgeclerk / E+ / Getty Images

By Jennifer Molidor

One million species are at risk of extinction from human activity, warns a recent study by scientists with the United Nations. We need to cut greenhouse gas pollution across all sectors to avoid catastrophic climate change — and we need to do it fast, said the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

This research should serve as a rallying cry for polluting industries to make major changes now. Yet the agriculture industry continues to lag behind.

Read More Show Less
Edwin Remsburg / VW Pics / Getty Images

Botswana, home to one third of Africa's elephants, announced Wednesday that it was lifting its ban on the hunting of the large mammals.

"The Ministry of Environment, Natural Resources Conservation and Tourism wishes to inform the public that following extensive consultations with all stakeholders, the Government of Botswana has taken a decision to lift the hunting suspension," the government announced in a press release shared on social media.

Read More Show Less
Sponsored
Pxhere

By Richard Denison

Readers of this blog know how concerned EDF is over the Trump EPA's approval of many dozens of new chemicals based on its mere "expectation" that workers across supply chains will always employ personal protective equipment (PPE) just because it is recommended in the manufacturer's non-binding safety data sheet (SDS).

Read More Show Less
De Molen windmill and nuclear power plant cooling tower in Doel, Belgium. Trougnouf / CC BY-SA 4.0

By Grant Smith

From 2009 to 2012, Gregory Jaczko was chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which approves nuclear power plant designs and sets safety standards for plants. But he now says that nuclear power is too dangerous and expensive — and not part of the answer to the climate crisis.

Read More Show Less
A lake in Rocky Mountain National Park. Brett Walton / Circle of Blue

By Brett Walton

When Greg Wetherbee sat in front of the microscope recently, he was looking for fragments of metals or coal, particles that might indicate the source of airborne nitrogen pollution in Rocky Mountain National Park. What caught his eye, though, were the plastics.

Read More Show Less
Sponsored
Gabriele Holtermann Gorden / Pacific Press / LightRocket / Getty Images

In a big victory for animals, Prada has announced that it's ending its use of fur! It joins Coach, Jean Paul Gaultier, Giorgio Armani, Versace, Ralph Lauren, Vivienne Westwood, Michael Kors, Donna Karan and many others PETA has pushed toward a ban.

This is a victory more than a decade in the making. PETA and our international affiliates have crashed Prada's catwalks with anti-fur signs, held eye-catching demonstrations all around the world, and sent the company loads of information about the fur industry. In 2018, actor and animal rights advocate Pamela Anderson sent a letter on PETA's behalf urging Miuccia Prada to commit to leaving fur out of all future collections, and the iconic designer has finally listened.

Read More Show Less
Amer Ghazzal / Barcroft Media / Getty Images

If people in three European countries want to fight the climate crisis, they need to chill out more.

That's the conclusion of a new study from think tank Autonomy, which found that Germany, the UK and Sweden all needed to drastically reduce their workweeks to fight climate change.

"The rapid pace of labour-saving technology brings into focus the possibility of a shorter working week for all, if deployed properly," Autonomy Director Will Stronge said, The Guardian reported. "However, while automation shows that less work is technically possible, the urgent pressures on the environment and on our available carbon budget show that reducing the working week is in fact necessary."

The report found that if the economies of Germany, Sweden and the UK maintain their current levels of carbon intensity and productivity, they would need to switch to a six, 12 and nine hour work week respectively if they wanted keep the rise in global temperatures to the below two degrees Celsius promised by the Paris agreement, The Independent reported.

The study based its conclusions on data from the UN and the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) on greenhouse gas emissions per industry in all three countries.

The report comes as the group Momentum called on the UK's Labour Party to endorse a four-day work week.

"We welcome this attempt by Autonomy to grapple with the very real changes society will need to make in order to live within the limits of the planet," Emma Williams of the Four Day Week campaign said in a statement reported by The Independent. "In addition to improved well-being, enhanced gender equality and increased productivity, addressing climate change is another compelling reason we should all be working less."

Supporters of the idea linked it to calls in the U.S. and Europe for a Green New Deal that would decarbonize the economy while promoting equality and well-being.

"This new paper from Autonomy is a thought experiment that should give policymakers, activists and campaigners more ballast to make the case that a Green New Deal is absolutely necessary," Common Wealth think tank Director Mat Lawrence told The Independent. "The link between working time and GHG (greenhouse gas) emissions has been proved by a number of studies. Using OECD data and relating it to our carbon budget, Autonomy have taken the step to show what that link means in terms of our working weeks."

Stronge also linked his report to calls for a Green New Deal.

"Becoming a green, sustainable society will require a number of strategies – a shorter working week being just one of them," he said, according to The Guardian. "This paper and the other nascent research in the field should give us plenty of food for thought when we consider how urgent a Green New Deal is and what it should look like."

Amazon Employees for Climate Justice held a press conference after the annual shareholder meeting on May 22. Amazon Employees for Climate Justice

Amazon shareholders voted down an employee-backed resolution calling for more aggressive action on climate change at their annual meeting Wednesday, The Los Angeles Times reported.

Read More Show Less