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Accidental Pollution Weighs on Texas City

Activists say a loophole in the law lets refineries in Port Arthur harm the health of residents. Oil companies say they are not a danger.

November 11, 2002|Elizabeth Shogren | Times Staff Writer

PORT ARTHUR, Texas — Lots of people leave this Gulf Coast industrial town -- its oil refineries, its dilapidated houses, its boarded-up stores, its bleak future.

But Hilton Kelley, 42, a Hollywood stuntman and extra, returned.

For two years he has been waging what at times seems like a one-man battle against the many thousands of tons of pollution pumped into the air here every year by the refineries and other major industrial facilities.

With the energy and persistence of someone who showed up every time a studio called, for more than a decade, hoping that a job standing in for Mykelti Williamson or Eddie Murphy would land him his big chance, he is trying to cajole the perpetually passive residents of Port Arthur into standing up and fighting for their air.

Although Kelley has not had great success rousing the local people to protest, he has managed to bring the city's plight to the attention of Congress and environmental activists with national stature.

Now these environmentalists and their supporters in Congress are trying to use Port Arthur to draw attention to a loophole in the 1970 Clean Air Act that allows refineries and other industrial facilities to emit thousands of tons of hazardous pollutants into the air without regulation.

The Clean Air Act requires the states to limit the allowable pollution from industrial facilities. To give industry a break, regulators excluded from the limits pollution emitted during accidents, machinery malfunctions and even plant maintenance.

Critics say the refining industry, taking advantage of the loophole, has failed to aggressively avoid accidents or develop ways to limit pollution from malfunctions.

"This was supposed to be a rare thing," said Eric Schaeffer, director of the Rockefeller Family Fund's Environmental Integrity Project and former head of the Environmental Protection Agency's enforcement division. "But the exceptions have become the rule."

Data submitted to the Texas environmental agency by three local refineries and two chemical plants show that these unregulated releases in the first seven months of this year totaled more than 1,677 tons of several hazardous pollutants, including sulfur dioxide, hydrogen sulfide, carbon monoxide and benzene, according to an analysis by the integrity project.

"A ton of pollution is a ton of pollution, whether it's accidental or permitted," Schaeffer said. Refineries are used to a system in which some kinds of releases don't count, he added, but the environment suffers either way.

In recent years, the Environmental Protection Agency has tried to crack down on refineries it believes are abusing the loophole. The Clinton administration's EPA formally began its campaign in January 1999.

Since then, one-third of refineries nationwide, including the Motiva plant in Port Arthur, have struck agreements with the federal government, and many have dramatically reduced pollution, according to EPA officials. BP's refinery in Toledo, Ohio, went from 255 unregulated releases over the five years before the improvements to only three in the three years since, EPA spokesman Joe Martyak said.

The Bush administration has continued the effort. But critics charge that progress has slowed because the administration has proposed cutting the enforcement budget each year and, in its 2003 budget proposal, trimming staff by about 225, to 3,311.

EPA officials respond that the agency is still working aggressively to bring the refineries in line. "The pace and the attention to this have not changed in any way," Martyak said.

Regardless, unregulated releases still pose an acute problem in Port Arthur.

The 11 refineries that the EPA singled out in 2000 as the "worst" emitters of unregulated pollution released between 1,000 tons and 2,425 tons a year from 1994 to 1999. By comparison, the three refineries and two chemical companies in Port Arthur released more than 2,000 tons of excess pollutants in just the first nine months of this year, according to the Environmental Integrity Project's analysis.

Kelley, public health experts and national environmental activists agree that the problem has persisted in Port Arthur in part because the community is poor and lacks political clout. About 6% of the nation's refining capacity is in Port Arthur, according to the American Petrochemical Institute.

"I don't mind so much that we produce oil for the rest of the nation," Kelley said. "I am bothered by the lack of concern our government gives for our lives."

Jefferson County, home of Port Arthur, is among the worst 10% of counties nationwide for health problems from hazardous air pollutants, according to an analysis of EPA data by the nonprofit group Environmental Defense.

Officials at the town's refineries stress that they have spent many millions of dollars installing pollution control devices, so that their plants no longer threaten the health of residents.

"There are no health effects that we are aware of," said Rick Hagar, a spokesman for the Atofina refinery.

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