Environmental Groups Slap Pasadena Refining System With Clean Air Act Lawsuit

Pasadena Refining System has been accused of air pollution. Shocker, isn't it?
Pasadena Refining System has been accused of air pollution. Shocker, isn't it? Roy Luck via Flickr creative commons
The aged Pasadena Refining System Inc. is no stranger to problems. In recent years, the century-old facility has had a litany of incidents, everything from fires and explosions to a chemical release that forced residents to shelter in place for hours last year, as we've previously reported. Now, two environmental groups have slapped Pasadena Refining System Inc., owned by Brazil's state oil company, Petrobras, with a lawsuit alleging violations of the Clean Air Act.

The Sierra Club and Environment Texas filed a citizen-enforcement federal lawsuit on Thursday claiming the refinery company has violated the Clean Air Act "thousands" of times, releasing sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide emissions in amounts that violate the hourly and yearly limits. The lawsuit asks that the groups be awarded civil penalties and for the court to appoint a special overseer to keep tabs on the refinery's operations while sticking Pasadena Refining System Inc. with the bill.

The two groups, which have been planning on filing this lawsuit since last year, are trying to get the refinery to stop pumping out the chemical-laced air that often smells of "a rotten egg odor, an odor like something burning, and chemical odors,” the lawsuit states. People living near the refinery — one of the many refineries located along the Houston Ship Channel — have dealt with "asthma, headaches, running nose, sneezing, coughing, and watering eyes," according to court documents.

At this point, this sort of thing seems to be par for the course for Pasadena Refining System Inc. In 2016, 11 people were injured, the place has erupted in fires and explosions, and a chemical release caused a shelter-in-place order. The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality has issued more than $1 million in fines over the “unauthorized” releases of sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide, and it was discovered that the refinery had been operating without a federal permit since 2014.

Luke Metzger, director of Environment Texas, stated refinery officials have already proved willing to meet and talk about ways to address the issues he and other environmentalists are concerned about but that they feel the refinery needs to make a "major new commitment to environmental compliance."

While some would assume this is more of a problem for state environmental regulators to tackle, Metzger told KUHF that he feels TCEQ officials aren't focused on making companies follow the law when it comes to pollution. Thus, the lawsuit, which is a good way to hold the company publicly accountable.

When you add in the consideration that the federal Environmental Protection Agency is likely to be a lot less interested in protecting the environment with longtime EPA foe Scott Pruitt at the helm, it just makes sense that the organizations have opted to go the litigation route to see if they can get the air around the refinery cleaned up.

Metzger also indicated the two environmental groups are perfectly willing to work out a deal outside of court to deal with this issue if the refinery officials agree to an emissions reduction program. Otherwise, they plan on slugging this out in court.

The lawsuit wasn't a surprise for the refinery heads. The Sierra Club and Environment Texas had sent the company a notice of intent to sue back in December. Pasadena Refining System Inc.'s official stance on the matter is one of caring and concern. “We are committed to complying with all local, state and federal regulations and keeping our team’s focus on safe and reliable operations,” the company states in response to queries about the lawsuit itself.
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Dianna Wray is a nationally award-winning journalist. Born and raised in Houston, she writes about everything from NASA to oil to horse races.
Contact: Dianna Wray