Exxon Refinery Neighbor Group Scoffs at Texas-EPA Agreement

Turn to the nation's most objective and informative daily environmental news resource to learn how the United States and key players around the world are responding to the environmental...

By Nushin Huq

Environmental groups say a settlement between the Texas state environmental regulator and the EPA over a potential civil rights violation in permitting of an Exxon Mobil Corp. refinery is too little, too late.

The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality agreed to place an air quality monitor about one mile away from Exxon’s Beaumont, Texas, facility and will hold two public meetings with the community to discuss the monitoring data. These steps are not nearly enough, the local environmental group that filed the complaint said in a statement.

People Against Contaminated Environments (PACE), a group of neighbors near the refinery, and the Sierra Club filed an administrative complaint with the Environmental Protection Agency against TCEQ more than 15 years ago because they said state regulators improperly issued a permit to expand the plant. The complaint is one of five such cases around the country where communities have waited more than 10 years for authorities to investigate similar complaints, Marianne Engelman-Lado, a visiting professor at Yale Law School’s Environmental Justice Clinic, told Bloomberg BNA.

“People need to be informed about the type of chemicals that are being emitted into the neighborhoods—right now that’s not the case,” the Rev. Roy Malveaux, who was the executive director of PACE at the time of the 2000 EPA complaint against TCEQ, said in a statement.

PACE and the Sierra Club filed the Title XI administrative complaint with EPA’s office of civil rights in 2000. They accused TCEQ of approving a major expansion of the refinery in violation of civil rights laws. The refinery is near the Charlton-Pollard Neighborhood in Beaumont, a largely African American community. The resolution agreement between EPA and TCEQ resolves the complaint, and it doesn’t constitute an admission of violation by TCEQ, the EPA said in the agreement, released May 23.

“We protested the permit because we felt it was inappropriately, maybe illegally, issued to Exxon without allowing for a public hearing,” Neil Carman, Sierra Club Clean Air Program director, told Bloomberg BNA. “And the EPA accepted, at the Office of Civil Rights, our complaint.”

The EPA accepted the complaint in 2003, but didn’t issue a finding. Under federal law, the agency has 180 days to issue a preliminary finding. Environmental groups sued the EPA for its inaction on the case ( Californians for Renewables Energy vs. EPA, N.D. Cal., notice of resolution in Texas 5/24/17 ).

The groups are reviewing the resolution agreement and figuring out next steps, Engelman-Lado, said. The Environmental Justice Clinic represented the groups in the lawsuit.

“We have sued EPA in its unconscionable delay in investigating the case and we have an oral argument scheduled Aug. 9 in that case,” Engelman-Lado said. “This resolution agreement is too little, too late.”

The groups plan to proceed with their litigation against the EPA, Engelman-Lado said. In addition to pursuing the lawsuit with the EPA, the environmental groups plan to monitor the TCEQ to ensure they follow up on the settlement agreement, Engelman-Lado said.

“TCEQ and EPA worked cooperatively to address the concerns raised in the complaint. To that end, the agreement includes a provision that within a year the TCEQ will hold at least two public meetings in Beaumont for the residents of the community,” Andrea Morrow, a TCEQ spokeswoman, told Bloomberg BNA.

Exxon Plant

Even though the groups believe that Exxon needs to make changes to its plants to reduce emissions, PACE and the Sierra Club will most likely not pursue a citizen lawsuit against the Exxon refinery, the Sierra Club’s Carman said. Recently, a federal court issued a multimillion-dollar fine against Exxon for violations at the company’s Baytown complex. Besides fact differences in the two situations, Carman pointed to the seven years it took from the citizen lawsuit being filed to the decision by the court as another reason it would be unlikely that the group would file a similar lawsuit.

Exxon did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Since the original complaint against TCEQ was filed with the EPA, Exxon has bought many of the houses in the neighborhood and those residents have moved away, Carman said. Many of the original residents involved in the initial protest have passed away. Many of the current residents aren’t aware of the TCEQ agreement and what it means.

The Sierra Club has received funding from Bloomberg Philanthropies, the charitable organization founded by Michael Bloomberg, founder of Bloomberg L.P. Bloomberg BNA is an affiliate of Bloomberg L.P.

To contact the reporter on this story: Nushin Huq in Houston at nHuq@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Paul Connolly at PConnolly@bna.com

Copyright © 2017 The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Try Environment & Energy Report