Environmentalists have filed a lawsuit to force federal regulators to review the way they calculate emissions from petrochemical plants, oil refineries and other large industrial facilities.
In the suit filed on Thursday, Air Alliance Houston and three other groups accuse the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency of using outdated and inaccurate formulas to estimate levels of air pollution.
The groups say studies show that actual smog-forming emissions can be 132 times greater than EPA estimates, which are based on data provided by the industry. The agency, as a result, does not possess reliable data to protect public health, according to the suit filed in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia.
“The EPA has a history of dragging its feet on this issue,” said Jennifer Duggan, an attorney for the Environmental Integrity Project, a legal group representing Air Alliance Houston and the other organizations in the case. “It has been aware of these inaccuracies for some time.”
An EPA spokeswoman said the agency is reviewing the suit but would not provide additional comment.
The lawsuit comes five years after the city of Houston raised similar issues with the federal agency, which uses the emissions data to develop pollution controls, establish limits and guide enforcement.
In response, the agency acknowledged flaws in its formulas and promised to make changes.
No formula review
But the EPA has not conducted a review of the formulas used to estimate emissions from flares, wastewater treatment systems and storage tanks at chemical plants and oil refineries, the suit contends.
Flares, which burn off pressurized gases during startups, shutdowns and equipment malfunctions, are of particular concern because the EPA relies on a 30-year-old study to calculate their emissions.
The lawsuit says the formula overestimates the flares’ operating efficiency and thus underestimates the emissions of benzene, 1,3-butadiene and other toxic chemicals.
‘A last resort’
Federal law requires the EPA to review and revise, if necessary, the formulas every three years.
“We must know what is in our air if we are going to clean it up and protect public health,” said Adrian Shelley, executive director of Air Alliance Houston. “We have filed this complaint as a last resort, and only because EPA has ignored repeated requests to address the problem.”
Air Alliance Houston is joined in the suit by Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services, an East Harris County group; Port Arthur’s Community In-Power and Development Association; and the Louisiana Bucket Brigade.