A giant chemical plant in Port Arthur, Texas, has “spent years running from the Clean Air Act” by developing ways to evade detection of spikes in dangerous emissions, according to a new investigative report.
Oxbow Calcining, a company owned by William “Bill” Koch, used data from an air monitor installed near the plant to alter its emissions temporarily in ways that gamed – and may have broken – environmental protection laws, the report states.
The voluminous report was published at Grist.org, a non-profit online magazine founded in 1999 for environmental news and commentary.
Though the monitor was installed by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, the beneficiary of its data was the company, the report found. When dangerously high levels of emissions would be detected, Oxbow knew what to do.
“Every time the wind blew in the direction of the monitor and the readings ticked upward, Holtham and other Oxbow employees were alerted,” Grist reported. “Then they improvised ways to decrease the brownish-yellow sulfurous plume spilling out of the smokestacks, stopping the company from running afoul of the law.
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“However, when the wind was not blowing Oxbow’s pollutants toward the monitor, the facility did not alter its operations. By ensuring that the monitor was incapable of recording a comprehensive, untampered view of the facility’s emissions, experts say Oxbow flaunted environmental law — in essence, by guaranteeing any air violations would not be detected — and continued to deteriorate air quality in the area.”
And those pollutants – containing sulfur dioxide – are “bound to have an effect on human health,” the report asserts.
Studies have shown that even short-term exposure to sulfur dioxide can increase the risk of strokes, asthma, and hospitalization. The asthma rate in the residential neighborhood surrounding the plant, West Port Arthur, which is more than 90 percent Black, is 70 percent higher than the national average, according to federal data. And Black residents in Jefferson County, where Oxbow is located, are 15 percent more likely to develop cancer and 40 percent more likely to die from it compared to the average Texan.”
Grist cited multiple experts who argue that Oxbow’s actions warrant investigation and perhaps prosecution.
“There is clearly a criminal violation of the Clean Air Act,” said Joel Mintz, an emeritus professor of law at Nova Southeastern University in Florida and former enforcement attorney with the EPA.
A spokesman for Oxbow called Grist’s review of the company’s data “flawed” and said that the findings are “reckless and unsupportable,” Grist reported. “He added that the company is “proud of its compliance record,” emphasizing that the sulfur dioxide readings at the monitors in Port Arthur are consistently below federal standards.”
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The report at Grist was published in collaboration with the Houston Chronicle and the Beaumont Enterprise. It was supported by the Fund for Investigative Journalism.