US government takes over pollution permit in Texas showdown

26 May 2010 20:42  [Source: ICIS news]

HOUSTON (ICIS news)--The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has taken control of a Texas refinery air pollution permit in a move that could have implications for the state's chemical producers, sources said on Wednesday.

The EPA wrested control control from Texas state regulators in an ongoing dispute between the state and the federal agency.

In a letter sent to refiner and chemical producer Flint Hills Resources (FHR) on Tuesday, the federal agency began to take over jurisdiction of an emissions permitting process from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ). 

The letter pertained to FHR's East Refinery in Corpus Christi. The refinery produced aromatics such as tolune, benzene and paraxylene as well as propylene and cumene.

A call to FHR was not immediately returned.

The EPA said the action came as a result of the TCEQ's inability to submit a proposal addressing what the EPA considered violations of the Clean Air Act.

The federal agency and the TCEQ's sparring over how to monitor emissions could develop into a larger struggle between federal and state regulators over air enforcement.

"The state of Texas has to let me know if they can issue permits that are consistent with federal requirements, and if they can't, then we will," Al Armendariz, regional director for the EPA, told the Associated Press (AP).

The Texas flexible permits allowed companies to provide a general overview of emissions leaving a refinery or a chemical plant. The permits allowed companies to exceed emissions limits in particular units, as long as they were under an overall emissions average.

The EPA instead sought to pinpoint the pollutants coming from specific units as detailed in its letter to FHR.

"The requested information will allow EPA to identify each federally-enforceable and applicable requirement that pertains to each emission point covered by your state-issued flexible permit and any other underlying authorisations issued by TCEQ...," the EPA told FHR.

Armendariz also told the AP that the EPA could send out more letters by the end of June, the agency's target period for final disapproval of the flexible permit programme.

Calls to the EPA were not immediately returned.

Mark Vickery, executive director of the TCEQ, sent a letter to the regional office of the EPA on 24 May questioning the speed of the takeover of flexible permits, but conceded that the EPA had the authority.

"The TCEQ's preference is to receive feedback from EPA on responses recently submitted rather than second hand inferences of dissatisfaction with the responses," Vickery said in a letter obtained by ICIS news.

"TCEQ also recognises that certain companies' business needs, as previously noted, may necessitate issuance of Title V permits by EPA in the absence of EPA concurrence with TCEQ's responses."

Texas Governor Rick Perry said the EPA was off base.

“This is not a partisan issue: our emissions control programme went into effect under Governor Ann Richards in 1994 and was approved by the Clinton administration," Perry said in a statement released by his office. "Since then, the EPA’s unelected bureaucrats haven’t ruled on it once, yet, with the arrival of a new administration in Washington, they have put a bulls-eye on the backs of hardworking Texans."

The Texas Chemical Council (TCC) said it supported the state's authority.

“This is the first time we are aware of EPA demanding a Texas facility apply directly to the federal government for a Title V permit," TCC president Hector Rivero said in a statement.

"The Clean Air Act delegates authority to Texas to implement the state’s Title V programme. Texas has successfully administered the programme since 1994. We are incredulous that EPA would encroach on a state regulatory program that has a proven track record of success.”

Texas facilities that were regulated under the Title V include ChevronPhillips' Cedar Bayou olefins plant, Dow Chemical's Freeport plant, Formosa Plastic's olefins and polypropylene and ExxonMobil's massive Baytown, Texas, refinery that is one of the country's refined products plants that also produces aromatics chemicals.

Officials from Dow, Formosa and ChevronPhillips said that they had not received any notification from the EPA and were in compliance with operating permitting.

A call to ExxonMobil was not immediately returned.

To discuss issues facing the chemical industry go to ICIS connect

By: Ryan Hickman
+1 713 525 2653

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