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Accounting For Pollution

Activists in Houston are suing EPA over claims that the agency undercounts toxic air emissions

by Glenn Hess
May 9, 2013 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 91, Issue 19

Several community organizations have filed a lawsuit to force the Environmental Protection Agency to review the way it measures toxic air pollution from oil refineries and petrochemical plants along the Texas-Louisiana Gulf Coast.

In a complaint filed in early May in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, Air Alliance Houston and three other activist groups charge that EPA’s formulas for estimating emissions of benzene, butadiene, and other pollutants are “outdated and inaccurate.”

Recent independent studies at Marathon Oil, Shell, and BP refineries measured actual emissions at levels 10 to 100 times higher than estimates based on the methods facilities currently use to report their releases, the suit says.

“We have filed this complaint as a last resort, and only because EPA has ignored repeated requests to address the problem,” says Adrian D. Shelley III, executive director of Air Alliance Houston. “We must know what is in our air if we are going to clean it up and protect public health. Basically, it’s an ‘enough is enough’ situation.”

EPA has not reviewed its methodology for calculating air emissions from wastewater treatment systems since 1998, and air emission equations for liquid storage tanks have not been examined since 2006, according to the complaint. The Clean Air Act requires the agency to review and, if necessary, modify the formulas at least once every three years.

An EPA official says the agency is reviewing the suit.


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