The fix to closing Texas’ pollution loophole is stuck in committee

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I’ll pay $100 to whoever can find a loophole like this to get me out of a speeding ticket.

When your friendly neighborhood volatile chemicals facility goes up in flames, they’re required to file paperwork telling the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality which pollutants (and how much) were released into the atmosphere. This is required during any unapproved release, like when equipment fails or undergoes maintenance.

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It’s flat-out illegal to release more pollution than what is allowed in the Clean Air Act and is punishable by hefty fines from the state of Texas, which is overseen by the TCEQ.


But when filing those reports with TCEQ, companies are allowed to claim that they did everything in their power to prevent the release, despite the fact that it happened. They could be off the hook for fines if the TCEQ agrees.

In an analysis of reports, Environment Texas found that TCEQ agreed with companies 97 percent of the time.

“We think that lax enforcement from the state is creating a culture where it’s often cheaper to break the law than comply,” Environment Texas spokeswoman Catherine Fraser said. “It’s one of the reasons we’re seeing such a rash of chemical disasters in the Houston area.”

Texas law says the  TCEQ can allow companies to claim this “affirmative defense” when they release illegal pollution, which Fraser calls a loophole for companies to skirt accountability.

In 2019 alone, polluters released 174 million pounds of pollution into Texas air. In the Houston-area, that number was 23 million pounds.

Texas Sen. César Blanco filed Senate Bill 684 that would close the loophole. The only problem? It’s been stuck in the Natural Resources and Economic Development subcommittee since mid-March.

Other bills that aim to tackle illegal polluters are faring better, including House Bill 1820 that would in part increase fines for illegal releases. That bill had a public hearing Monday in Austin and could be voted out of the committee soon.

Ultimately, the law only allows TCEQ to offer the affirmative defense – but it is not required to do so.

“TCEQ could get rid of it tomorrow if they wanted to,” Fraser said. “… We know these events are preventable. It just takes planning and prevention.”

Chron reached out to Blanco’s office about Senate Bill 684 but has yet to hear back. This story will be updated if there is any new information.


Do you think the loophole should be closed? Let me know on Twitter: @jayrjordan.





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