42 Allies Urge EPA to Reverse Weakening of "High Priority Violator" Policy

Washington, D.C. — The Environmental Integrity Project and 42 environmental allies sent a letter to the EPA Inspector General yesterday urging the agency to reverse an EPA decision to weaken its “high priority violator” policy for enforcing environmental laws.

Under that change in August 15, 2014, illegal emissions of air pollutants from power plants, chemical factories or other facilities would only be considered a “high priority” for EPA enforcement actions if they lasted more than seven days.

This is a problem, because many dangerous emissions of toxic air pollution, for example, happen in brief but intense bursts that put at risk the health of communities downwind, but are no longer considered a “high priority” under the new policy, according to the letter to EPA Inspector General Arthur Elkins Jr. sent yesterday. This is an environmental justice issue, because many of the downwind residents are minorities or lower income people.

“We are particularly concerned about the impact that these ‘upset’ emissions have on the health and well-being of neighborhoods downwind,” Eric Schaeffer, executive director of the Environmental Integrity Project, wrote in the letter. “Although the affected population varies from one site to the next, nearly half the combined total live below the poverty line, 57% are Latino, and 11.7% African American. Nearly one third are children, who are more sensitive to pollutants that cause cancer or trigger asthma or other lung diseases. Even brief exposures to many of the kinds of toxins in refinery emissions have been found to increase the risk of impaired fetal development, contributing to infant mortality and long term health consequences from premature birth or birth defects.”

An example of these brief but dangerous bursts of pollution happened on August 9, 2015, at the Shell Deer Park refinery in Houston. The plant released more than 300,000 pounds of 1,3-butadiene, a potent carcinogen, from a pressurized vessel in just 55 minutes. That is twice the combined total amount of butadiene emissions that all Texas refineries reported in all of 2014. But consistent with the new policy, this release has not been designated a “high priority violation” by EPA.

Also signing the letter were NRDC, Sierra Club, Earthjustice, Air Alliance Houston, and 38 other organizations or environmentalists, including documentary filmmaker Josh Fox, creator of “Gasland.”

To read a copy of the letter, click here.

Media Contact: Tom Pelton, Environmental Integrity Project, 443-510-2574 or tpelton@environmentalintegrity.org