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LyondellBasell Units Get US Air Pollution Fines

20.10.2021 - In a sign that the administration of US president Joe Biden will be tougher on environmental offenses than that of former president Donald Trump, three companies belonging to petrochemicals producer LyondellBasell have received fines for improper operation, maintenance and monitoring of flares that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) said used too much steam.

The companies have agreed to pay $3.4 million in civil penalties for violations at four production facilities in Harris County, Texas: the Equistar and Lyondell Chemical plants in Channelview and the Equistar and LyondellBasell Acetyls complexes in La Porte. As part of the mandated remediation, the companies will have to spend around $50 million to reduce the volume of gas they burn off and will also be obliged to make flaring more efficient as well as more rigorously monitoring emissions.

In the lawsuit brought by the US Department of Justice (DoJ) on behalf of the EPA, the government asserted that the companies altered the flare systems without permission. This led to an increase in emissions of pollutants such as nitrogen oxides and volatile organic compounds, which can combine to create ozone. According to press reports, the Houston region has not complied with federal ozone standards in years.

The EPA said it had “environmental justice concerns” about the flares in Channelview, where it noted that the local population is “disproportionately exposed” to harmful emissions. What’s more, it said flaring leads to the release of greenhouse gas emissions causing climate change.

In a statement, assistant US attorney general Todd Kim said “DoJ and EPA will continue to enforce the law against petrochemical plants that violate the Clean Air Act.” “In particular,” he added, “we are committed to reducing harmful air pollution from unnecessary and improper flaring, especially near overburdened communities with environmental justice concerns.”

The discussion of environmental justice can be expected to loom larger if the US Congress passes Biden’s trillion-dollar Build Back Better legislation, which is aimed at improving the sagging US physical infrastructure in many places, but also the quality of life for minority populations. Many low-income Black and Hispanic families living in decaying neighborhoods just outside the fences of large multinational energy and chemical companies are heavily affected by plant leaks and spills.

Several regions of the Texas and Louisiana Gulf are known colloquially as “Cancer Alley”, due to the large number of residents diagnosed with the disease. A recent investigation of the elevated volume of child leukemia cases seen in certain northeast Houston neighborhoods pointed the finger at a production complex now belonging to TiO2 producer Tronox, where one of its predecessors, Kerr McGee, processed creosote. Production has ceased but soil pollution lingers, reports say.

Biden’s bill may have many of its enforcement teeth pulled, due to opposition from Republicans as well as two conservative senators from the president’s own Democratic Party. However, new EPA administrator Michael Regan said in an interview this week he is willing to wield “broad regulatory power” to enact the president’s climate agenda if Congress “fails to pass meaningful climate legislation.”

Regan said the EPA will issue a “robust” greenhouse gas rule for power plants, a “stringent” methane rule for oil and gas infrastructure and “sweeping” emissions standards for new automobiles, regardless of Congress's actions. The agency “is at the center of the president's ambitious climate agenda,” he said.

Author: Dede Williams, Freelance Journalist

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