Port Arthur, TX – Community group and LSLA client, Port Arthur Community Action Network (PA-CAN), previously announced plans to sue Valero Energy Corporation and its subsidiary, Premcor Refining Group, Inc. (collectively, “Valero”) in federal court for hundreds of violations of the Clean Air Act, totaling over 1.8 million pounds of unauthorized air pollution released by Valero’s Port Arthur refinery since May 2014. Teaming up with LSLA community partners Environment Texas and Sierra Club Lone Star Chapter, the environmental group’s May 22 “notice of intent to sue” was a first step that would allow them to file a citizen suit against Valero after a mandatory 60-day waiting period – unless the state or the federal government sued the companies within that time frame.

Fifty-eight days after the groups filed their notice of intent to sue, the state of Texas took up the challenge and sued Valero on July 19. Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton filed the State’s lawsuit against Valero and Premcor in state court on behalf of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ), the state agency responsible for regulating industrial air emissions. The State’s suit appears to follow the groups’ notice letter as a roadmap: each type of Clean Air Act violation listed in the notice has been similarly listed in the State’s complaint. “Virtually everything listed in the State’s complaint was taken directly from our notice,” said John Beard, Chairman of PA-CAN and longtime resident of Port Arthur’s West Side.

Pre-empted by the State’s lawsuit, the environmental groups are now prevented from filing a citizen suit, as long as the State “diligently prosecutes” Valero.  The groups will be keeping a close eye as the State’s suit progresses. “These are serious and egregious violations that have been committed, and TCEQ has been extremely slow to act on what has become a pattern of environmental abuses by Valero,” said Beard. “The State should have acted long ago. What will be telling is whether the AG will follow the rules of procedure regarding fines and penalties, or reduce or dismiss certain violations entirely. Given the State’shistory of not going after these types of gross violations, we aregoing to be very observant of the suit to make sure the West Side community of Port Arthur is protected.  So stay tuned.

LSLA EJ Managing Attorney Amy Dinn noted that this may be the first instance where the State of Texas has sued a refinery under threat of a Clean Air Act citizen suit. “We are hopeful that the State follows through in pursuing these violations and making sure that the impacted community in the West Side of Port Arthur receives some direct benefits from any enforcement results,” remarked Dinn.

Representing PA-CAN on the case along with Dinn, Attorney Dave Nicholas, and National Environmental Law Center Senior Attorney Josh Kratka, LSLA EJ Attorney Colin Cox commented, “It’s unfortunate that it takes the threat of a citizen suit and the accompanying bad press to motivate the State to protect its citizens from Valero’s pollution. If the State fails to compel Valero to clean up its act, we will pursue further legal action.”

According to Valero’s own compliance reports filed with TCEQ, its Port Arthur Refinery has committed hundreds of violations of the Clean Air Act over the past five years, with more than 600 violations of hourly and annual emissions limits as well as dozens of violations relating to improper operation of the refinery’s large industrial flares. The refinery released over 850,000 pounds of sulfur dioxide (SO2) alone during these illegal emission events. Detailing its poor compliance history in a series of reports, Environment Texas found the Port Arthur refinery had more unauthorized emissions of particulate matter in 2017 than any other polluter in the state. The refinery’s illegal emissions of nitrogen oxides (NOx) and VOCs further contribute to the formation of ground-level ozone, a harmful pollutant that can worsen respiratory illness among vulnerable populations such as children, the elderly, and those with existing asthma or cardiovascular disease.

While Valero Port Arthur spews these pollutants and additional harmful chemicals into the air including cancer-causing benzene, hydrogen sulfide, lead, and hydrogen fluorine – a chemical that could cause a deadly vapor cloud in an accidental release or explosion – approximately 36,000 residents, five schools, two community centers, four public parks, and over 20 churches sit within a 3-mile radius of the refinery. The facility is one of three major refineries and eight other hazardous facilities engulfing Port Arthur’s historically underserved West Side neighborhood, where African Americans in Jefferson County have a 40% higher cancer mortality rate than the rest of Texas,and children suffer more than double the nation’s average asthma rates.  According to the Environmental Protection Agency, Port Arthur is burdened with some of the highest rates of cancer, heart, lung, and kidney disease in the state. 

“Valero’s past and ongoing violations of their clean air permits have directly affected the quality of life, health, and safety of residents in Port Arthur and its West Side community,” said Beard. “A slap on the wrist won’t cut it – we are calling on the TCEQ to uphold our right to breathe clean air. Our lives, and our children’s lives, depend on it.”

Lone Star Legal Aid is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit law firm focused on advocacy on behalf of low-income and underserved populations. Lone Star Legal Aid serves the millions of people at 125% of federal poverty guidelines that reside in 72 counties in the eastern and Gulf Coast regions of Texas, and 4 counties of southwest Arkansas. Lone Star Legal Aid focuses its resources on maintaining, enhancing, and protecting income and economic stability; preserving housing; improving outcomes for children; establishing and sustaining family safety and stability, health and well‐being; and assisting populations with special vulnerabilities, like those who have disabilities, or who are elderly, homeless, or have limited English language skills. To learn more about Lone Star Legal Aid, visit our website at www.lonestarlegal.org.

Media contact: Clarissa Ayala, cayala@lonestarlegal.org