Four refineries face Texas environmental probes
The commission, which is charged with enforcing federal and state pollution regulations, is investigating most of the plants for excessive releases of chemicals into the air above the town of 58,000 residents about 90 miles east of Houston.
In addition to fines of as much as $10,000 a day, the companies could face millions of dollars in costs to upgrade their refineries or chemical plants in order to prevent future problems.
"Whatever fix they have to make, usually the fix is pretty expensive," said Patrick Crimmins, spokesman for the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.
Shell Oil Co. and affiliated companies are undertaking a $400-million project to clean refineries in Port Arthur and other states. Atofina Petrochemical is spending $7 million on one piece of equipment at its Port Arthur refinery.
The plants being investigated are owned by Premcor Inc, ChevronTexaco Corp. , BASF Corp. and Atofina, a subsidiary of France's TotalFinaElf .
"The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality has always been very diligent in investigating matters like these," said Rick Hagar, public affairs adviser for Atofina Petrochemicals.
A study released earlier this week by a Rockefeller Fund organization found 4.2 million pounds of unpermitted pollutants have been released by the plants in Port Arthur so far this year.
"This is an unusual situation," Crimmins said of the four investigations of the Port Arthur plants. "There are excessive emissions and too frequent releases."
Refineries and chemical plants receive permits authorizing a certain amount of chemicals to be released into the air in a year. They are also able to release chemicals during "unavoidable" events such as accidents or equipment restarts.
The study paid for the by Rockefeller fund and done by the Environmental Integrity Project found there that just this year there has been nearly one release a week in Port Arthur due to an "unavoidable" event.
The only refinery in Port Arthur not facing an ongoing investigation is owned by Motiva Enterprises LLC, a joint venture between Shell Oil Co. and Saudi Aramco.
Motiva, Shell and another Shell joint venture, Equilon Enterprises LLC, last year entered into an agreement with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to clean up the Port Arthur refinery along with other plants in Texas, Delaware, Louisiana and Washington.
The total cost of the agreement with the EPA for Shell and affiliates will be $400 million, including $9.5 million in civil penalties.
Representatives of other Port Arthur plants under investigation did not reply to phone messages requesting comment.