Port Arthur residents call for civil rights polls on how Texas has managed air pollution in its neighborhood – Houston Public Media

The Oxbow plant in Port Arthur at night.

Port Arthur residents are calling on the Environmental Protection Agency to begin an investigation into whether Texas violated its civil rights by allowing a nearby facility to pollute the air for decades without the need for modern pollution control technologies. the pollution.

The petition, filed Wednesday by Lone Star Legal Aid and the Environmental Integrity Project on behalf of the Port Arthur Community Action Network, alleges that the Texas Environmental Quality Commission has failed to adequately address emissions from the Oxbow calcination plant, allowing it to continue polluting high amounts of sulfur dioxide.

“(The TCEQ is) responsible for protecting people in the state of Texas from damage caused by air pollution and TCEQ cannot properly regulate harmful Oxbow sulfur pollution,” said Colin Cox, lawyer for the Environmental Integrity Project. “The biggest damage from this failure is falling on the people of Port Arthur and falling into a low-income black neighborhood. And that is a civil rights issue. “

Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, or national origin in programs that receive federal funding. The petition alleges that the TCEQ violated the act by not requiring Oxbow to implement modern pollution control devices, such as scrubbers, which can remove up to 95% sulfur dioxide and are common in installations. Modern.

The petition points to a recent renewal of the permit granted by the TCEQ in 2020, despite concerns raised by the community.

In addition to asking the EPA to open an investigation, the petition also calls for the TCEQ to issue a stronger permit for the plant and require additional air control and for Oxbow to hold an outreach event with the community.

“The main thing we want is to reduce its sulfur pollution,” Cox said. “It will have a huge impact on air quality on the west side of Port Arthur and regionally.”

The TCEQ reached an agreement with the EPA on a separate Title VI civil rights complaint earlier this year, alleging that the agency violated federal law denying the possibility of participating in the process of granting non-English speaking people.

The Texas Department of Transportation is also facing a Title VI complaint over its I-45 expansion project in Houston, which is currently pending while the federal government conducts its investigation.

The 85-year-old Port Arthur plant produces calcined petroleum coke, which is used to make aluminum. It is the largest sulfur dioxide pollutant in Jefferson County, as it releases more than 22 million pounds of sulfur dioxide annually, according to the latest EPA data.

Short-term exposure to sulfur dioxide can cause respiratory problems, such as wheezing and shortness of breath. It can also react with other compounds in the air to form particles, which can also cause health problems, such as decreased lung function.

“Everyone has the right to breathe clean air and live in a clean and safe environment,” said John Beard, founder of the Port Arthur Community Action Network. “And that’s just what doesn’t happen in Port Arthur in general and on the west side of Port Arthur, where I live in particular.”

According to the petition, about 3,000 residents live within a three-mile radius of the plant. Of these close residents, 98% are people of color and 62% have lower incomes.

Beard said he has seen first-hand how pollution from the industry has affected his neighbors, and many say they feel they have colds from which they cannot get rid. He also said that because many residents have lower incomes, moving is not really an option.

“They don’t have a chance to improve it themselves, financially speaking, and get away from those areas. They’re basically trapped,” he said. “And they are left breathless from polluted air that contains harmful particles that affect the heart, lungs and kidneys.”

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