Since the investigation began in 2009, a new assessment has put Texas at the top of the list for industrial discharges into rivers, much higher than the Great Lakes states. If your business generates a lot of liquid waste but there’s no decent way to dispose of it, Texas may be the perfect location for you. An examination of EPA statistics reveals that the state’s waterways provide a free and clear conduit for the transportation of enormous quantities of waste chemicals and industrial discharge to the state’s coasts and beyond.
Denver-based nonprofit Environment America has released a report showing that Texas has the highest rate of toxic discharges into streams, rivers, and lakes in the United States. Prior to this report, Texas had been ranked fourth since Environment America began tracking water pollution across the country in 2009. In order to compile this report, the EPA used information voluntarily submitted by manufacturing facilities. Toxic chemicals released into Texas water in 2020 totaled 16.7 million pounds, up from 13.2 million in 2007.
According to Luke Metzger, head of Environment Texas, the state’s chapter of Environment America, “Texas has a relatively liberal regulatory environment where it is very easy to permit new polluting facilities and very difficult to get penalized for infractions.” “They realize that they probably can get away with it.” According to him, firms can often come out ahead by ignoring pollution regulations and paying the resulting fines.
Up to 90% of all documented harmful discharges from industry in the United States come from nitrate compounds, which can be found in both fertilizer runoff and industrial waste. The remainder consists of elements like lead, solvents like tetrachloroethylene, and compounds of manganese, methanol, and ammonia. Mercury and dioxin are just two examples of the “persistent bioaccumulative toxics” that accumulate in both humans and animals over time.
There is evidence that many of these chemicals travel from water sources like lakes and rivers to consumables like milk. The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality receives dozens of applications for permits to release industrial trash per week. However, residents of Texas do not have access to comprehensive data detailing the types and amounts of pollutants being released by local industries into surface water sources. Toxins discharged by the largest allowed polluters can be searched for online by location only through the EPA’s Toxics Release Inventory, which relies on self-reporting.
Instead of delving into the precise harmful components, the TCEQ’s water pollution permit notices typically refer to “industrial wastewater” or “process water.” In Texas, information on the allowable levels of acetaldehyde, polycyclic aromatic compounds, and polybrominated diphenyl ethers in discharge is not easily accessible online despite the fact that such limitations are included in water pollution licenses. The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) issued a statement saying it manages programs “to assure safe and effective management of pollutants that may reach Texas surface waterways.”
To guarantee that permitted discharges from properly run and maintained facilities fulfill Texas Surface Water Quality Standards, the agency “authorizes treated wastewater effluent discharges and includes a technical assessment and implementation procedures,” as stated on their website. There are reporting and monitoring procedures built into discharge authorizations to ensure permits are being followed. Harris County, Texas’s most populous county and home to Houston, the nation’s energy capital, and 52 applications for water quality permits were submitted to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) in the past month. The majority of these licenses were issued to municipal utility districts and municipal wastewater treatment facilities, although a sizeable number came from the county’s important industrial sector, which includes refineries and chemical factories.
For instance, Oxy Vinyls, “a facility which manufactures polyvinyl chloride and anhydrous potassium hydroxide,” filed an application asking for the right to dump up to 105 million gallons of water per day, two million of which would come from “treated process wastewaters from polyvinyl chloride production and vinyl chloride monomer (VCM) production.” (The TCEQ does provide some permit search functionality, albeit with restrictions.)
Such trash will eventually make its way to Galveston Bay, the Houston Ship Channel, and eventually the Gulf of Mexico via Patrick Bayou. The EPA has designated Patrick Bayou as a federal Superfund site due to the extreme pollution levels present there. Fifteen of the top twenty polluting facilities in Texas, including thirteen petroleum refineries or chemical plants, are located on waterways in the coastal region, a huge swath of former wetlands draining swiftly to the Gulf of Mexico. Five of them are dedicated to the processing of chicken. The French chateau of Pilgrim’s Pride Corp.’s late founder is located on 43 acres in East Texas, but the company’s chicken slaughter, manufacturing, and frying plant in the little town of Mt. Pleasant is the state’s top polluter.
Pilgrim’s Pride is a leading U.S. provider of processed chicken, operating multiple facilities in the country to produce seven distinct brands of fried and prepared chicken products, some of which are used in school lunch programs. According to a report by Environment Texas, the facility discharged 2.7 million pounds of nitrate compounds into Tankersley Creek in 2020, which ultimately made their way into Lake O’ the Pines. Two Valero refineries, one in the Houston neighborhood of Manchester near Galveston Bay, and another in Texas City were the state’s second and third largest polluters in 2012, respectively, contributing a combined 3.2 million pounds of water pollution, including 685,000 pounds of hydrogen cyanide, 1.4 million pounds of acrylonitrile, and 22,000 pounds of 1,2,4-trimethylbenzene.
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According to the EPA, the Dow Chemical Co. in nearby Freeport dumped 31 different chemicals into the tidal Brazos River, including 27,000 pounds of benzene, 2,400 pounds of ethylene oxide, and 193 pounds of hexachlorobenzene. Requests for comment submitted to Dow, Valero, Pilgrim’s Pride, and Oxy Vinyls on Tuesday were not immediately responded to. The EPA’s online Toxic Release Inventory was a source for the report, but the authors were careful to note that the information it contained was entirely self-reported. When violating environmental laws, polluters should report their actions to the proper authorities.
Not all chemical waste that is released into sewers by facilities is reported. The report, written in collaboration with the U.S. PIRG Education Fund and the Frontier Group, notes that the data it presents “should be understood to represent only a fraction of what is likely a much larger and more pervasive problem of harmful discharges to waterways.” The research suggested updating federal pollution limits and instituting a nationwide systemic reduction in the use of harmful chemicals to end industrial dumping in rivers.
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