Elf Atochem: Pollution Giant
On upper Galveston Bay, the small neighborhood of El Jardin lies near the Bayport industrial park - a mass of over 50 polluting industrial facilities. Although Bayport is currently surrounded by industrial plants, the Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission (TNRCC), the state environmental regulatory agency, is recommending that multi-national Elf Atochem be allowed to build an acrylic acid plant there which is expected to release an additional 800,000 pounds of air pollution into the air.
Existing Health Problems in the Neighborhood
Ruth Lang, a longtime El Jardin resident told how "there's a long history of people complaining of sore throats, bleeding noses, nausea, and rashes. Allergies, asthma, and chemical sensitivities run rampant in the neighborhood."
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Another resident, Tamara Maschino, who lives on the East Side of the industrial complex, was overwhelmed last year by the smell of super glue and vinegar mixed together. The odors were eventually traced back to an acrylic plant three miles from her home. And in February of 2000, when another area acrylic plant released only about a third of a pound of acrolein, chemical fumes overcame 85 people and sent nine to the hospital.
A New Threat for Bayport
In 1999, American Acryl, comprised of two multi-national chemical giants, Elf Atochem and Nippon Shokubai, applied to the Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission for three air permits for their Bayport plant. The proposed plant will operate around the clock, seven days a week (1), releasing at least 800,000 pounds of emissions annually. In an area with existing severe air pollution problems, the plant is expected to discharge up to 427,540 pounds of new smog forming chemicals every year - including 322,929 pounds of nitrogen oxides (NOx) a year, the equivalent of 7,876 more cars a year.
A History of Violations
Elf Texas facilities in Beaumont, Crosby, Houston, and Bryan have been repeatedly penalized for violations. Elf Atochem paid an estimated $100 million to the families of 8 Bryan children who were born near the Elf Bryan plant with neural-tube defects and subsequently died. (2) A sulfuric acid release in 1994 at the Elf Crosby plant sent four Crosby residents to the hospital - one a five year old child with blisters on her face so severe that they took more than a year to heal.
At the Elf Harris County Haden Road plant, a pollution investigator reported that sulfur dioxide emissions above permitted limits had occurred "almost daily" for more that a month, while over 1,400 citizen suits have been filed against the Elf Atochem's Haden Road plant for air quality violations.
But Texas isn't the only area in which Elf Atochem has a poor record. On a former Elf Atochem industrial site in Pennsylvania, the EPA removed more that 200 deteriorated drums of DDT, lead, asbestos, and other toxins, naming the site one of the nation's worst hazardous waste sites. (3)
Who's Protecting the Public?
When local residents tried to intervene in the permitting process, not only lawyers for Elf Atochem opposed them, but also attorneys for the TNRCC, the very state agency charged with protecting the public.
Reportedly, TNRCC staff advised Elf Atochem on how to circumvent the process for American Acryl's permit by filing their proposed hazardous waste incinerator separately. This avoided triggering Prevention of Significant Deterioration (PSD) and non-attainment reviews, both required by state and federal law when a facility will emit more that 100 tons per year of certain pollutants.
Air modeling for the permit performed by the agency didn't consider cumulative emissions from the surrounding 52 industrial plants. Instead of using air modeling from a station closest to the proposed plant, state regulators used data from an airport 40 miles away, far from Gulf Coast winds.
Worst of all, the TNRCC allowed Elf Atochem to keep 37 out of the 49 toxic chemicals to be emitted from the plant secret from the public under the guise of trade secrets. Industrial air experts believe that Methyl Isocyanate (MIC), the chemical released in Bhopal, India or one similar will be used in this plant. The MIC release in Bhopal killed 11,000 and injured 100,000 people.
Finally, despite Elf Atochem's long record of violations, the TNRCC Executive Director argued in favor of granting Elf's air permits, stating "there is no basis to require any additional controls or changes in work practice due to Elf's compliance history." (4)
More Secrets and Impunity
Elf Atochem has also taken advantage of a law backed by Governor George Bush and passed in 1995 which allows polluters to perform self audits, hiding the results from regulators and the public, while gaining immunity for any violations found. Since 1995, 22% of all audits performed have been in the Houston Ship channel area comprised of Harris, Brazoria, and Galveston Counties. Elf Atochem has performed eight audits since 1995, further shielding itself from scrutiny by the courts, the public and even state regulators.
Sadly, the plight of the families in El Jardin and the other neighborhoods in the dead zone of the Bayport industrial park are not unique. Texas now leads the nation in numerous categories of air, water, and ground pollution. Please join Texas PEER soon for another stop on the Texas Toxic Tour.
- ED's Closing Arguments, SOAH Docket Nos 582-99-0513, 582-99-0514, 582-99-0515.p. 7
- Countryman, Carol. "Aresenic and Old Lakes," Texas Observer, February 24, 1995, p. 6
- ED's Closing Arguments, SOAH Docket Nos 582-99-0513, 582-99-0514, 582-99-0515.p. 6
- EPA Press Release August 9, 1999 by Richard Cahill. EPA Press Office 290 Broadway, NY,NY