Petroleum refineries are a source of air pollution emissions, such as BTEX compounds (benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene, and xylene), according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
They are also a major source of particulate matter (PM), nitrogen oxides (NOx), carbon monoxide (CO), hydrogen sulfide (H2S), and sulfur dioxide (SO2). Many of the chemicals released are known or suspected cancer-causing agents, responsible for developmental and reproductive problems. The release of these pollutants can also aggravate respiratory conditions such as asthma and COPD.
As the arctic air mass spread into the region, refiners and petrochemical plants along the Gulf Coast, many of them in Texas, scrambled to shut down production. The shutdowns led to the refineries flaring, or burning and releasing gases, to prevent damage to their processing units.
The amount of emissions released into the skies over eastern Texas was so huge that smoke darkening the skies could be seen for miles, according to CTV News Canada.
According to records from the Texas Commission on Environment Quality (TCEQ), oil and gas companies filed 174 notices of pollution releases above permitted levels between Feb. 11 and Feb. 18, four times the number requested in the prior week.
The flaring and release of gasses continued for a week as refineries kept plants out of service. “These emissions can dwarf the usual emissions of the refineries by orders of magnitude,” said Jane Williams, chair of the Sierra Club’s National Clean Air Team.
“We had six or seven flares going at one time,” Hilton Kelly, who lives in Port Arthur, home to refineries operated by Motiva, Valero, and Total SE, said on Friday, reports Reuters. “It’s still happening now.”
Sharon Wilson, a researcher at advocacy group Earthworks, said the releases are alarming, in part because “there is no safe amount of benzene for human exposure.”
Environment Texas, an advocacy group, analyzed the data from TCEG and found that total; pollution at Houston area oil and gas facilities totaled approximately 703,000 pounds, about 3 percent of the total pollution over permitted amounts for all of 2019, and almost 10 percent of 2018’s releases.