Galveston County facilities on more than a half-dozen occasions violated permits by releasing higher than allowable levels of pollution into area waterways during an 18-month period, according to data collected through state and federal agencies.
In late March, two environmental policy groups co-published a report documenting 8,148 incidents of pollution exceeding federal safety levels in U.S. waters between January 2016 and September 2017.
Texas businesses accounted for 938 of those incidents, the most of any state, according to research by Frontier Group and Environment America Research and Policy Center. The state’s ranking is largely related to having a high number of industrial facilities because the state is home to many large cities and the nation’s largest petrochemical and refining industry, according to the study.
In Galveston County, there were eight instances in which facilities reported exceeding their pollutant permit, according to data published by Environment Texas, an Austin-based environmental group.
In the Galveston County incidents, facilities leaked enterococci, a waste product in crude oil refining, and iron into the Texas City ship channel and canals on their properties, according to data published by Environment Texas, which published data about the Texas incidents from the report.
Blanchard Refining Company, a subsidiary of Marathon Petroleum Corp., and the Gulf Coast Authority each had at least one instance in which they released pollutants exceeding their permits.
In one instance, Blanchard Refining Company released enterococci into the ship channel exceeding its permit by 282 percent, according to the data. In another, the amount released exceeded the permit by 136 percent, according to the report.
On one other occasion, the facility had released oil and grease exceeding its permit by 27 percent, according to the data and a compliance history report from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.
Enterococci bacteria can make people sick with gastrointestinal problems and is one of the primary reasons beach health advisories warn people not to swim in an area, Environment Texas Executive Director Luke Metzger said.
The Gulf Coast Authority, a government waste disposal operation, reported a violation on Aug. 31 when its facility at 3500 Loop 197 in Texas City released iron into the Texas City Ship Channel exceeding the amount allowed in its permit by 27 percent, according to the group’s compiled data and a compliance history report kept by the commission.
The Gulf Coast Authority discharge happened during Hurricane Harvey because of heavy rain, spokesman Keith Hardcastle said.
There was no noticeable affect to the water quality at the canal where it was deposited and no fish kills reported, Hardcastle said.
A spokeswoman for Marathon said the company generally does not comment on operations beyond what is available in public filings with the agency.
The study looked at violations of the Clean Water Act and enforcement of that law by looking at about 18 months of data.
The state’s environmental agency, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, requires facilities with discharge permits to routinely monitor and report discharges to the agency, commission spokeswoman Andrea Morrow said.
The agency monitors the data and determines facility compliance and when exceedances happen to determine whether there will be a formal enforcement action based on the requirements of the Texas Pollutant Discharge Elimination System, Morrow said.
The system penalizes major facilities when they exceed their monthly average effluent limit of a conventional pollutant by 40 percent or by 20 percent for a toxic pollutant or if there are chronic violations, according to the commission.
“When violations are serious enough to warrant formal enforcement action, the TCEQ is authorized to enforce correction of the violations and to seek penalties to deter future noncompliance,” Morrow said.
The Galveston County permits with violations did not meet the criteria for referral to the Environmental Protection Agency for penalty for the water discharge violations, according to the state’s compliance history reports. The incidents did not meet the state or federal criteria for referral, according to the commission.
The report criticized the state environmental commission for rarely penalizing companies for violating federal clean water laws and polluting rivers, bays and other waterways around Texas.
“Each year, from 2011 to 2017, an average of 27,849 facilities were non-compliant across the U.S., while an average of 13,076 — less than half — faced any EPA or state enforcement action,” the report stated.
In Texas, about half of the major industrial facilities had an instance of illegal water pollution and many had multiple excesses, according to the report.
“About half the facilities in Texas are exceeding their permits,” Metzger said. “We’re concerned that’s the result of lax enforcement by the TCEQ and EPA.”
“What’s particularly disturbing is we still have thousands of miles of rivers and streams that are not fit for basic uses,” Metzger said. “We have waterways that are too polluted and companies are potentially breaking the law and putting even more pollution in them.”