HOUSTON (AP) — Texas and federal environmental regulators on Thursday presented a draft plan for fixing industrial air permits that violate the federal Clean Air Act, but appear to be far from a final agreement on how to resolve the complex problem that affects some of the nation's largest oil refineries.
The permit battle is just one facet in a yearslong, bitter dispute between Texas and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency — one that evolved this summer from a debate over environmental policy into a political fight over federal and state rights, with Gov. Rick Perry accusing the agency of meddling in Texas' affairs.
So while officials with EPA and the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality expressed optimism and satisfaction with their progress so far after the meeting in Austin, they also bickered over technicalities and EPA's regional director Al Armendariz made clear he would go after companies that choose to fix their crucial air permits through a route not approved by his agency.
"We do intend to take action against permit holders who haven't entered processes that we feel are acceptable," Armendariz told The Associated Press.
The crux of the problem are Texas' flexible permits, which set a general limit on how much air pollutants an entire facility can release. The federal Clean Air Act requires state-issued permits to set limits on each of the dozens of individual production units inside a plant. Texas never received required federal approval for the permits but had been issuing them since 1994.
The EPA says Texas' system masks pollution and makes it impossible to regulate emissions or protect public health. In June, the EPA officially disapproved the permits, leaving more than 120 facilities, including some of the nation's largest refineries, in a state of operating limbo.
The Commission on Environmental Quality has challenged the EPA's ruling in court, but has been trying to formulate a way to help interested companies get EPA-approved permits in the meantime.
And here is where the sides again argue.
At least nine facilities, including all six of Valero's Texas plants, have applied to get new permits through an "alteration" program the state has had in place for years. Armendariz said the program does not allow for public participation, fails to resolve concerns over emissions and was designed for making minor permitting changes, not complicated do-overs.
"We have some serious concerns about that," Armendariz said, encouraging companies to wait for the final four-step program preliminarily presented Thursday or make use of an audit program the EPA will officially unveil next week.
He declined to say what kind of enforcement action he would take against companies that don't follow the EPA's rules, but said "they will be of very high interest to my office."
Richard Hyde, deputy director of permitting and registration with the Commission on Environmental Quality, said his office is obligated to review all the requests made by companies. He said it remained unclear whether the "alteration" program would work for any of them. In the past, he said, companies have "de-flexed" their permits in this way and it took 60 to 90 days.
Matthew Tejada, executive director of Air Alliance Houston, an environmental group that has long opposed flexible permits, attended Thursday's meeting. He said the sides "didn't solve a lot of those devils." However, he said the draft plan could help start fixing the permits. At the same time, Tejada said, Texas is going to have to write an entire new permitting program that will get EPA approval.
"Today was not about the future at all, this was all about fixing the past," Tejada said.
Still, he was encouraged that Thursday's meeting was open to the public and that environmentalists had a chance to participate.
"Until now, they were doing it in back rooms over beer. At least now they invited a few of us to watch," he said.