“A Pass to Poison”
July 17, 2017
The Texas Tribune’s landmark “A Pass to Poison” investigation exposed how industrial facilities in Texas repeatedly spew unauthorized pollutants into the air — yet face virtually no consequences for it. And it revealed how these toxic pollutants have exacerbated air quality problems in the state’s urban areas, spurring increased rates of asthma and cancer, and contributing to climate change.
The Tribune’s environmental reporter, Kiah Collier, first became interested in these unauthorized emissions after stumbling onto an obscure state database of reports industrial facilities must submit when they release more air pollution than their permits allow. Later, while attending a union meeting to report on another story, she met a former Shell Oil worker who recalled the day in 2015 when his plant malfunctioned and released more than 300,000 pounds of a highly explosive chemical. That conversation further deepened her curiosity about rogue air pollution events.
But the state database was difficult to use and allowed for only limited searches. For several months, Kiah teamed up with her Texas Tribune colleague Ryan Murphy, who specializes in data analysis. They became the first journalists to scrape the database and use its information to identify larger trends. The web scraper they developed periodically collected unauthorized emissions release reports and tracked the status of the reports as they were finalized. They also used the scraper to collect historical reports going back five years. Using this data, they were able to calculate just how much — and what kinds of — air pollution Texas industrial facilities were emitting each year during plant malfunctions and other unplanned incidents.
The Tribune’s data analysis showed that oil refineries, chemical plants and other industrial facilities were emitting tens of millions of pounds of unauthorized air pollution every year — and that much of it was coming from the same facilities.
Collier and Murphy used another online database of state enforcement records — and information obtained through a dozen open records requests — to figure out how often the state punishes the state’s top industrial polluters. They also interviewed more than a dozen plant workers, scientists, legal experts, environmental groups and government officials. They found that the ultra-conservative, oil-is-king state rarely, if ever, hands down fines or requires corrective action from pollutant-spewing plants. And in the rare cases where the state levies penalties, facilities are often able to negotiate with the state to lessen their sanctions, a process that can delay any payout for years.
Indeed, the Tribune’s analysis showed that of the 3,723 unauthorized emissions events that occurred in 2016, only 20 had resulted in fines. Our investigation also revealed that this lack of state action had given profit-hungry industrial facilities a rationale for delaying crucial equipment upgrades that would have prevented dangerous emissions.
As a result of the Texas Tribune investigation, which was published by more than a dozen news organizations statewide, the Shell plant where Collier’s source had worked announced major equipment upgrades and sent out a staff email emphasizing the need to follow safety protocols. And the San Antonio Express-News’ editorial board called on the state’s environmental regulatory agency — an agency under the thumb of the state’s top Republican leadership — to crack down on rogue air polluters.
It’s always difficult to make a deep environmental impact in ultra-red Texas, where most of the state’s elected class considers climate change a hoax. We think “A Pass to Poison” was a brave and unprecedented venture, an impossible-to-deny look at what happens when state regulators play politics instead of protecting the citizens.
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Submitted by Emily Ramshaw.