Houston (AP) - The Environmental Protection Agency may take over the entire job of regulating air quality in Texas if the state keeps violating the Clean Air Act, an EPA official told The Associated Press on Wednesday - intensifying a dispute over regulating pollution from the largest U.S. refineries and petrochemical plants.
The comment by regional EPA chief Al Armendariz comes a day after he said the federal government would issue the operating permit for one refinery in Corpus Christi and planned to take over 39 other permits.
Now, Armendariz said, the agency is studying how to federalize what has always been a state job and hiring eight permitting engineers and attorneys - partly to deal with Texas.
"Do we also think the deficiencies are serious enough to go that route? The answer is yes," Armendariz said. "If we have to, we will. The takeover of a state program and the federalizing of a state program is a lengthy process and doesn't happen overnight."
Armendariz had said the EPA wanted assurances by July 1 that Texas will comply with federal law.
The EPA's plan is sure to set off fireworks in Texas.
State regulators have consistently said they disagree with the EPA's conclusion that Texas allows the petrochemical industry to spew out an unmeasured amount of toxins as it refines one-third of the nation's gasoline and produces thousands of other chemical products and plastics.
"It would take years and kill millions of jobs and the economy would suffer eventually, and we're seeing no environmental benefit," Bryan Shaw, chairman of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, told the AP.
Now, the dispute is rapidly becoming a battle over federal and state rights.
Gov. Rick Perry, who is running for re-election and campaigning on an anti-Washington platform, said the EPA's action is another attempt by the federal government to wrest control from states.
"The Obama administration has taken yet another step in its campaign to harm our economy and impose federal control over Texas," Perry said. "On behalf of those Texans whose jobs are threatened by this latest overreach and in defense of not only our clean air program but also our rights under the 10th Amendment, I am calling upon President Obama to rein in the EPA."
The EPA's next major step will likely come next month, when it plans to officially block a 16-year-old Texas permitting program that never received the required federal approval and which the EPA says violates the law. Documents obtained by The Associated Press indicate the EPA believes the flexible permits let some plants emit double the admissible levels of toxic pollutants, including cancer-causing benzene and butadiene.
Texas's so-called flexible permits set a general limit on how much 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. The EPA says Texas' system masks pollution and makes it impossible to regulate emissions.
However, because Texas began issuing the permits in 1994 - and the EPA never stopped the practice - it will take at least five years to issue new permits to about 140 affected facilities, including Exxon Mobil's largest U.S. refinery in Baytown near Houston, Shell's Deer Park refinery and the Pantex Plant in Amarillo, Texas - a facility charged by the U.S. Department of Energy with maintaining the nation's nuclear weapons stockpile.
Until the plants have permits that allow for effective monitoring, the EPA and environmental activists say their true pollution will remain a mystery.
Shaw insists the EPA is relying on faulty data and said the federal move caught the state by surprise. Texas, he said, is willing to revise and explain the program to the EPA.
"It was somewhat out of left field," Shaw said. "It indicates the discussion and the negotiation are over ... I'm hopeful that we can get back to the table and roll up our sleeves and make some progress and quit having turf wars."
Last year, the EPA presented state officials with data showing that the Shell Deer Park facility outside Houston was releasing more than double the amount of sulfur dioxide allowed by law. Sulfur dioxide is a respiratory irritant and one of only six pollutants whose levels are strictly monitored by federal law.
The EPA also accused Texas of allowing Shell to do 11 additional sulfur dioxide projects when the EPA's rules would have allowed only one. In 2007, the EPA said, Texas allowed Shell to increase benzene emissions by 18 percent "solely based on company's request."
At Exxon's Baytown facility, the EPA argued the plant was being allowed to release more than double the allowable volatile organic compounds, toxins that include benzene and butadiene. The EPA said the facility released 6,245 tons per year instead of the EPA limit of 3,098 tons per year.
Bill White, the Democratic candidate for governor and a former deputy energy secretary in the Clinton administration, blamed Perry.
"Because of Rick Perry's mismanagement of the state's environmental agency, our state is now losing our ability to make our own decisions about air quality and the economy," White said in a statement. "I guarantee you that as governor, I'll ensure Texas complies with the law and I'll bring the ability to regulate the refineries back to Texas where it belongs."
The Environmental Protection Agency may take over the entire job of regulating air quality in Texas if the state keeps violating the Clean Air Act, an EPA official told The Associated Press on Wednesday - intensifying a dispute over regulating pollution f