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Texas among nation's worst water polluters

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Texas among nation's worst water polluters

  • The Dow chemical plant along the Brazos river in Freeport, Texas. The plant released 33 million toxicity-weighted pounds of water pollution in 2012, far more than the rest of the country combined.
    Michael Stravato/Texas TribuneThe Dow chemical plant along the Brazos river in Freeport, Texas. The plant released 33 million toxicity-weighted pounds of water pollution in 2012, far more than the rest of the country combined.

Texas is the second-biggest water polluter in the country, in terms of pounds released, according a new report. But when the toxicity of the pollution is factored in, Texas jumps to the top of the list — and it's not even close.

Texas polluters released about 16.5 million pounds of toxic chemicals into waterways in 2012, second only to Indiana, according to a report released Thursday by Environment Texas, an environmental advocacy group based in Austin. 

And in terms of a measurement that compares pollutants according to how toxic they are, Texas is without rival. According to the report, Texas produced 34 million "toxicity-weighted pounds" in 2012 — 30 times more than the next state, and more than double the rest of the country combined. Almost all of that toxicity comes from one source: the Dow Chemical Company plant in Freeport.

"You can slice your Texas toast either way and it comes up toxic," said John Rumpler, one of the authors. "We can do it [by weighted toxicity], and Texas comes up among the worst. Or we can just do it by straight-up volume, purely pounds of toxic chemicals dumped into rivers, and Texas still comes up one of the worst."

The report is based on data self-reported by polluters to the Environmental Protection Agency. The EPA only requires this information from certain industrial facilities, which leaves out other sources of toxic pollution, including oil and gas drilling, the report notes.

The Dow plant wasn't among the top 50 facilities in 2012 in terms of total pollution. But its chemical runoff, which flows into the Brazos river and the Gulf of Mexico, included 3 pounds of dioxin, an extremely toxic chemical that can cause reproductive and developmental problems, immune system damage and cancer. According to the EPA's guidelines, that's equivalent to 33.4 million toxicity-weighted pounds. 

A Dow spokeswoman acknowledged that the facility had released 3 pounds of dioxin, but disputed the EPA's toxicity measurement.

"Our water emissions are closely monitored and reported and we are in compliance with all state and federal permits," the spokeswoman, Trish Thompson, said in an email.

According to the EPA's website, the Freeport plant was noncompliant for 12 consecutive quarters ending in 2013, the most recent year for which data are available.

The top overall water polluter in Texas was the Pilgrim's Pride chicken-processing plant in Mount Pleasant, which in 2012 dumped 2.8 million pounds of toxic chemicals into the Tankersley River in Northeast Texas, the report says. Most of those toxins were nitrates, chemicals found in fertilizer that can cause infant health problems and oxygen-depleted "dead zones" in waterways.   

A spokesman from Pilgrim's Pride said he couldn't comment without having read the report.

Luke Metzger, director of Environment Texas, said the case of Pilgrim's Pride shows that Texas water pollution is a statewide issue not limited to the chemical plants on the coast. 

"There are still millions of pounds of very dangerous chemicals going into our waterways which could put human health and the environment at risk," he said.

The report recommends that the federal government approve rules proposed earlier this year by the EPA and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers that would extend Clean Water Act coverage to more small waterways. It also calls for stricter enforcement of existing regulations. According to Rumpler, lax state enforcement is a major reason for Texas' poor water pollution record.

The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, which is responsible for enforcing environmental regulations in the state, "has not done its job in terms of either enforcing limits on pollution, or attaching stringent enough pollution limits in the first place to ensure that Texas rivers are clean," Rumpler said.

A spokesman from TCEQ declined to comment, saying he had not yet read the report.

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