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Cars and trucks, known as mobile sources, are the largest contributor to air pollution in El Paso. But the city's air pollution problem isn't limited to vehicles. Advocates and lawyers say industrial polluters in El Paso are also threatening public health.
The two industrial sites in El Paso that emit the most particulate matter and ozone precursors, driving regional air pollution, are El Paso Electric's Newman Station and the Marathon Refinery.
Attorney David Baake said people living close to these facilities are exposed to excessive levels of multiple pollutants.
"Often regulators think of the averages for the basin," Baake said. "They fail to realize that a lot of these sources emit toxic pollutants that are having a huge impact on people right next to them."
TCEQ compiles statewide air pollution permit data in the Point Source Emissions Inventory. According to TCEQ 2019 permits, the El Paso Electric Company Newman Station and the El Paso Marathon Refinery are the top two emitters of NOX, VOCs and PM2.5. The Marathon Refinery is the top emitter of PM10.
When companies emit more than the permitted amount, they are required to report the violation to TCEQ. Regulators then decide whether to issue a penalty for the illegal air pollution.
"We are really proud of our compliance record across all of our plants," El Paso Electric Innovation and Sustainability Senior Director Jessica Christianson said. "We occasionally have minor upset events and we report those no less than semi-annually to the agencies. Those events typically last less than a hour."
"We do ongoing predictive and preventative maintenance of our units to make sure they are burning fuel most efficiently," she said.
According to the Environmental Integrity Project, in 2020 the Marathon Refinery reported 4,008 pounds of illegal air pollution, the highest total in El Paso. In 2019, the refinery emitted 5,480 pounds of illegal air pollution. The most recent illegal emissions event was in Nov. 2021.
"Since 2011, the El Paso Refinery has reduced Ozone Precursors by 35%, PM10 by 27% and PM2.5 by 70%," said Marathon communications specialist Cristina Cisneros Guzman. "This is due to the hard work of our employees and the proactive steps being taken to ensure we continue to achieve emissions reductions. Our El Paso refinery was one of the first refineries in the U.S. to install a wet gas scrubber to reduce emissions."
Victor Valenzuela, a retired TCEQ environmental engineer, said frequent illegal air pollution events are a red flag. He said often the fines from TCEQ are not high enough to discourage companies from repeating bad behavior.
READ FULL STORY: Activists say Texas should own up to air pollution
A 2020 analysis found TCEQ only issued fines in less than 3% of cases across Texas when facilities polluted above their permitted level.
TCEQ updated its penalty policy in 2021. Changes in the frequency of fines since the new policy went into effect has not been made public.
"It’s our experience that typically these sources can fix the problem," said Colin Cox, an attorney with the Environmental Integrity Project. "They just have to be motivated to spend the money to fix the problem."
'Neighborhood is treated like a dumping': Activists say Texas should own up to air pollution
This article originally appeared on El Paso Times: El Paso Electric Newman Station, Marathon Refinery drive air pollution