- Associated Press - Thursday, December 30, 2010

HOUSTON | A long-standing tit-for-tat between Texas and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency over how to regulate pollution has grown fierce in recent months, leaving industry frustrated and allowing some plants and refineries to spew more toxic waste into the air, streams and lakes than what is federally acceptable.

Both sides and conservation groups agree the battle has put the health of Texas residents and the environment at risk. But the back-and-forth over everything from who should issue permits to whether state agencies are properly cracking down on polluters shows no signs of slowing down.

The fight has gotten so ugly that the EPA took the unprecedented step this month of announcing it will directly issue greenhouse gas permits to Texas industries beginning in January after the state openly refused to comply with new federal regulations.

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“Emissions are too high, the emissions are too toxic and Texas water is being harmed,” said EPA Regional Director Al Armendariz.

The EPA is “putting politics ahead of the environmental issues,” said Bryan Shaw, chairman of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.

Texas and the EPA have disagreed for years over pollution regulation, but the hostility intensified recently with Republican Gov. Rick Perry accusing the EPA and the Obama administration of overstepping boundaries and meddling in states’ rights. With a more conservative state Legislature about to convene next year, there’s appetite to keep up that fight.

The EPA, meanwhile, by flexing its muscles in Texas, may be able to send a message to other states that the days when the agency allowed contentious issues to languish unresolved have ended. Other states have had their differences with the EPA, and at least a dozen have come together in a lawsuit — along with Texas — challenging new greenhouse gas regulations.

All are taking steps in the meantime to comply. Except Texas.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit on Wednesday declined to issue a stay that would delay the EPA’s plans as Texas’ lawsuit against the federal agency moves forward.

A spokeswoman for Mr. Perry said he was disappointed with the court’s ruling but confident that the state will prevail “in the end.”

About 200 Texas facilities continue to operate with air and water permits that are either out of date or have been disapproved by the EPA. The agency believes they are releasing a variety of metals and chemicals into the air and water that would, under the new regulations, no longer be permitted.

A main point of contention has been the state’s flexible permit program, which sets a general limit on how much air pollution an entire facility can release. The issue exploded under the EPA leadership appointed by President Obama, which formally disapproved Texas’ flexible permits, saying they were too lenient. The state challenged the move in court, and the EPA began working directly with some companies on new permits.

The EPA accuses Texas’ flexible permits of allowing Shell’s Deer Park refinery to emit nearly double the amount of sulfur dioxide than would be permissible if it had a federally acceptable permit. ExxonMobil in Baytown emits double the levels of volatile organic compounds, such as benzene, than a federal permit would allow, according to the EPA.

Texas and the companies deny the allegations, insisting the companies comply with the emission limits set in their permits and are in line with federal guidelines.

The EPA and Texas have also been at odds over water permits. The EPA this month demanded in an unusual public statement that Texas work to reissue 80 expired permits designed to ensure wastewater plants and industrial facilities remove toxins before dumping water. The state says it has submitted much of the paperwork to the federal agency, which says they are not strict enough.

“These permits that EPA has not approved would have more stringent requirements,” Mr. Shaw said. “The delay is reducing our ability to continue to make the environmental progress we’ve been making in the past years.”

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