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Harris County threatens to sue Valero over benzene emissions after Hurricane Harvey

Valero Energy Corp. could soon face a lawsuit accusing it of failing to address the dangerous level of cancer-causing toxins released by its Houston refinery.

The Harris County Attorney’s Office received permission last month from the County Commissioners Court to sue the San Antonio company and said on Monday that it plans to do so.

Though the emissions aren’t entirely related to damage done to the refinery by Hurricane Harvey in 2017, the storm was the “tipping point” that led to the lawsuit, said Rock Owens, manager of the environmental practice group at the Harris County Attorney’s Office.

“This community has been subjected to benzene emissions for decades,” Owens told the Business Journal. Harvey increased those emissions when the roof on a crude storage tank collapsed during the storm, he said.

The company didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Residents in the Manchester neighborhood began complaining of the smell of gasoline shortly thereafter, Owens said, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said in September 2017 that the probable source of benzene emissions post-Harvey was the Valero [NYSE: VLO] refinery.

Benzene, listed as a carcinogen by the World Health Organization, is found naturally in crude oil and released as part of the refining process. Exposure to it, typically through inhalation, is unsafe at any level, and chronic exposure can cause cancer, according to WHO. During Hurricane Harvey, Valero’s Houston refinery emitted 1,900 pounds of benzene, according to the Harris County Attorney’s Office.

Its current level of emissions are in excess of those permitted under the Clean Air Act, the county said.

This would be the first time a Texas county will file a lawsuit under the Clean Air Act, Owens said. Clean Air Act suits are typically filed by advocacy organizations like the Sierra Club and Environment Texas, which are also threatening to sue Valero over emissions at its Port Arthur refinery. The Harris County lawsuit is not yet set in stone, however.

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The county sent Valero a 60-day notice, during which time the company can decide to settle out of court. The state and the EPA were also sent the notice. Owens said he hopes the state looks at the notice and decides to enforce the clean air regulations, which would end the need for a lawsuit. But, for now, the county plans to press ahead.

The lawsuit would ask a federal court to impose a penalty on Valero and to enjoin the company from committing clean air violations in the future, Owens said. Harris County is also asking that Valero provide real-time monitoring of the air quality around the plant. Though the county is looking into suing other refiners under the Clean Air Act, the Valero refinery is unique because it is so close to Manchester residents, Owens said.

Valero’s Houston refinery “is not biggest refinery, but the way it is situated, it really has a very unique impact on the people next to it,” he said.