* Texas refiners caught in clash between EPA, state agency
* Environmental groups want EPA to act on disputed permits
HOUSTON, Dec 20 (Reuters) - Texas environmental groups on Monday notified the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency that they will sue over the agency’s failure to act on deficient permits for dozens of large refineries, chemical and power plant facilities operating in the state.
The notice to sue, required by law, escalates a contentious battle that began earlier this year as the EPA, under Administrator Lisa Jackson, began to crack down on a number of permitting practices that had become common in Texas.
Texas has 27 refineries, the most in the nation. Those refineries account for 26.5 percent of U.S. refining capacity.
The EPA has formally objected to more than 40 Federal Clean Air Act “Title V” permits issued by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ), but has failed to follow up when the state did not correct deficiencies cited by EPA in the time allowed, the environmental groups said.
“The letter puts EPA on notice that the environmental community is sick and tired of delay,” the groups said in a release. “We are calling on EPA to follow the letter of the law, and to issue or deny those permits that the TCEQ has failed to correct.”
The Texas Attorney General has argued in an appeals court that the EPA can’t object to some TCEQ-issued permits because it waited too long — over a decade — to do so.
The EPA does not plan to shut facilities operating under the disputed permits, but has warned the companies — including ExxonMobil (XOM.N), Valero Energy (VLO.N), Dow Chemical (DOW.N) and others — that they will face increased fines if they do not move toward compliance with federal permitting rules by 2011.
“Unfortunately, in Texas, EPA objections are met with recalcitrance by a state environmental agency prone to protecting the industries it is supposed to regulate,” the environmental groups said.
The coalition includes the Environmental Integrity Project, the Sierra Club, Environment Texas, Public Citizen, Air Alliance Houston and Texas Campaign for the Environment.
In October, Koch Industries subsidiary Flint Hills Resources became the first refiner to agree to move its substantial Texas gasoline and chemical production facilities from state to federally approved permits.
TCEQ officials have said disputed permits issued under its “flexible permit” rules are as effective at regulating pollution as the individual-source permits that EPA prefers. (Reporting by Eileen O’Grady; Editing by Gary Hill)