Oil Refineries Are Leaking Cancer-Causing Benzene Into Residential Neighborhoods

Regardless of a nationwide effort to observe and cease emissions, harmful concentrations of the cancer-causing chemical benzene are nonetheless being detected within the air and close to floor degree between oil refineries and neighboring communities within the Gulf South and Midwest.

The Environmental Safety Company’s (EPA) Workplace of Inspector Normal, the federal watchdog for the EPA, launched an alarming report this week exposing large holes in regulatory efforts to trace and require oil refineries to cut back dangerous concentrations of benzene within the air, which overwhelmingly impacts low-income neighborhoods and communities of shade which can be already overburdened by industrial air pollution. The EPA classifies benzene as a “nationwide most cancers threat contributor” alongside poisonous pollution similar to acetaldehyde, carbon tetrachloride and naphthalene.

The discovering recommend that newer, well-funded oil refineries are taking steps to mitigate benzene air pollution, whereas older refineries in states with little oversight and excessive ranges of commercial air pollution are exploiting loopholes in federal rules that require firms to take cleanup motion when benzene concentrations exceed the general public well being restrict of 9 micrograms per cubic meter on the facility’s property line.

Unsurprisingly, lots of the worst offenders are positioned within the industrial corridors of Louisiana and Texas, the place the fossil gasoline business holds large political sway, environmental enforcement is sparse, and fiery explosions, deadly accidents and pollution leaks at fossil fuel refineries and petrochemical plants are common occurrences that usually lead to evacuation orders for close by residents.

Whereas total benzene emissions had been decreased nationally beneath the EPA monitoring program launched in 2018, by 2021 no less than 25 refineries had been unable stop benzene concentrations from reaching ranges so harmful they require cleanup beneath federal rules, together with 13 the place benzene concentrations on the refinery’s “fenceline” exceeded the general public well being restrict for months on finish, in response to Andrea Martinez, the auditor who produced the report.

“As a part of our audit, we took a deep dive into the 9 refineries that had the worst benzene concentrations,” Martinez mentioned in a podcast launched with the report. “We discovered that the EPA took motion towards solely a type of 9 throughout the time interval coated by our evaluation, and [state regulators] had not taken enforcement motion at any of the 9.”

Utilizing newer benzene knowledge from 2022 and 2023, the Environmental Integrity Mission, an impartial watchdog group, launched an inventory of 12 oil refineries and petrochemical vegetation that rank among the many worst benzene polluters. Between April 2022 and March 2023, air screens across the 12 oil refineries — seven in Texas, 4 in Louisiana and one in Iowa — detected benzene between the services and surrounding neighborhoods at ranges above the general public well being restrict, which is meant to set off fossil gasoline firms to take cleanup motion.

High polluters on the record embody the Chalmette Refinery in Chalmette, Louisiana, and TotalEnergies Petrochemicals in Port Arthur, Texas, each positioned close to residential areas often called environmental justice communities as a result of they’ve lengthy struggled with air pollution on the outskirts of New Orleans and Houston, respectively. A refinery positioned in Clinton, Iowa, and operated by Dutch chemical big LyondellBasell ranks fifth on the record. In 2021, the corporate agreed to cut back 1000’s of tons of air air pollution beneath a settlement with the EPA and federal prosecutors.

Eric Schaeffer, a former EPA civil enforcement director who now leads the Environmental Integrity Mission, mentioned the EPA inspector common report highlights an “pressing want” for the EPA to “crack down” on oil refineries which can be repeatedly placing “neighborhoods proper down the road in danger.”

In 2015, authorized motion taken by a coalition of environmental teams and fenceline communities pressured the EPA to impose new benzene monitoring and mitigation rules. The foundations require refineries to observe for benzene and report quarterly knowledge to the EPA, which then works with refinery operators to develop a cleanup plan when benzene ranges exceed the general public well being restrict.

“Some refineries have completed simply that, and their efforts have helped to cut back exposures to this lethal pollutant,” Schaeffer mentioned in an announcement. “However as EPA’s Inspector Normal studies, the benzene ranges stay far too excessive at different refineries 12 months after 12 months. EPA wants to present these business laggards a deadline for cleanup, or firms will cease taking these necessities significantly.”

A spokesperson for the EPA’s enforcement division advised Truthout the company had no extra feedback so as to add to the report at the moment.

The EPA inspector common report discovered an absence of follow-through at a number of oil refineries that continued to report elevated benzene ranges regardless of creating cleanup plans, whereas knowledge from different polluters went lacking in obvious violation of the rules.

Below EPA guidelines, refineries largely police themselves except they violate air pollution limits, organising benzene screens on the fenceline and often reporting the info to the EPA. Nevertheless, merely permitting benzene concentrations to exceed the general public well being restrict shouldn’t be a violation of the EPA guidelines.

As an alternative, exceeding the restrict merely triggers a “authorized obligation” to convey benzene ranges again down under the 9 micrograms per cubic meter restrict often called the “motion degree.” Martinez mentioned refineries with common annual benzene concentrations above the “motion degree” might not be figuring out the foundation explanation for the issue, or they might merely be failing to plan and take applicable motion.

“For instance, we checked out eight corrective plans submitted by 4 refineries and located that just one refinery managed to cut back and preserve its benzene focus to or under 9 micrograms per cubic meter for ten subsequent weeks,” Martinez mentioned. “The opposite three both by no means decreased their benzene focus to or under 9 micrograms per cubic meter inside 10 weeks, or in the event that they did cut back it, they exceeded that degree as soon as once more in that very same 10-week interval.”

The EPA could solely have a restricted time to appropriate the benzene monitoring and cleanup program and make a significant discount in air pollution for residents residing close to the worst offenders. If former President Donald Trump or one other Republican takes the White Home in 2024, the EPA will probably see its funds slashed and management changed by champions of business. Throughout his time in workplace, Trump pushed for sweeping environmental deregulation and pledged to “unleash” the fossil gasoline business with little oversight.

Martinez mentioned most benzene emissions from refineries are “fugitive emissions” that come from “open sources” similar to leaky tanks and tools, relatively than from a smokestack or vent. (Though, the fiery flares that often erupt from refinery stacks are sources of benzene and different pollution as nicely.)

“The best focus of fugitive emissions exterior of a refinery property boundary, which is known as the refinery’s fenceline, is prone to happen at floor degree,” Martinez mentioned. “As such, excessive concentrations of benzene exterior the fenceline may pose dangers to close by communities.”

Like refineries, petrochemical vegetation are additionally a serious supply of benzene, and plenty of are positioned within the Gulf South and the commercial corridors of different areas. The 2015 EPA guidelines concentrate on oil refineries, and the EPA didn’t create the identical benzene rules for all chemical vegetation. Nevertheless, a number of Gulf South chemical vegetation are beneath court docket orders or consent decrees that require the businesses to observe and report benzene within the air and make efforts to guard close by residents.

“The Workplace of Inspector Normal made six suggestions to the EPA, together with that the company situation steering concerning what constitutes a violation of the rules and a method on the best way to tackle refineries that don’t cut back their benzene concentrations to or under the motion degree,” Martinez mentioned. “We additionally really helpful that the company examine the gaps in monitoring knowledge that we recognized in our report, in addition to periodically evaluate submitted knowledge for such gaps sooner or later.”

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