EPA Moves To Crack Down On Toxic Emissions From Oil Refineries

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"EPA Moves To Crack Down On Toxic Emissions From Oil Refineries"

Total Petrochemicals refinery in Port Arthur, Texas.

Total Petrochemicals’ refinery in Port Arthur, Texas.

CREDIT: AP Photo / David J. Phillip

The Environmental Protection Agency released new draft rules to crack down on air pollution from oil refineries Thursday, after a lawsuit charged the agency with using grossly outdated methods for measuring emissions.

The country’s 150 oil refineries often sit at the tail end of the oil shipping chain, and are where crude oil is processed into gasoline, diesel, and other petroleum-based products. That act of refinement produces its own air pollution, including toxic gases like benzene, toluene, and xylene, as well as volatile organic compounds — all of which have been linked to respiratory illness, cancer, and other health effects. Neighborhoods near the refineries bear the brunt of those emissions, and those neighborhoods tend to be poor and nonwhite.

A lawsuit filed by various environmental groups such as Earthjustice and the Environmental Integrity Project — on behalf of families who live near refineries in Texas, California and Louisiana — argued that EPA’s methods for estimating emissions from refineries are inadequate and decades-old.

The 870-page draft of new rules is part of the agency’s agreement to resolve the suit. EPA estimates the changes should cut toxic gas emissions from refineries by another 5,600 tons a year, and volatile organic compounds by 52,000 tons a year.

According to The Hill, the regulations will require upgraded controls for emissions that escape storage tanks, new restrictions for “flaring” to make sure waste gases are burned off properly, and new standards for coking units which have been largely unregulated so far. It’s also the first time companies will be required to monitor concentrations of benzene around their refineries, using monitors at their fence lines.

EPA will follow up the release with a 60-day public comment period on the proposed regulations, with hearings to be held in Houston and Los Angeles, before the rules are finalized in April of 2015.

“The common-sense steps we are proposing will protect the health of families who live near refineries and will provide them with important information about the quality of the air they breathe,” Gina McCarthy, the administrative head of EPA, said in a statement.

Texas alone boasts 27 of the country’s refineries, with several of them clustered around the city of Port Arthur. Cancer rates for African Americans in the community are 15 percent higher than for the average Texan, and the mortality rate from cancer is 40 percent higher. Respiratory and heart conditions are four times as likely. Many refineries also lie along the coast, where they can be damaged by extreme weather, again threatening nearby communities with pollution and toxins.

The American Petroleum Institute was not so supportive of the rules, which EPA estimated will cost companies $40 billion annually to implement. “With this proposal, EPA adds to the list of new regulations impacting refineries that come with enormous costs but questionable environmental benefits,” said Howard Feldman, API’s director of regulatory and scientific affairs. “EPA has already concluded the risks associated with refinery emissions are low and the public is protected with an ample margin of safety.”

There’s actually a long history of industry lobbying groups insisting that new environmental regulations — from cuts to smog, to new controls for sulfur dioxide emissions, to regulations for coal furnaces — will harm the economy and cost jobs. These losses also routinely fail to materialize, largely because the ways environmental regulations improve Americans’ health add far more productivity to the economy than the new regulations take away.

Patricia Gonzales, who lives near two petrochemical plants in Pasadena, Texas, told the Houston Chronicle that she blames refineries’ emissions for asthma and several nodules on her vocal chords.

“All we know is that our noses are burning and we all have asthma,” Gonzales said. “We need monitors everywhere.”

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