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Fenceline Communities Win Relief in Oil Refinery Suit

EPA commits to long-overdue review of standards for toxic air pollution
February 7, 2014
Washington, D.C. — 

A federal judge today approved a consent decree requiring the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to review and, if necessary, update the standards controlling hazardous air pollution from oil refineries

The review should result in more protective standards, limiting the amount of hazardous air pollutants that refineries release into the air throughout the United States. EPA’s proposed action is due by May 15, 2014. Final action is due by April 17, 2015.

About 150 oil refineries in 32 states self reported that they release at least 20,000 tons of hazardous air pollutants into communities each year, a toxic soup of poisonous chemicals like benzene, cyanide, and formaldehyde. These chemicals can cause cancer, breathing problems and smog.

Families regularly use Hartman Park, located in Houston's Manchester neighborhood. The Valero refinery is in the background. The park is bordered by residential homes. (Eric Kayne / Earthjustice)

Families regularly use Hartman Park, located in Houston's Manchester neighborhood. The Valero refinery is in the background. The park is bordered by residential homes.

Photo by Eric Kayne / Earthjustice

Those emissions are vastly underreported by the industry, as shown by a new analysis of refinery emissions released on February 6 by the Environmental Integrity Project and recent studies at Marathon, Shell, and BP facilities in Texas. EPA’s rulemaking will finally have to address the emissions actually going into the air from flares, tanks, and other components at refineries, and the health impacts those emissions create.

Today’s consent decree resulted from a lawsuit filed by Earthjustice and the Environmental Integrity Project on behalf of affected community groups in Texas, California and Louisiana. The groups charged that the EPA violated requirements in the Clean Air Act that the agency review its standards for the emissions of hazardous pollutants eight years after they were initially set. For part of the covered rules, it has been over 16 years since the agency conducted such a review.

During its review, the EPA will be required to consider the best methods available today for controlling emissions of hazardous air pollutants from the nation’s oil refineries, and ensure that it sets standards that protect public health from the many dangers they pose.

“It’s time for communities that have waited for years for clean air to get meaningful federal protection from refineries,” said Earthjustice attorney Emma Cheuse. “This is an important first step. Now, EPA must listen to the voices of fenceline communities in this rulemaking and finally set strong limits to cut refineries’ toxic air pollution.”

Adrian Shelley, executive director of Air Alliance Houston, emphasized the need for new pollution limits.

“We appreciate that EPA recognizes that it can no longer avoid its duty to review the standards and finally protect communities from the full amounts of toxic chemicals that refineries are actually emitting in Houston and throughout the country,” Shelley said.

Jane Williams, executive director of California Communities Against Toxics, believes the new rules will lead to better health protections. “For too long, children living in the shadow of refineries have had to fear refinery explosions and start life with a higher risk of cancer and other serious illnesses, just because of where they live and now EPA must take long overdue action to protect our kids,” Williams said.

The affected communities living in close proximity to refineries are disproportionately African-American, Latino, and low-income with higher percentages of children.

“The poor and communities of color are bearing more of the pollution burden. Here in the Houston Ship Channel eight refineries are dumping toxic air pollution into the air that we breathe daily,” said Juan Parras, of Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services. “The clean-up cost for facilities is a drop in the bucket compared to the health impacts we are currently facing. This new rulemaking will mean the EPA can no longer avoid doing its job and we should see stronger rules to protect our basic right to breathe clean air.”

Anna Hrybyk, of the Louisiana Bucket Brigade, added that his review should result in greater transparency about the leaks that occur during the refining process.

“Communities deserve to know when they are in danger from toxic leaks. New technology has made it possible to know what pollution is pouring out of refineries,” Hrybyk said. “Here in Louisiana, we are averaging about 10 accidents per week. More than 200,000 people live and over 60 schools and daycares are located within two miles of Louisiana’s 17 refineries. This rulemaking needs to require real time monitoring so residents can know when to get out of harm’s way.”

Sparsh Khandeshi, an attorney with Environmental Integrity Project, also expressed the need for strong action by EPA.

“We are pleased that EPA has committed to undertaking this long overdue rulemaking and we urge EPA to use its authority minimize dangerous refinery pollution from flares. Instead of utilizing flares to prevent emergencies, their intended purpose, many refineries engage in routine flaring as a cheap way to dispose of excess gas, releasing toxic pollution and putting nearby communities in harm’s way,” said Khandeshi. “Furthermore, studies consistently show that emissions from flares are several times higher than EPA previously assumed.”

An oil refinery in the distance with the west side of Port Arthur in the foreground, in Port Arthur, TX. (Eric Kayne / Earthjustice)

An oil refinery in the distance with the west side of Port Arthur in the foreground, in Port Arthur, TX.

Photo by Eric Kayne / Earthjustice

“The EPA must finally update the national rules to restrict flared and all other harmful and uncontrolled emissions, mandate that all of the sources meet the emission levels achievable using the best, pollution control technologies, require back-up power and finally protect communities living close to refineries from unacceptable levels of toxic air pollution,” said Jesse N. Marquez, executive director of the Coalition for a Safe Environment based in Wilmington, Calif.

Hilton Kelley, executive director of Community In-Power Development Association, emphasized the need for new standards because of the health problems faced by communities in Port Arthur, Texas.

“A disproportionate number of people are suffering in our communities from being exposed to toxic emissions. One out of every five households in Port Arthur, Texas, has a child suffering with asthma and other contaminated air related illnesses, and EPA needs to end the dangerous level of pollution we have to breathe from refineries,” said Kelley. Port Arthur, Texas is the home to five large refineries.

“Where there is a refinery you are also likely to find numerous other dangerous sources of pollution,” says Cynthia Babich, executive director of the Del Amo Action Committee, based in Torrance, Calif. “In this new rule, EPA also needs tolook at the combined impacts of all the pollution entering into the lungs of our children, and set stringent limits on refinery pollution to protect our health.”


Contact:
Jessica Hodge, Earthjustice, (202) 745-5201
Keith Rushing, Earthjustice, (202) 797-5236