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Community and Environmental Groups Sue the EPA to Remove Refineries' “Free Pass to Pollute”

Petition and lawsuit urge EPA to strengthen protections from cancer-causing air pollution

The Motiva Refinery spews cancer-causing air pollution over homes in Port Aurthur, Texas due to a malfunction in April 2013.

Hilton Kelley
February 2, 2016
February 2, 2016 —

Community and environmental groups, represented by Earthjustice, filed a lawsuit on Feb. 1, 2016, against the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, charging the agency with allowing unlawful regulatory loopholes that will expose communities to unnecessary levels of cancer-causing pollution.  Eleven groups also filed a petition urging EPA to take formal reconsideration action to remove the problems in the Final Rule that were added after the comment period closed.  The following is a statement from these groups.

Statement From Emma Cheuse (Staff Attorney, Earthjustice), And Sparsh Khandeshi (Staff Attorney, Environmental Integrity Project), Legal Counsel For The Eleven Groups Who Filed A Petition For Reconsideration With EPA On The National Air Standards For Refineries:

Local communities need protection from toxic air pollution all the time, not just sometimes. That is why 11 groups representing communities in 32 states with oil refineries are petitioning for EPA to remove unlawful exemptions from the Clean Air Act and challenging EPA’s action in federal court.

In finalizing new national standards in December, EPA created hazardous malfunction exemptions that give oil companies one or two free passes to pollute uncontrollably every three years, and a complete pass to pollute whenever they lose power or have some other “force majeure” event.  

We call on EPA to recognize the need to reconsider and remove these harmful exemptions, which were put in place at the last minute without notice and comment.  The Clean Air Act promises communities clean air every day of the week, not just some days.  And communities need protection the most when oil refineries have spikes in cancer-causing pollution and dangerous upsets that threaten health and safety.  During the 10 years leading up to EPA’s standards, 9 oil refineries had major malfunctions investigated by the Chemical Safety Board—and countless out-of-control pollution releases and smoking flare days when neighborhood children were forced to play in dirty air.  

Any oil refinery that can’t handle its responsibility to protect local communities at all times just shouldn’t be operating.  It’s not fair and not lawful for oil refineries to get special exemptions from important clean air requirements designed to protect public health.  

We are also calling on EPA to reconsider its refusal to set stronger health protections.  For communities in the shadow of refineries, an extra cancer case every year and a half just from breathing refinery pollution, is unacceptable—especially on top of all of the other health and safety threats from refineries.  There can be no excuse for not strengthening public health protections for all exposed communities, especially when refineries’ health threats fall disproportionately on African-American, Latino, and low-income people.  If all of this weren’t enough reason to strengthen health protection, children are especially vulnerable to toxic exposure early in life and it is unfair for children living near refineries to have to start life with an extra dose of refinery pollution that can be prevented and reduced.  EPA can and must take action to strengthen the emission limits and ensure refineries reduce communities’ exposure to toxic air and better protect public health.

Documents and Materials:

11 Groups Filing Petition with EPA:

  • Air Alliance Houston, Adrian Shelley or Brian Butler,  (713) 528-3779
  • California Communities Against Toxics, Jane Williams,  (661) 256-2101
  • Clean Air Council (Philadelphia, PA), Augusta Wilson, (215) 567-4004 ext. 106
  • Coalition for a Safe Environment (Wilmington, CA), Jesse Marquez, (310) 704-1265
  • Community In-Power Development Association (Port Arthur, TX), Hilton Kelley, (409) 498-1088
  • Del Amo Action Committee (Torrance, CA), Cynthia Babich, (310) 769-4813
  • Louisiana Bucket Brigade (New Orleans), Anne Rolfes, (504) 484-3433
  • Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services, Juan Parras, (281) 513-7799
  • Environmental Integrity Project, Sparsh Khandeshi, (202) 263-4446
  • Sierra Club, Sanjay Narayan,  (415) 977-5769 (party to reconsideration petition only)
  • Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment, Tim Wagner, (801) 502-5450

Oil Refineries in the United States:

There are more than 140 major refineries in the U.S. with the capacity to process nearly 18 million barrels of crude oil every day. Millions of Americans across the country living near refineries experience higher-than-average rates of cancer. (View larger map.)