Oil Refineries Have a Moral Imperative to Address Air Pollution

Cherise Udell, founder of Utah Moms for Clean Air, describes why, despite efforts to make change happen, fixing the air pollution problem is a herculean task.

An oil refinery in Utah.
An oil refinery in Salt Lake City, Utah. (Photo courtesy of Elizabeth Haslam)

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This guest post was written by Cherise Udell, the founder of Utah Moms for Clean Air.

When I moved with my family from California to Utah nine years ago, I was stunned by the horrible air quality in this otherwise gorgeous mountain state. Day after day, during that first winter, we were smothered in a breath-taking blanket of smog. Back then, I knew little about how air pollution impacted our health, but as a mother, I instinctively felt air this dirty could only be harmful to my two young daughters. I had the sensation I was locking my two daughters in a windowless room full of chain smokers.

Soon after, a new group called Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment held a press conference confirming that this air pollution was making our kids sick. Breathing Salt Lake City's dirty air during a 24-hour winter inversion is virtually the same as smoking half a pack of cigarettes. Our bodies really do not know the difference.

The image of my baby with a cigarette dangling from her toothless mouth was enough to move me to action. I emailed about 100 fellow Utah moms, inviting them to a new group called Utah Moms for Clean Air, and the organization was born.

Despite our efforts to make change happen, fixing the air pollution problem is a herculean task. For example, in Salt Lake and Davis counties, which are home to five refineries, it's common to be greeted each morning by the stench of rotten eggs, the sulfuric smell of toxins in the air. When we smell this noxious smell, we know that something has gone terribly wrong.

On other days, a storage tank might blow up and splatter the neighborhood playgrounds, gardens, lawns and rooftops with sticky, black goo.

Sometimes, we come home from work to find flames ominously lighting up the night sky from a smokestack gone rogue. And when that happens, it's anyone's guess when those flames will be brought back under control.

With government oversight and decades of environmental rule making, one would think such incidents would be rare, but records show that leaks, spills, fires, explosions and other pollution violations happen, on average, every nine days at the five refineries near my home.The tank explosion was only one of 150 toxic incidents at the HollyFrontier refinery since 2003. Altogether, since 2000, 519 environmental incidents have been linked to the five refineries near my neighborhood.

Of course, to be fair, oil refineries function according to plan much of the time too. However, even when they function as permitted, they still spew tons of hazardous pollution each year, thus increasing the cancer risk for millions of Americans.

In Utah alone, air pollution prematurely claims the lives of between 1,000 and 2,000 people every year. Oil refineries are obviously not responsible for all of Utah's air pollution, but they pump some of the worst gunk into our air such as benzene, volatile organic compounds and other hazardous air pollutants that are linked to cancer, neurological harm and breathing problems. My own brother-in-law just passed away from lung disease — and he never smoked.

The toxic soup spewed by oil refineries is, of course, not limited to Utah. Millions of Americans across 32 states are also exposed to such hazardous pollutants. Approximately 150 refineries pump over 20,000 tons of poison into our air every year. And they do most of this legally.

In the past, the harm these pollutants imposed on people was little understood and thus, industry and government can be forgiven for not duly protecting the public. But now, the risks are understood enough to ask the question: Is it not morally wrong to knowingly impose harm on innocent others, especially in the name of profit?

Let us be perfectly clear here. Oil refineries can do more—a lot more—to mitigate the harm they impose on the public. Better pollution control technology is available. But they choose not to use it. Why? Because it is in their financial self-interest to externalize as many of their costs of doing business onto the local communities and ecosystems as they can, and for as long as they are legally allowed to do so. Doing so allows them to avoid paying the true costs of doing their business and thus increase their bottom line—but at the expense of others.

Finally, after years of communities demanding stronger regulation and a lawsuit that charged the federal government with violating the Clean Air Act for not updating air pollution standards, the EPA proposed a new rule in May that would significantly reduce hazardous air pollution.

The rule could be stronger but it does require fence-line monitoring for the first time, so the public and regulatory agencies can know what is being emitted from refineries at the edge of refineries' property where pollution goes directly into communities. And it tightens up emissions standards in a number of other important ways. It would result in a reduction of 5,600 tons of hazardous air pollution, annually, lowering the cancer risk from this pollution.

The American Petroleum Institute, the main organization that lobbies for the gas and oil industry, has balked at the costs of the proposed rule and questioned the environmental benefits. But an EPA analysis concluded that the increase in costs for petroleum products that would result from the proposed rule is negligible.

For me, the argument about whether we should go forward with a proposal to remove tons of hazardous air and carcinogens from the air is a no-brainer. From the position of mother, citizen and consumer, I believe we must do all we can to save lives, as it is the morally right thing to do.

This refineries' rule can still be weakened through pressure from the oil lobby and when it is reviewed by the Office of Management and Budget, so we need the public to reach out to the EPA during the current 60-day public comment period and demand that we have stronger environmental protection by the time the rule is finalized next April. Breathing clean air is a birthright—and now is the time to demand that right.

This blog post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post and Earthjustice on air pollution from oil refineries. Learn more about the Fight for Clean Air campaign.

Based in Washington, D.C., Keith is the National Communications Strategist for Partnerships and Intersectional Justice.

Earthjustice’s Washington, D.C., office works at the federal level to prevent air and water pollution, combat climate change, and protect natural areas. We also work with communities in the Mid-Atlantic region and elsewhere to address severe local environmental health problems, including exposures to dangerous air contaminants in toxic hot spots, sewage backups and overflows, chemical disasters, and contamination of drinking water. The D.C. office has been in operation since 1978.