EPA Greenlights Troublesome Benzene Program, Creating Dangerous Hot Spots

Lawsuit results in benzene limits, but EPA plan may increase pollution levels in northwest


James Pew, Earthjustice, (202) 667-4500
Emily Figdor, U.S. PIRG, (202) 546-9707
Marti Sinclair, Sierra Club, (513) 761-6140

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency today finalized a rule that will limit benzene emissions from cars and trucks. Benzene is a highly toxic pollutant that is known to cause cancer, and is one of the worst sources of cancer risk in many parts of the country. Regrettably, although EPA took steps to limit benzene emissions, it also created a trading program that will allow refineries in some areas to avoid reducing — or even increase — the benzene levels in their gasoline.

EPA was forced to act on tailpipe toxics thanks to litigation brought by Earthjustice on behalf of Sierra Club and U.S. Public Interest Research Group (U.S. PIRG). EPA had committed to address the issue by 2004. After it failed to do so, the groups sued and obtained a consent decree that required action on the issue by today.

The level of benzene in gasoline is the largest factor determining the level of benzene in tailpipe emissions. In those parts of the country that have adopted reformulated gasoline (RFG) requirements, refiners have reduced benzene levels by 50 percent or more. In areas that have not adopted RFG, however, average benzene levels remain about twice as high — resulting in far higher benzene levels in exhaust from cars and trucks. In some areas of the Pacific Northwest, benzene levels are almost three times as high.

“The good news,” said Emily Figdor of U.S. PIRG, “is that today’s rule is expected to limit benzene levels nationwide, which should make the air safer in many places. The bad news is that EPA will allow benzene trading. That means some refineries won’t reduce the benzene content of their gasoline, and may even increase it. Having benzene levels go down in Newark, New Jersey won’t do much for the health of people in Portland, Oregon.”

“We’re happy that EPA has addressed this important public health issue at last,” said Marti Sinclair of Sierra Club, “even if it did take a federal court case to make the agency act. But it is disappointing that EPA would undermine its own program by adopting this dangerous trading scheme.”

Even though members of both the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives urged EPA to drop the credit trading scheme, EPA is expected to keep some trading provision in the rule.

“Refineries have the know-how to reduce benzene emissions to RFG levels throughout the country,” said Earthjustice attorney Jim Pew. “We know that the cancer risk from benzene is unacceptable in virtually every American city. Given that we can reduce the risk levels for all Americans, you have to wonder why EPA would choose not to do it.”

“Benzene pollution causes cancer,” said Sinclair. “If EPA uses a trading program to water down the benzene cuts, it’s putting refineries’ profits ahead of public health, and it is doing so at a time of record profits for this industry.”

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