Community Groups in Texas, California, and Louisiana Sue the EPA to Clean Up Toxic Air from Refineries

Refineries emit cancer-causing pollution including benzene


Raviya Ismail, Earthjustice, (202) 745-5221


Patrick Mitchell, Environmental Integrity Project, (703) 276-3266


Jane Williams, California Communities Against Toxics, (661) 256-2101


Jesse Marquez, Coalition for a Safe Environment, (310) 704-1265


Cynthia Babich, Del Amo Action Committee, (310) 769-4813


Hilton Kelley, Community In-Power Development Association, (409) 498-1088


Matthew Tejada, Air Alliance Houston, (713) 528-3779


Juan Parras, Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services, (281) 513-7799


Anne Rolfes, Louisiana Bucket Brigade, (504) 484-3433

Today Earthjustice and Environmental Integrity Project filed a citizens’ lawsuit against the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in federal district court to ensure that the EPA will set limits on toxic air pollution from oil refineries. The lawsuit, filed on behalf of a coalition of seven community organizations, challenges the EPA for neglecting to issue long-overdue safeguards for the health of all affected communities, including children and the disproportionately lower income, African-American and Hispanic residents who live in the shadow of refineries.

About 150 oil refineries in 32 states release more than 20,000 tons of hazardous air pollutants like benzene, cyanide, and formaldehyde every year, threatening those living nearby with higher cancer rates, making it more difficult to breathe, and contributing to ozone that can harm lungs. Recent studies at Marathon, Shell, and BP facilities have shown that the emissions actually going into the air from flares, tanks, and other components at refineries are 10 to 100 times higher than what industry reports to federal and state regulators. The EPA’s current rules are based on these inaccurate estimates and outdated technology which is why new limits that reflect the actual community health impact and employ current technology are necessary.

“The Port Arthur community has disproportionately higher rates of heart disease and cancer, as well as other illnesses,” said Hilton Kelley, executive director of Community In-Power Development Association, based in Port Arthur, Texas, a community the EPA has showcased as part of its environmental justice initiative. “The way for the EPA to really provide environmental justice, as Administrator Jackson said she would do, is to tighten the legal limits on the toxic pollution being dumped on low-income people and communities of color, starting with the refineries rule.”

Jesse N. Marquez, executive director of the Coalition for a Safe Environment based in Wilmington, Calif., was just 16 when the refinery across the street where he lived blew up. The disaster killed workers, injured and burned more than 300 people, caused his grandmother to suffer third-degree burns on her arm and shoulder and forced Marquez’s family to run to escape the dangerous aftermath of the explosion.

“Now, many years later, new generations of our children are breathing in the same toxic fumes that I was exposed to,” said Marquez. “The EPA must finally update the national rules to restrict flared emissions, mandate the use of maximum achievable control technology (MACT), mandate back-up power and finally protect communities living close to refineries from unacceptable levels of toxic air pollution.”

“It’s egregious that communities are not only being exposed to this poisonous air, but that the EPA has failed to set limits that account for the full amounts of toxic chemicals that refineries are actually emitting,” said Matthew Tejada, executive director of Air Alliance Houston. “Local communities living in the shadows of refineries in the Houston area deserve to have meaningful protection from this pollution and the EPA must act now to give us the protection we need.”

There also is significant information indicating that refineries can control their pollution at a much greater rate than many facilities currently do. Some companies have agreed to stricter pollution limits as a result of the EPA’s refinery enforcement initiative. Marathon Petroleum Company, LP installed controls on combustion devices known as flares, which are often used to burn off waste gas, and capped the volume of gas it will send to its flares. The EPA stated in an announcement about the agreement with Marathon: “When fully implemented, the agreement is expected to reduce harmful air pollution…and result in future cost savings for the company.”

“The pollution reductions we are seeking are well within reach and what our communities greatly need,” said Cynthia Babich, executive director of the Del Amo Action Committee, based in Torrance, Calif. “Reducing harmful air pollution not only saves lives but can bolster our economy, by reducing health care costs and making our communities safer and healthier places to live.”

“Refineries rely on flares to dispose of waste gases on a regular basis, instead of just as an emergency safeguard measure, and the EPA’s research now shows flares have failed to ensure anywhere near the amount of emission reduction that the agency assumed was occurring,” said Sparsh Khandeshi, an attorney with Environmental Integrity Project. “It’s time to stop routine flaring and make sure that if any flare is used that it achieves the maximum achievable reduction of toxic air pollutants, before any emissions are allowed to go into the air.”

“Communities who live near refineries have waited years for protection,” said Earthjustice attorney Emma Cheuse. “It is not fair for any of our children to automatically start life with a higher risk of cancer and other diseases, just because of where they are born and grow up. The Clean Air Act requires the EPA to protect children’s health now, without delay.”

“It’s time to make sure that our current generation of kids can grow up with the basic health protections from refineries’ pollution that we all deserve and that refinery companies are well-prepared to achieve using available technology,” said Jane Williams, executive director of California Communities Against Toxics.

“According to facilities who keep account of such incidents, accidents in Louisiana average 10 per week,” said Anna Hrybyk of Louisiana Bucket Brigade. “More than 200,000 people live and over 60 schools and daycares are located within two miles of Louisiana’s 17 refineries. The EPA’s lack of action on limiting toxics creates serious long-term health impacts that endanger the lives of thousands of people.”

“There are eight refineries in the Houston Ship Channel that 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. It is time for the EPA to do its job and set strong rules to protect our basic right to breathe clean air.”

Additional Information:

  • Read the complaint (September 27, 2012)
  • Read the 60-day notice letter (July 18, 2012)
  • List of 150 petroleum refineries located in 32 states.
  • In April 2012, the EPA released a new study for peer review, recognizing that flares have not been reducing pollution to the levels previously believed:
  • The EPA first set national emission standards for hazardous air pollutants from two main parts of the petroleum refineries sector in 1995 and 2002. The now overdue rulemakings were required eight years after The EPA issued those initial rules.
  • Under the Clean Air Act the EPA must ensure that pollution limits provide “an ample margin of safety to protect public health” for the communities “most exposed” to refineries’ emissions. The EPA also is legally required to make sure that the pollution standards account for reductions in emissions that have occurred during the past few years using various technologies and practices, so that they require the maximum achievable reduction in toxic air emissions.

Additional Resources

About Earthjustice

Earthjustice is the premier nonprofit environmental law organization. We wield the power of law and the strength of partnership to protect people's health, to preserve magnificent places and wildlife, to advance clean energy, and to combat climate change. We are here because the earth needs a good lawyer.