California Groups Tell EPA: Set Stronger New Standards for Oil Refinery Air Pollution

Focus on need for the EPA to do more to protect communities’ health

California environmental and community groups—including families living near oil refineries—today provided powerful testimony about why the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency must strengthen protections from hazardous air pollution.

The statements were made during a day-long public hearing in Wilmington, Calif., which the EPA held as part of its 60-day public comment period on proposed standards that would strengthen emissions and monitoring requirements for the country’s nearly 150 oil refineries.

In advance of the hearing, Jane Williams, director of California Communities Against Toxics, said:

“The EPA’s proposal is an improvement over the status quo. However, it does not go far enough to reduce the harmful, toxic air that our children are exposed to. More must be done to reduce hazardous pollution spewed by the nation’s oil refineries to prevent cancer, breathing problems and other illnesses in our children.”

Although the proposed standards—to be finalized in April 2015—reduce hazardous air pollution by 5,600 tons each year and reduce cancer risk for millions of Americans, community leaders who have been working for decades for stronger protection say the standards fall short of the Clean Air Act mandate that all sources must follow at least, the average, emission control achieved by the cleanest refineries.

The proposed standards that were published in the federal register last month resulted from a consent decree resolving a lawsuit filed by Earthjustice and the Environmental Integrity Project on behalf of environmental groups in California, Louisiana, and Texas that argued that EPA missed its deadline under the Clean Air Act to review and update toxic air standards for oil refineries by more than a decade.

The proposed standards, include a fenceline monitoring requirement for the first time, which would require refineries to measure the toxic air contaminant benzene at the property line as it goes into the local community’s air. In addition, if benzene exceeds the new action level EPA proposes to establish, the federal agency would require a plan for corrective action.

In addition, the proposed standards would require tighter controls on emissions from storage tanks and other parts of refineries that are major contributors to toxic air pollution (such as delayed coker units) along with controls and monitoring requirements on flaring or the burning of waste gas, which is, too often, used routinely and which creates harmful new pollution.

The proposed standards also finally remove unlawful loopholes that previously allowed refineries to escape scot-free when they violated the air standards.

For EPA’s new standards to provide much-needed protection for communities on the ground, environmental groups are calling for stronger fenceline monitoring requirements that would mandate the use of the best current technology to give neighborhoods a real-time, continuous measure of pollution, not just a snapshot or long-term average that masks peak exposure levels. The standards also must require accessible public reporting and enforceable corrective action so refineries will quickly fix violations. In addition, groups want to see a hard limit on flaring to ban its routine and unnecessary use and to assure refineries minimize flaring in all other circumstances, as well as tighter controls on emissions from other parts of refineries.

Cynthia Babich, of Del Amo Action Committee said she is most focused on the real world health impacts of refineries’ pollution when considering this proposal. “The EPA must do a health evaluation using the most current scientific methods, instead of ignoring dangerous health risks our communities face,” said Babich.

“People who live near refineries are often surrounded by multiple sources of contaminants from other polluters besides refineries, like chemical plants. And in view of this and the greater risk to our most vulnerable children, EPA should find the current, high level of health risk to be unacceptable and set stronger emission limits,” she said.

Jesse Marquez of Coalition For A Safe Environment said his organization supports EPA’s proposal to make flares more efficient when they are used, and also calls on the EPA to limit flared emissions by setting a hard cap on flaring that will ban its everyday use.

“The oil industry claims emissions have been decreasing for decades but we found that flared emissions at the four refineries in the Wilmington area increased every year between 2000 and 2011,” Marquez said. “We must have stricter standards to end all unnecessary flaring and improve our air quality.”

Although the oil industry is objecting to the new proposed standards, community groups’ testimony illustrated today how important it is for EPA to reduce toxic air pollution and decrease the unacceptable extra health threats millions of Americans currently face just because they live near refineries. EPA predicts its current proposal will take about 5,600 tons each year of hazardous chemicals, associated with leukemia and other devastating forms of cancer, out of the air.

Lisa Garcia, Earthjustice’s Vice President of Litigation for Health, said: “It is imperative that we fight industry’s unfounded attempts to weaken EPA’s attempt to strengthen health protection, and, instead, do all we can to protect everyone—especially fenceline communities and those that are overburdened—from the unacceptable harm caused by oil refineries’ pollution. We must stand behind EPA’s efforts to set strong new hazardous air pollution standards, just as the Clean Air Act requires it to do.”

Eric Schaeffer, executive director of the Environmental Integrity Project said: “EPA’s analysis shows that the proposed emission controls are worthwhile and will have negligible impact on the bottom-line of these companies, many of which report multi-billion dollar profits every year. The communities affected by refinery pollution cannot continue to pay for this pollution in the form of medical bills and missed school and work days, which add up to tens of millions of dollars every year.”

Conoco Phillips Refinery in Wilmington, CA
The Conoco Phillips Refinery in Wilmington, CA. (Photo provided by Jesse Marquez)

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