The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency today released new air standards, tightening restrictions on the pollution oil refineries can emit, reducing the health risks millions of Americans face from breathing toxic air.
The new rule establishes first-ever national “fenceline” monitoring requirements that direct refineries to install air monitors “on the fence” where pollution leaves oil refinery property and pours into neighboring communities. The monitors will measure the dangerous pollutant, benzene, and if benzene is too high, refineries will be required to take action to reduce their emissions.
Some 150 petroleum refineries nationwide spew out more than 20,000 tons of hazardous air pollutants each year, including chemicals linked to cancer such as benzene and toluene.
According to the EPA, the new rule reduces cancer risk and the threats of other health hazards significantly for more than one million Americans by preventing thousands of tons of toxins from being released into the air every year.
Other improvements include:
- New monitoring and operating requirements to minimize pollution from the harmful burning of waste gas, called flaring.
- Tighter control requirements on emissions from various parts of refineries like delayed coker units and storage tanks.
- Removal of an unlawful loophole, which enabled refineries to get away with dangerous, uncontrolled releases of pollutants when refineries are starting up, shutting down, and malfunctioning.
EPA took action to review and update these standards as a result of a 2012 settlement in a lawsuit filed by Earthjustice and the Environmental Integrity Project on behalf of community and environmental groups in California, Louisiana, and Texas when the EPA missed its deadline under the Clean Air Act to review toxic air standards for oil refineries.
Eric Kayne for Earthjustice
Teens play basketball at a park in the Carver Terrace housing project of Port Arthur, Texas, in the shadow of an oil refinery—and its toxic emissions. More photos of refineries »
Groups involved in the case are heartened to see the EPA finally take action that is more than 10 years overdue. These standards are especially needed to bring new protections for public health to all exposed communities, which are disproportionately lower income and communities of color, in which children are particularly vulnerable to toxic exposure. Yet they also highlight the need for the EPA to keep working to further strengthen protections for communities from refineries’ pollution and the health and safety hazards they cause.
The groups emphasize that further work will be essential to fully implement the new standards and ensure that all refineries eventually use the best available monitoring technology in place at some facilities to assure communities the protection from pollution that all Americans deserve.
The EPA should have:
- Required monitoring technology that would offer reports on air pollution in real time (instead of requiring just passive sampling that collects data on two-week averages).
- Set a lower, more protective level of benzene at which corrective action will be required.
- Prohibited all uncontrolled air pollution emissions from pressure relief valves and other similar devices.
- Prohibited the routine use of the burning of waste gas, through flaring, which releases hundreds of tons of pollution into the air.
EPA has significantly underestimated the harm communities face from refineries because it has not updated its approach to follow the best available current science on the real-world impacts communities face from pollution. Every extra case of cancer in affected communities is too many.
Lisa Garcia, Earthjustice Vice President for Healthy Communities, called the new standards a definite benefit for communities but said further strengthening is needed. “EPA’s standards will give many communities a first look at how much cancer-causing benzene local refineries are releasing into the air, along with other important new health protections. This is a true legacy that this Administration can be proud of,” she said, adding, “We will keep fighting so that all refineries comply with the standards and ultimately are required to use the best available safeguards from hazardous pollution so all Americans, from all walks of life, get the protection they deserve to prevent cancer and other safety hazards caused by refinery pollution, before they happen to our children and to our families.”
“We applaud EPA for adopting new regulations that will reduce toxic emissions from refinery flares and better protect communities from unnecessary exposure. The changes, requiring better monitoring and operation of refinery flares are common-sense requirements and are long-overdue. At the same time, we believe that EPA underestimated the full toxic burden from refineries and that the Agency should have updated its risk analysis to account for its recent findings that flares and other refinery sources release significantly more pollution than previously reported,” said Sparsh Khandeshi, staff attorney, Environmental Integrity Project, which filed the 2012 lawsuit along with Earthjustice.
Quotes from Community Groups in California, Louisiana, and Texas:
“The rule provides important new relief, but we will keep pushing for all communities nationwide to have the best safeguards that some communities already have. We must prevent these oil companies from passing on the health costs to our communities who get sick because of their pollution.”
– Hilton Kelley, founder of the Port Arthur, Texas-based Community In-Power and Development Association
“Communities should finally start to see reductions in the pollution that refinery flares are releasing around the clock into our air. We’ll keep fighting for EPA to prohibit routine flaring altogether, especially because this pollution is falling unfairly and disproportionately on communities that are already exposed to too much toxic chemicals.”
– Jesse Marquez, the executive director of a Wilmington, California group, Coalition For A Safe Environment
“It’s unbelievable that it took so much work and so many years to get tighter regulation on a chemical—benzene—that we know causes cancer and leukemia. Benzene is a dangerous chemical and the air monitoring requirement is a victory. The next step is to get our state and our region to actually enforce these new rules. The rules are good on paper, but the polluters dominate the regulatory agencies in this region. The EPA and Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality have an obligation to the taxpayers to wake up and enforce environmental laws, including these new refinery rules.”
– Anne Rolfes, founding director of the New Orleans-based Louisiana Bucket Brigade
“EPA has finally recognized that citizens should have a right to know when harmful pollution leaves a refinery and threatens health in their communities. This is an important first step in providing fenceline communities with the information they need to protect themselves.”
– Adrian Shelley, executive director, Air Alliance Houston
Jesse Marquez, Coalition for a Safe Environment, (310) 704-1265
Anne Rolfes, Louisiana Bucket Brigade, (504) 484-3433
Hilton Kelley, Community In-Power Development Association, (409) 498-1088
Juan Parras, Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services, (281) 513-7799
Adrian Shelley, Air Alliance Houston, (713) 528-3779
Cynthia Babich, Del Amo Action Committee, (310) 769-4813
Sparsh Khandeshi, Environmental Integrity Project Attorney, (202) 263-4446
Jane Williams, California Communities Against Toxics, (661) 256-2101
Map: Oil Refineries in the United States
Seven million Americans live in the shadows of the nearly 150 oil refineries across the country. People living nearest oil refineries are disproportionately children, lower income, African American and Latino. (View larger map.)