(CN) – Ten U.S. oil refineries were in late 2019 spewing levels of the cancer-causing pollutant benzene above a regulatory limit set by the Environmental Protection Agency, an environmental group said in a report released Thursday.
The finding comes from an analysis of EPA data on air quality readings taken at more than 100 refineries since January 2018, when companies were first required to start monitoring for benzene at the perimeter of facilities under a regulation enacted during the Obama administration.
According to the Environmental Integrity Project, the first-of-their-kind “fenceline monitoring” reports showed that, as of September 2019, 10 refineries were releasing benzene emissions at an annual average above nine micrograms per cubic meter of air.
Under the regulations, facilities that spew benzene over that measurement are required to look into what caused the problem and then to take action to fix it.
Violating the regulatory limit does not necessarily mean the facilities broke any laws, the report notes.
Still, the Environmental Integrity Project said the findings raise concerns about whether companies are doing enough to protect employees and the often working-class neighborhoods that surround refineries.
“These results highlight refineries that need to do a better job of installing pollution controls and implementing safer workplace practices to reduce the leakage of this cancer-causing pollutant into local communities,” Eric Schaeffer, the environmental group’s executive director, said in a statement.
The largest polluter cited in the report was the now-shuttered Philadelphia Energy Solutions refinery in Pennsylvania, which closed shortly after a dramatic explosion in June 2019.
Six of the 10 facilities highlighted in the report are located in Texas, where a series of industrial explosions and fires in the Houston area over the past couple years prompted heightened scrutiny on industry and state regulators.
Benzene is a “known carcinogen” that can lead to short-term health problems like dizziness and headaches and more serious long-term problems like blood disorders. It’s also been tied to leukemia in people who were exposed to the pollutant as part of their job, according to the EPA.
“We’re not releasing this data just so we can all look back and say oh, this is terrible,” Schaeffer said on a call with reporters Thursday afternoon. “This isn’t disaster tourism.”
Schaeffer said his organization wants to see companies comply with the regulations and tackle the pollution problems. Some, he said, have made progress on that front.
“Some refiners have taken action,” he said, “and fenceline concentrations [of benzene] have at those sites been coming down.”
The report pointed to two facilities in particular – Shell Norco Manufacturing in Louisiana and Valero Corpus Christi West in Texas – that violated the EPA benzene limit for much of 2019, but were eventually able to get benzene levels down to or below the limit. Neither facility was violating the EPA rules as of September 2019.
The EPA did not immediately respond Thursday to questions about whether the top 10 polluting facilities cited in the report have since taken action to get their benzene levels under control. But in a statement, an agency spokesperson said benzene amounts in communities near refineries “can vary from the concentrations measured at a refinery’s fenceline.”
“The federal action level is not based on an analysis of risk levels to the community—but rather on emissions from the facility,” the spokesperson said. “The action level is a stringent level (more stringent than many state standards) in order to provide ample opportunity for early action.” (Parentheses in original.)
In a statement, the trade group American Petroleum Institute said the monitoring program gives refiners an additional tool to control emissions, but suggested the data isn’t meant to convey health risks and isn’t always that reliable.
“As the EPA notes, it is not intended to measure community benzene levels nor is the action level representative of any health-based standard,” API spokesperson Scott Lauremann said. “Because fenceline monitors capture benzene emissions from all nearby sources, the data may at times reflect emissions from external sources and events, such as wildfires and neighboring facilities.”
The environmental group noted in its report that when companies submit benzene pollution data to the EPA as part of the program, they are allowed to subtract the effects of any of those “non-refinery” sources.
Elena Craft, a Texas-based advocate with the Environmental Defense Fund who was not involved with Thursday’s report, said the benzene monitoring results do raise health concerns, even if the data are not tied to specific health standards.
“There’s no safe level of benzene,” she said.
Craft said while the monitoring program is useful, broader action is needed to tackle benzene pollution in heavily industrialized places like Houston.
“Real-time fenceline monitoring at facilities that use benzene or store benzene is something that’s needed,” she said. “One of the biggest things that would drive down these emissions of air toxics is better enforcement, more inspection by the state environmental agency. That in and of itself, I think, would contribute a lot to reducing air toxics generally.”