Air Monitoring at five Louisiana refineries revealed benzene above EPA action level

Cancer-causing benzene emissions from oil refineries exceeded the federal action level for five refineries in Louisiana last year, putting at risk the health of neighboring communities.

Nationally, 13 refineries had benzene monitoring readings at their fencelines in 2020 that averaged above EPA’s action level, a regulatory threshold that requires companies to investigate and take action to reduce the dangerous pollution.

That was more than the 11 refineries nationally over EPA’s action level in 2019, and two in Louisiana that year, according to a report by the Environmental Integrity Project (EIP), “Environmental Justice and Refinery Pollution.”

The highest benzene levels in the nation last year were at the Delek corporation refinery in Krotz Springs, Louisiana, about 40 minutes west of Baton Rouge. Fenceline benzene readings there averaged more than triple EPA’s action level last year and worsened by 29 percent between 2019 and 2020, according to EPA data.  A public library, many homes, and a daycare center serving low-income children are located within a quarter mile of the refinery.

"Benzene is not some harmless chemical - it is a known carcinogen,” said Anne Rolfes, Director of the Louisiana Bucket Brigade. “We want the new administration at EPA to acknowledge that the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality is incapable of solving this problem. Year after year, the state has failed to act. We need federal intervention and we need it now. Without an active EPA, schoolchildren will continue to be exposed. It is so wrong."

Federal data also show benzene exceedances last year at the Shell Norco refinery outside New Orleans (which was 62 percent over the EPA action level), Chalmette Refining (24 percent over), and the Phillips 66 refineries in Westlake (17 percent over) and Belle Chasse (4 percent over), according to EIP’s report.

In 2015, EPA imposed regulations for oil refineries that, for the first time starting in 2018, required them to start monitoring for benzene at the fencelines of their plants and publicly report the data, which EIP used for its report.  The benzene rules require companies to investigate and crack down on facilities with an annual net average over nine micrograms per cubic meter of the carcinogen (not counting emissions from background sources or non-refinery equipment.)

Nationally, more than 530,000 people live within three miles of the 13 refineries with benzene emissions over the EPA action level in 2020, with 57 percent being people of color and 43 percent living below the poverty line, according to EIP’s report.

“If the Biden Administration wants to make good on its promise to tackle environmental injustices, it should act immediately to crack down on these dangerous benzene emissions,” said Eric Schaeffer, Executive Director of the Environmental Integrity Project and former Director of Civil Enforcement at EPA.

“EPA needs to start responding more rapidly to short-term spikes in benzene that threaten public health,” said Schaeffer. “And the agency should tighten up its regulations to close a loophole that allows refineries to avoid counting emissions from benzene storage tanks and other non-refining equipment – even though neighbors are exposed to all of these toxic emissions.”

EIP’s report explains that fenceline monitoring data show that actual benzene emissions from oil refineries across the U.S. are higher than they appear. This is because the EPA’s 2015 regulations, which the agency imposed in response to a lawsuit that EIP and Earthjustice filed on behalf of communities living downwind from refineries, include a loophole. This loophole allows refiners to subtract from the benzene concentrations measured by fenceline air pollution monitors any benzene thought to come from offsite or non-refining equipment (such as benzene storage tanks).

If the total benzene concentrations are taken into account (without these adjustments), 17 refineries across the U.S. – not just 13 – would have averaged more than EPA’s “action level” of 9 micrograms per cubic meter in 2020.  Nearly 700,000 people live within three miles of these 17 plants, with people of color accounting for 62 percent of this total, and nearly 45 percent living below the poverty level.

EIP’s report also shows that because EPA’s benzene regulations are based on annual averages, they often fail to reveal –or protect local residents against -- dangerous short-term spikes in air pollution. These spikes, above health advisory levels set by the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) at 29 micrograms per cubic meter of air[i] over a two-week period, happened at 23 oil refineries in 2020, including six in Louisiana.

Examples of dangerous benzene spikes in Louisiana, and potentially impacted populations, are listed below:

  • The Delek Krotz Springs refinery west of Baton Rouge recorded a spike of 114 micrograms of benzene at its fencelines (almost quadruple the health advisory level) for the two-week period ending on May 4, 2020. Forty-three percent of people living within three miles of the plant are below the poverty line.
  • The Shell Norco Manufacturing Complex in Norco, just west of New Orleans, recorded 79 micrograms of benzene (almost triple the health advisory level) for the two-week period ending on March 12, 2020. Twenty-four percent of people living within three miles of the plant are below the poverty line, and 30 percent are people of color.
  • Chalmette Refining, in Chalmette, LA, just east of New Orleans, recorded 58 micrograms of benzene (almost double the health advisory level) for the two week period ending on February 11, 2020.  Thirty-four percent of people living within three miles are below the poverty line, and 55 percent are people of color.
  • The Phillips 66 Alliance refinery in Belle Chasse, LA, just southeast of New Orleans, recorded 55 micrograms of benzene (almost double the health advisory level) for the two week period ending on August 19, 2020. Fifty percent of those living within three miles of the plant are people of color, and 25 percent are below the poverty line.
  • The Phillips 66 Lake Charles refinery in Westlake, in southwest Louisiana, recorded 49 micrograms of benzene (69 percent over the health advisory level) during the two week period ending on August 24, 2020. Thirty five percent of those living within three miles are below the poverty level.

 

For a copy of the report, “Environmental Justice and Refinery Pollution,” click here.

The Environmental Integrity Project is a 19-year-old nonprofit organization, based in Washington DC and Austin, Texas, that is dedicated to enforcing environmental laws and strengthening policy to protect public health and the environment.

The Louisiana Bucket Brigade uses grassroots action to create an informed, healthy society that holds the petrochemical industry and government accountable for the true costs of pollution to hasten the transition from fossil fuels.

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