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Environmental Protection Agency And Refineries Clash Over Hazardous Air Pollution

Proposed rule would require monitoring for toxic chemicals at edge of industrial property

by Glenn Hess
January 26, 2015 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 93, Issue 4

Photo of air pollution coming from a petroleum refinery.
Credit: Shutterstock
EPA plans to regulate carcinogen emissions from refineries such as this one.

Oil refiners and petrochemical manufacturers argue that a plan by the Environmental Protection Agency to tighten limits on toxic air pollution from refineries comes with a high price while providing few, if any, health benefits.

But environmental activists and community groups counter that stricter emissions standards are needed to safeguard public health. EPA’s plan would achieve this by reducing the amount of cancer-causing pollutants these facilities are allowed to spew into the air, they say.

EPA last year proposed to update air toxics limits for refineries. Under the plan, the agency for the first time in nearly two decades would revise emission control requirements for storage tanks and coking units. It would also strengthen operational requirements for flaring, the process of burning off and destroying excess hydrocarbon gases.

Perhaps most notably, the proposed rule would also require the first-ever monitoring of air pollution concentrations at the edge of a refinery’s property—the so-called fenceline. This is intended to ensure that neighboring communities aren’t being exposed to benzene and other carcinogens beyond permitted levels.

Refinery Air Pollution

EPA has proposed updated standards to reduce toxic air emissions from oil-refining and petrochemical manufacturing operations.

 ◾ The proposal would require upgraded emission controls for storage tanks and coking units.

 ◾ It would revise combustion efficiency standards for flares to ensure that waste gases are completely destroyed.

 ◾ For the first time, refiners would be required to monitor air concentrations of benzene around their fenceline perimeters and make the raw data available to the public.

 ◾ The proposed rule would also eliminate exemptions to refinery emission limits during periods of start-up, shutdown, and malfunction.

 ◾ If the proposal is implemented, EPA estimates that emissions of air toxics, including benzene, toluene, and xylene, would be reduced by 5,600 tons per year—about one-quarter of the almost 22,000 tons of this class of hazardous chemicals currently emitted by these facilities each year.

In addition, the proposal would eliminate current exemptions to air pollution limits when facilities are starting up, shutting down, or experiencing malfunctions. Now, limits apply only when plants are operating normally, even though facilities often belch out 10 or more times the usual amount of pollution during these events.

“The commonsense steps we are proposing will protect the health of families who live near refineries and will provide them with important information about the quality of the air they breathe,” EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy says.

EPA agreed to reassess its existing refinery rule to resolve a lawsuit. Filed in 2012, the case was brought by environmental groups that alleged the agency missed a statutory deadline to review and possibly revise the air toxics standards. The Clean Air Act requires the agency to review emission limits for the petroleum refinery sector at least once every eight years to see if they require updates to reflect improved technology. EPA last set standards for various sources of refinery air pollution in 1995 and 2002.

Under the legal settlement, EPA has until April 17 to issue a final rule.

To that end, the agency is reviewing the more than 275,000 public comments it has received on its proposal, which would apply to all 149 refineries currently operating in the U.S. EPA estimates that, if finalized, the proposal will result in a reduction of 5,600 tons per year of toxic air pollutants such as benzene, toluene, and xylene and 52,000 tons per year of volatile organic compounds.

The agency points out that exposure to these chemicals “can cause respiratory problems and other serious health issues and can increase the risk of developing cancer.” On the basis of a risk analysis model, EPA estimates that some 5 million people in the U.S. live within a 50-km radius of a refinery.

The requirements would also cut greenhouse gas emissions. EPA projects an annual reduction of 670,000 metric tons per year of carbon dioxide equivalent because the proposal would curb releases of methane, a potent greenhouse gas.

But industry groups contend that EPA’s regulatory proposal is unnecessary and would be overly burdensome to companies. Communities near refineries are safe, they say, because refinery emissions are already below levels that would endanger people’s health.

Total hazardous air pollutants from the refining sector have been reduced by nearly two-thirds since 1990, according to the American Petroleum Institute (API), a trade association representing about 400 energy companies.

“Refineries have been reducing emissions for decades under voluntary programs and in compliance with existing regulations, and air quality continues to improve as a result,” says Howard Feldman, API’s director of regulatory and scientific affairs.

“It goes without saying,” Feldman adds, “that the safe operation of our refineries to protect our workers and the community is our number one priority.”

Charles T. Drevna, president of the American Fuel & Petrochemical Manufacturers (AFPM), which represents refiners and petrochemical companies, says the low level of risk posed by the sector’s emissions does not “justify the additional controls that EPA is proposing.”

The new rules would require some unprecedented changes, Drevna says. These include installing technology to measure benzene at the fenceline and making those data publicly available within six months. “EPA’s one-size-fits-all approach to this monitoring will require every facility in the U.S., regardless of risk, to install monitoring equipment throughout the facility,” he says.

Environmental groups disagree with industry’s assessment of EPA’s plan to reduce refinery emissions. For people living near these facilities, activists say, the most important requirement in the proposed rule is fenceline monitoring of benzene. This compound, a component of crude oil and gasoline, is classified as a known human carcinogen by federal agencies and international authorities.

“EPA’s proposal will finally give communities the ability to know more about the toxic pollution going into their air,” says Emma Cheuse, an attorney at Earthjustice, an environmental advocacy law firm based in San Francisco. “EPA needs to finalize strong new safeguards because all of our kids deserve clean air, including kids living near dangerous, polluting, industrial sources like refineries.”

Fenceline monitoring would help identify toxic emissions from leaks and other sources that are not directly monitored, says Sparsh Khandeshi, an attorney with the Environmental Integrity Project, a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy organization. “It will help target further emission reductions and provide valuable information about exposure levels to downwind communities,” he explains.

But activists say the fenceline-monitoring provision in EPA’s proposal doesn’t go far enough. “The final rule must 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,” a coalition of more than 75 groups says in joint comments to the agency.

They also urge EPA not to finalize “any special deals for industry to loosen emissions limits” during periods of start-up, shutdown, and malfunctions.

Industry officials say excess pollution during these events is often unavoidable and that companies would regularly have to pay large fines under EPA’s proposed rule. Controlling these emission spikes as much as EPA is calling for “is a physical impossibility,” says David N. Friedman, vice president of regulatory affairs at AFPM.

EPA estimates the new rules would require a total capital investment of $240 million and combined annual costs of $40 million for all refineries. The agency also says the proposed standards would have a “negligible impact” on the costs of petroleum products. Friedman and other industry representatives dispute that figure and claim the proposed rules would cost the refining industry in excess of $1 billion, plus tens of millions in annual operating costs.

“Of even greater concern is that the health benefit gains are insignificant by any measure,” Friedman says, “meaning this rule will have financial impacts to the economy with essentially no measurable benefits.”  


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